Walter Rodney’s continuing influence and relevance are not solely of his own doing or that of his champions. His books remain a poignant record of our historical struggles and he an example of fearless challenge to power. That should be enough to make and keep him a household name. Of course, it’s not the case. However, Rodney’s detractors contribute as much to his popularity, in small if increasing circles, despite naive attempts to diminish his work, the activism, and the person.
This was never clearer than during the recently concluded general election in Guyana and its immediate aftermath.
The election of May 11th 2015, returned the People’s National Congress (PNC) to power, as the leader in a coalition of parties renamed A Partnership for National Unity (APNU), after 23 years in the opposition. The Alliance for Change (AFC) also forms part of the coalition but retained its own name.
Maybe by design, the election was called during an ongoing Commission of Inquiry (COI) into Rodney’s death 35 years ago; on June 13th 1980. The losing People’s Progressive Party (PPP) had convened the COI. The PNC was the party in power at the time of Rodney’s assassination. It is expected the COI’s findings will hold that government responsible for Rodney’s death.
The COI began on April 29th, 2014 and immediately drew criticisms as being political. How could the ‘death’ of this world-renowned scholar, by bomb explosion, not be political? The critique was expected, though disappointingly weak. Nine years earlier, the same parliament with the current government in attendance as opposition, voted unanimously for a COI but to use ‘death’ instead of ‘assassination’. It was the coalition’s pressure in parliament that forced the early elections call. Calling the commission ‘political’ required no deep thought, but may have revealed a deeply condescending attitude towards the masses: People who had a history of revolt against colonialism would not know the difference between the political from the essential and when the two coincide.
Everything is political. When we inhale, it’s political. The quality of our air, water, food and education is political. And all are essential. It was not the only critique. The coalition charged exclusion from forging the terms of reference, the general planning, and key appointments of the COI. Rodney’s widow, Patricia Rodney, received her share of criticism. Naïve was a common one. It is one still used against her husband. But she remained dignified. There was lengthy speculation for APNU on whether to participate or not: eventually, they did.
Critique of the COI merged into election rhetoric: its high cost; exorbitant salaries for the commissioners and staff, endemic corruption generally and narco-traffic; and a filthy capital city as a symptom of what is wrong.
In the aftermath of the elections the new government condemned the millions in public funds wasted on a politically motivated COI. New president, coalition leader, and former army general under the PNC government, David Granger, only days after his election victory, announced the COI must wrap-up its work. Its next sitting is to be its last. He described the COI as a failure. Others involved in the political campaign dubbed the commission a farce. It did not matter that the PNC participated as APNU.
On May 26, two weeks after the declaration of victory, and on the country’s independence anniversary, President Granger awarded Hamilton Green the country’s 2nd highest honor. Green is the capital city's current mayor, and a former Vice President, trusted enforcer, and front man persecuting the WPA under the Forbes Burnham led PNC during Rodney’s last days. The decision to deny Rodney a faculty position awarded by the University of Guyana was announced and enforced by then General Secretary of the PNC party, Hamilton Green. Fortuitously, that action precipitated a spontaneous uniting of local activist organizations that would later become the WPA; first as a pressure group and later as a political party with Rodney as a co-leader.
That movement then created the space for a larger groundswell of public resentment that eventually led to the PPP returning to the seat of power in 1992 after 28 years of PNC rule. We are back at that juncture today after 23 years of PPP misrule. With the noted difference of the Working People’s Alliance (WPA), co-founded by Walter Rodney, as part of the now ruling, if nervous, coalition with the PNC as (APNU). The WPA had once worked together with the PPP against the PNC. Then add the coalition’s AFC originally formed to bridge ethnic divisions, something Rodney’s WPA pursued, though substantially to the right of that WPA.
|A too common sight as cars inch along a flooded city street in Georgetown (c) Demerara Waves|
As if in a fit of nervous energy and joy at the election result, residents spontaneously organized and began the process of cleaning clogged drains and immediate surroundings of debris. The government followed suit. Entrepreneurs loaned heavy equipment for the job.
Simultaneously, as if recognizing the change and the need for cleansing, annual May-June rains came strong and hard; washing but flooding the capital city and surrounding areas. Flooding, clogged drains and garbage accumulation formed a substantial part of the coalition’s election message and against the previous government. Mayor Green claimed he was impotent to clean and maintain the city because of the prior government’s refusal to fund it. The cleaning improved the city’s looks, but seemed initially to have little effect on the flood. And residents must have wondered what, other than garbage and clogged drains, may have caused the flooding. Perhaps, no cleaning would have meant worse flooding. A reading of any history of Guyana, including Rodney’s would have identified the real reasons for the flood. Garbage, clogged drains and broken infrastructure due to ignorance, mismanagement and corruption all contribute to the flood. But its much more complex. Tides and weather are global phenomena with local impact.
I watched volunteers and machines work, some around the clock, against the flood and saw in the struggle a vindication of what Rodney saw as wrong with the current system of government. As mechanical cranes crawled along the banks of canals that crisscross the city, clearing them of vegetation and debris, I thought of Rodney’s acknowledgement of the feats of our ancestors as captive labor. Rodney wrote, in A History of the Guyanese Working People 1881-1905, (HGWP) of the one hundred million tons of mud dug by forced labor to create the canals using nothing more than picks and shovels. It was a massive land reclamation scheme. Guyana’s coast is 5-6 feet below sea level. Its is said that for every square mile of farm land we require 49 miles of drains and 16 miles of trenches. Without this system we would be under water and unable to farm and live on dry coastal land. A review today may show it as great a feat as the Great Wall of China.
As a boy attending St. Stephen’s elementary school in the mid 1960s, I watched older boys run and leap across the canals near the school. Not all made it to the other side. Rodney was born and grew up nearby. He also attended St. Stephens. He too would have watched or leapt across those canals; he described in HGWP. I believe he still holds his high school’s, Queen’s College, high jump record. That ability would have helped him escape the security forces trying to capture him during those last days. Former President, Forbes Burnham had in a public speech noted Rodney’s athletic ability in escaping the government’s security squads the night before.
While I watched the canal jumpers and occasionally swam, Rodney completed his doctorate at the University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies. His thesis was published as A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, but not before his handbook on Black Power, The Groundings with my Brothers. Posthumously, a year after his assassination came HGWP, which highlighted the importance of the canals but more importantly the people that dug them and maintained them and without mechanical help. Our take away, in addition to the magnitude of our achievement, is that flooding didn't begin with the return of the PPP in 1992 or any party, as one might have thought listening to election rhetoric. Colonial authorities had described villages during the rainy season as covered with huge swaths of water. Flood has always been reality in Guyana.
|Punt Trench Dam. Once used for transport and drainage became a landfill for Georgetown's garbage.|
However, Rodney’s most popular book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, dealt with a different kind of flood. He may have written about Africa but it applies everywhere. It is about economies that are under water, debt ridden, because of the historical system of colonialism and neocolonialism. Like Guyana’s floods, it is a structural and systemic problem; a global tide.
Guyana’s economy, like its coast, is underwater, underdeveloped, and a function of a global economy financed and powered on the backs of a captive labor force. Today, it's income from exports and taxes are insufficient for day-to-day operations or to contemplate new infrastructure or interest payments. And like the flooding, no amount of cleaning will solve that problem for the long term. The new government campaigned against corruption and followed through with an anti-corruption campaign of a size never seen before. Rooting out corruption is like cleaning the canals of debris. But, it is not enough.
|Captive labor shoveled miles and miles of canals|
Overgrown vegetation and used plastic containers that clog the canals are evidence of the runoff from the overuse of synthetic fertilizer on one hand and, on the other, hyper-consumerism, a love affair with synthetic packaging, and with inadequate disposal systems. Both are products of the developed centers of capital. Like debris, corruption is fertilized by greed at the centers of capital demanding austerity at the periphery.
Here we need to revisit Rodney’s understanding of underdevelopment and plan development strategies that keep in mind the structural inequalities of a global system that inundated our economy with debt and interest payments.
Debt is not all bad. As destructive as some floods may be, they don't have to be. Periodic flooding, like that in Guyana, brings nutrients to revitalize the land. Farmers often deliberately flood the land to revitalize it. Rice, our staple, is a flood crop. Similarly, debt could bring new opportunities to an old economy: that of an enslaved and later indentured society. However, flood may be good for the lands but not the people living on the lands and not long term. For a stagnant economy, debt may be a stimulant, but as a permanent condition it kills new growth and development. The dilemma is how to make debt an engine rather than an indenture.
As we watched Greece’s resistance, then submission, to international capital and Puerto Rico’s ongoing struggle, one is left curious about the Guyana government’s silence on its balance of payments. The global flood of debt is growing, rising, and claiming once developed spaces like Detroit and Spain at the core of colonial empire. A cosmetic house cleaning, investigations of corruption are great but not enough. Guyana’s new government announced it met an empty treasury. Even if it had cash, it belonged to someone else, somewhere else. We need an understanding and application beginning with the ideas in Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.
Rodney warned that a new group, including his, coming in and running the system better is not a solution. It is more complex and required ordinary people to take the initiative because better does not come as a gift. If taking the initiative to clean the canals is a forward step, it is just the beginning. And calling the COI a failure and ordering its end does not bode well for Guyana’s coalition. The COI may have gone on too long, but if it is a failure then it has to be redone and that ensures Rodney’s name remains current, if not household.
His assassination is part of the debris, the debt, clogging the forward movement of a real partnership for national unity. His life and death was about political freedoms; of speech, assembly, protest and the right to work. One is either for those freedoms or not. To deny that is to ensure life in his growing shadow. It's naive. Resistance to the facts surrounding his death is not the way to clean the canals between us. Maybe there is hope when the WPA (‘Worst Possible Alternative’ Burnham’s words) and PNC become uneasy friends. Whatever chasms remain would require a leap and Walter Rodney too.
• A History of the Upper Guinea Coast (1970)
• The Groundings with my Brothers (1969)
• A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881-1905 (1981)
• Odeen Ishmael, The Guyana Story: From its Earliest Times to Independence (2013) Xlibris
W.A.R. Stories: Walter Anthony Rodney (A documentary on the Life of Walter Rodney 2012)
From the Margins of History: To Multiracial Equality in Guyana ( An Interview with Wazir Mohammed)