Thirty-three years after he died, the PPP/C government yesterday announced that an international Commission of Inquiry (COI) is to be set up to determine the circumstances surrounding the death of renowned academic and political activist Walter Rodney.
The announcement, which coincided with the 33rd anniversary of Rodney’s death, was made during the sitting of the National Assembly by Prime Minister Samuel Hinds, who said that several factors, including the Rodney family’s persistent search for truth, have prompted the decision. For the over 20 years it has been in office, the PPP/C had not yielded to calls for such a probe prior to yesterday.
Hinds noted the failed attempts to provide clarity on the circumstances surrounding Rodney’s death and the torrent of theories which have emerged in the absence of a formal and conclusive investigation. He was optimistic nevertheless that this latest effort would be able to provide the definitive answers that have long been sought by many.
Rodney, co-leader of the Working People’s Alliance (WPA), was killed on June 13th, 1980 on John Street. He was sitting in a car just outside the Camp Street Prison, when a walkie-talkie he was given by Guyana Defence Force Sergeant Gregory Smith exploded. His brother, Donald Rodney, who was sitting in the driver’s seat of the car, managed to escape with his life.
Donald Rodney would reveal that Smith, who later fled to French Guiana, had given his brother the device and instructed him to test it near the perimeter of the Georgetown Prison to determine if the extensive metal would interfere with the transmission.
Smith was charged in absentia with Rodney’s murder in 1996, however, due to the lack of an extradition treaty between Guyana and France. Smith died in 2002 in French Guiana where he fled after Rodney’s death.
The People’s National Congress (PNC) administration then headed by late president Linden Forbes Burnham, whose practices had been vehemently and vigorously opposed by Rodney, has long been blamed for murdering Rodney. In 2005, the party said it would support the setting up of an inquiry and more recently PNCR leader David Granger maintained that his party had done “everything legally possible… everything humanly possible to refute the allegations made against members of our party” about their alleged involvement in Rodney’s murder. “…We have always held out that we are willing to have any inquiry and give evidence at any forum,” he told a news conference last month, when the allegations against the party were again raised as part of a campaign against a posthumous award to Burnham by the South African government.
‘Imprecise and vague’
Meanwhile, in a statement, the AFC last evening welcomed and supported the announcement of the inquiry, while also urging that a timetable be set.
“The AFC is not satisfied though with the imprecise and vague promise for the establishment of the tribunal and, judging that similar pronouncements since 1992 by the ruling PPP have been made, we demand that a time frame be set,” it said in a statement. The party noted that Rodney’s death had become a political football “being kicked between the PPP and the PNC,” with the former accusing the latter of assassinating him but failing to investigate its claim during the 21 years it has been in government. “The AFC hopes that this new promise will help Guyana understand the truth behind the June 13, 1980 violent demise of Walter Rodney,” the party, however, said.
In light of questions about the activities of the WPA prior to Rodney’s death, party leaders last year said they were willing to speak on the condition that the disclosure is made to a wide-ranging Truth and Reconciliation Commission with the goal of bringing the country together. The WPA, along with the PNCR, is now one of the parties that constitute the main opposition coalition APNU, which had campaigned during the last elections for such a commission. “As we struggle for closure in the Rodney assassination, we also feel that this has to be done in the context of national unity,” WPA executive Dr David Hinds said last year, while adding that whatever results come out of an investigative process should not serve to tear the country apart but to bring it together.
There have been several calls over the last three decades for the setting up on an inquiry into Rodney’s death, including by several members of the man’s family. His son, Shaka Rodney in particular, had staged a hunger strike in 1993 in an effort to force an inquiry. The government agreed to establish a “special committee” to review the case files and make recommendations about how to proceed but nothing came of it.
In June 2005, the National Assembly passed a resolution calling for a full and impartial investigation. However nothing was done and Prime Minister Hinds later said the government did not act because the Rodney family did not want to proceed with the inquiry—a charge later refuted by the family.
There were also several visits by the International Commission of Jurists.