INTRODUCTION AND CONTEXT
On June 13, 1980 Walter Rodney was assassinated in Guyana. Since that date there have been many calls for a commission of inquiry into the Assassination. The government in power at the time of the assassination was led by Forbes Burnham and the Peoples National Congress. Since the 1990s, the new government of the Peoples Progressive Party vacillated on the calling of the inquiry. In 2005, at the commemoration events for Walter Rodney in Guyana there were intensified calls for a commission of inquiry. Peoples from all over the world have been constantly reminded of the international climate at the moment of the assassination. The year 1980 was particularly significant for the wave of conservative violence.
Just three incidents highlighted these developments. Firstly, there was the execution of Archbishop Romero in El Salvador. Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez was gunned down in cold blood by right wing death squads. Archbishop Romero had become a marked person because he spoke out against poverty, social injustice, assassinations and torture. Romero was assassinated while celebrating Mass in 1980. For many years the peoples of El Salvador called for an investigation into this murder. In 2000, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found in its investigation that the state of El Salvador was responsible for the killing of Archbishop Romero.
In the same month of the assassination of Walter Rodney, in fact six days afterwards, there was a bomb placed under the platform of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop at Queen’s Park in Grenada. Two schoolgirls died (while a third, injured, died later). Approximately 100 people were injured.
The Caribbean and the Central American Region has not yet healed from the decades of state sponsored violence that continued throughout the region of Central America and the Caribbean. The friends and family of Walter Rodney had pushed for this commission of inquiry as part of the process of truth telling and healing in Guyana and the Caribbean. However, there are powerful forces in Guyana that are afraid of the truth, hence the vacillation of some sectors of the political class in Guyana about the future of the commission. Below, we summarise the key developments of the commission of inquiry since it started its hearings in April 2014.
The Walter Rodney Commission of Inquiry concluded its longest session on November 7, 2014. At the end of that session, Chairman of the Commission, Barbadian Queens Counsel Sir Richard Cheltenham made the following announcement: ‘We will issue a notice well in advance as to when next we will be meeting, but the days and months ahead might be uncertain. Even though we have agreed on a date, we will let you know closer to the time because we may have to change depending on what is happening on the ground. We adjourn now and I just wish to take the opportunity on behalf of myself and my fellow Commissioners to wish you all a Happy Christmas Season. We look forward to seeing you all again at a date to be announced’. This announcement came in light of political uncertainty in Guyana – where a motion of no confidence in the government was on the agenda of parliament. Passage of this motion would have necessitated new elections. However this process was pre-empted by the President of Guyana who in an address to the nation on Monday, November 10 announced the prorogation of parliament, thus suspending the parliament. As we write, the political opposition and sections of Guyanese civil society are massing and planning political and civic action to force the President to rescind the order of prorogation and restore parliament. We have no immediate understanding as to how the current crisis of governance in the country will affect the work of the Commission of Inquiry, especially the resumption of hearings officially scheduled to restart on January 26, 2015.
The work of the Commission and the public hearings are also being held against a backdrop where one of the main opposition parties within the opposition coalition, A Partnership for National Unity (APNU), the Peoples National Congress (PNC), has repeatedly threatened to oppose continued funding for the Commission of Inquiry. In their view the commission of inquiry should have stuck to its original four month deadline. They argue that the hearings are open-ended, and that the inquiry should be concluded. Lead counsel at the hearings representing the interest of the PNC, Attorney at law Basil Williams, has repeatedly made the claim as reported by sections of the media that the COI ‘is not likely to reveal the truth in relation to the circumstances under which Dr. Rodney died’. In this context he argues that the COI should be brought to a close quickly after hearing from Donald Rodney, who was in the car with Walter Rodney at the time of the assassination, and the two major leaders of state security agencies at the time: former Crime Chief Cecil ‘Skip’ Roberts, and former Army Chief Norman Mc Clean.
The three person Commission of Inquiry staffed by Sir Richard Cheltenham, Jamaican senior counsel Jacqueline Samuels-Brown, and Trinidadian senior counsel Seenath Jairam have held open public hearings on several occasions since April, 2014. Over this period many important witnesses gave sworn testimony. Among these were former co-leader and Pan Africanist activist Eusi Kwayana – who gave detailed testimony on the political character of Walter Rodney; the political climate within which Rodney operated; the nature and character of the state and government of the period; and the evidence unearthed by the Working Peoples Alliance and other groups and individuals on the connection between former Guyana Defense Force Sergeant, Gregory Smith, who was fingered by Donald Rodney as the person who gave Walter Rodney the device that blew up on his lap.
GREGORY SMITH AND HIS HANDLERS
Gregory Smith and his disappearance have been the center point of the inquiry. In this connection, former Guyana Defense Force Pilot Gerry Gouviea appeared before the commission and testified to having flown someone fitting the description of Gregory Smith on an army plane from Georgetown to the remote hinterland district of Kwakwani on June 14, 1980 – the day following the assassination of Walter Rodney.
The commission has listened to witnesses who testified that in the weeks following the assassination, the police, the army and the government repeatedly denied the existence of Gregory Smith, who it was discovered had been living in the neighboring French colonial territory Cayenne (French Guiana) since late 1980 until his death. One of the important issues before the commission is the role of the police and army in removing Gregory Smith from the jurisdiction, while simultaneously denying his existence. Based on the contents of three out of ten police files on Rodney laid before the commission (seven of the files are missing and no one is able to account for them) by the sitting Crime Chief Leslie James, and through his testimony on the stand, the commission learnt that the police had visited the home of Gregory Smith on June 14 and removed several pieces of equipment. Among other things, it was also revealed that Gregory Smith was of interest to the police from as early as April 1980.
This is significant for several reasons. Firstly, they had visited his home while denying his existence. Secondly, they visited his home and removed equipment, while not declaring an interest in him regarding the assassination of Walter Rodney. The existence of Gregory Smith as an agent was revealed in testimony
on the stand by former police officer, Leslie Gates who gave detailed account of being recruited to befriend close colleague and confidant of Dr. Rodney, Dr. Rupert Roopnaraine, and also of being given the task to assassinate Dr. Roopnaraine. In his testimony, the former police agent revealed that he had met Gregory Smith at Walter Rodney’s home, and that he had met with him (Gregory Smith) at a secret location to talk about their roles.
INTERVENTION OF PATRICIA RODNEY
In her testimony before the commission, Walter Rodney’s widow, Dr. Patricia Rodney, confirmed having seen Gregory Smith at her South Ruimveldt home in Guyana on a single occasion through a window as he ascended the stairs in her husband’s absence. She also recalled the he (Gregory Smith) once telephoned their home at 2am and tried unsuccessfully to get Walter Rodney to leave the family home at that time. Gregory Smith, who was fingered by Donald Rodney and by housewife Pamela Beharry, a neighbor of the Smith household, is a center point of the inquiry. The device given by Gregory Smith to Donald Rodney, which apparently blew up in Walter Rodney’s lap, has occupied much of the commission’s time. In Gregory Smith’s account told by his sister, Anne Wagner, in the book purportedly co-authored with Gregory Smith, ‘Assassination: Cry of a Failed Revolution’, details are given of his account of what took place, and the nature of the device. The commission heard expert testimony from Rohit Nirmaul Kanhai, who used the information provided in the official reports from the British Home Office experts, Skuse (the British Bomb expert) and Johnson (the British Pathologist), to deconstruct the story told by Smith and his sister in the book. Kanhai’s expert findings were based on both reports and on his own research on the Harris Porto Phone. In his testimony Kanhai threw light on the most intricate aspects of the investigation, including the nature of the device. It must be noted that the Skuse report had been withheld by the state both in the prosecution of Donald Rodney and at the discredited inquest into the death of Walter Rodney in 1988.
Frank Skuse and Johnson, who were commissioned by the government of Guyana, gave a detailed account in their report on the forensics conducted on the physical evidence found on the scene. According to Kanhai, Frank Skuse in his report identified the components found on the scene as being parts related and consistent with that of the Harris Porto Phone, normally used by the military, professionals and law enforcement agencies. This was pointed out by Kanhai as contradictory to Smith’s account that the device used was a modified toy walkie-talkie set. In contradicting Smith’s account, Kanhai told the commission that, ‘when you look at Smith’s book that is Smith’s thesis that it was accidental. When you look at the fact it was a Harris Porto phone you can never come to that conclusion. This is why Smith is saying he had a toy walkie-talkie set. Once we accept the forensic evidence of Dr. Skuse, that it was a Harris Porto phone, then everything Smith says becomes nonsense just to put it mildly.’ Furthermore, Kanhai clearly established, according to Dr. Skuse’s report, that the device had to be remotely triggered. This theory, he explained to the commission, is backed up by both the technical and physical evidence. The commission learnt that the Skuse report did not only establish or point to remote triggering of the device; it also intimated that the frequency (151.025 megahertz) used could be traced. In his testimony Kanhai informed the commission that the range of frequencies pointed to in the report is only available for use by the state and its agencies. It is important to note that although this information was available to the police in 1980, there is no evidence that any attempt was ever made to trace who or which agency of the state had access to the frequency used for triggering the device. It is now left up to the commission to follow through if they deem it necessary to find answers as to who had access to the frequency used on the night of June 13, 1980.
AWAITING THE OUTCOME OF THE POLITICAL IMPASSE AND THE FUTURE OF THE COMMISSION
The future of the COI is now caught in the infighting between the political classes. The opposition, which includes the PNC has called for a vote of no confidence in the Government of Guyana.
As we await the resumption of the work of the commission, which it seems, given the political climate on the ground, would be likely sometime in the first quarter of the New Year, it is necessary to remind ourselves of the importance of the work of the commission of inquiry. While assignment of guilt is necessary; it is imperative that we note some of the other principal reasons why this inquiry was clamored for over the last 34 years:
• Firstly, Walter Rodney represented the struggle of the working people against oppression. Such an inquiry will represent a permanent record for students to study, learn from, and draw lessons.
• Secondly, since Walter Rodney was assassinated, the conditions of everyday life and the life chances for working people have not improved, they in fact have gotten much worse in many instances. Such an inquiry helps the society to understand the deep-seated issues that divide its people, and can therefore point the way towards some kind of national reconciliation.
• Thirdly, since Walter Rodney was assassinated, killings and police killings have increased, they have not waned. Such an inquiry gives the country an opportunity to pause in order to understand the ways and the reasons why wanton killing and death has become a sub-culture in the society.
• Fourthly, such an inquiry creates the climate for a more fulsome understanding of the nature of the state, and how dictatorial state apparatuses and ideologies (paramountcy of the party over the state in Guyana) established in the period of the cold war by client regimes of hegemonic powers have helped to produce a philosophical structure that furthers state dehumanisation of the citizenry.
• And fifthly, such an inquiry helps us to see the connection between – on the one hand – the alleged police cover-up of the assassination, its repression of political opponents and citizens who did not agree with the ruling party and – on the other – the increasing levels of incompetence, lack of professionalism, and corruption on the part of the police and security agencies, which is leading to increasing lack of confidence in these agencies by major segments of the population.
It is important that the friends and family of Walter Rodney internationally remain vigilant to ensure that the full truth of the circumstances of the June 13, 1980 assassination of Walter Rodney is brought to light. We agree with the view expressed by Patricia Rodney when she testified before the commission that she wanted the inquiry to help to heal the nation.
Dr. Wazir Mohamed is Associate Professor of Indiana University East and former Guyanese Political Activist while Horace Campbell, a veteran Pan Africanist, is Professor of African American Studies and Political Science at Syracuse University