The assassination of historian Walter Rodney

75th birth anniversary

… Burnham knew of plans to assassinate historian – report

Dr Walter Rodney (1942-1980) was a historian, scholar, educator, prolific author, Pan-Africanist, and political activist. He is recognised as one of the Caribbean’s most brilliant minds – his scholarly works and political activism engendered a new

Dr Walter Rodney

political consciousness. Walter Rodney is widely known for his seminal work, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa that established a new paradigm for understanding the enduring impact and legacy of colonialism on the development of African countries.

Between 1974 and 1980, Rodney emerged as a leading figure in the resistance movement against the increasingly authoritarian and repressive Guyana government led by Prime Minister Forbes Burnham. On June 13, 1980 Walter Rodney was killed by a bomb hidden in a walkie-talkie.

A long delayed investigation into the assassination has revealed that former President Forbes Burnham was behind his murder. Dr Rodney a political challenger to the then Forbes Burnham administration was killed on June 13, 1980 when an explosive device that was concealed in a walkie talkie radio detonated.

The Commission of Inquiry (COI) was convened in 2014, some 34 years after the assassination of Dr Rodney who was a leading figure in the intellectual and political affairs of both Guyana and the African world as a whole. Since 1980 when he was killed, his comrades within the Working People’s Alliance (WPA), the Rodney family, along with colleagues throughout the internationally community, have demanded a thorough investigation into the circumstances surrounding his

Former President Forbes Burnham


According to a report published on Global Research, although this was the assumption after Rodney was killed when a communication device exploded in his brother’s car on June 13, 1980, the government of Burnham claimed that the historian, who was the leader of the opposition Working People’s Alliance (WPA), was engaged in an attempt to bomb a prison near where the incident took place.

It would take two years for the completion of a 155-page report outlining the Commission’s findings. However, the struggle for full disclosure is ongoing within Guyana where tremendous opposition has existed for decades, in regard to a probe into the assassination.

Although the Guyana government under former President Donald Ramotar, of the Progressive People’s Party (PPP) embarked on the controversial inquiry, the-then (1980) ruling People’s National Congress (PNC) has been resistant to fully cooperate with the investigation. Forbes Burnham, who held power in Guyana from 1964-1985 when he died while undergoing surgery, was said to have felt threatened by Rodney and his organization of an opposition party, the WPA, which sought to bridge the political gap between the majority East Indian and African populations.

The three major political parties in Guyana during the late 1970s and early 1980s, the ruling PNC, the opposition PPP led by Cheddi Jagan and the WPA headed by Rodney, all claimed to socialist. The approaches of the two opposition parties, the PPP and the WPA, were quite different. Efforts by the WPA were clearly aimed at the removal of the Burnham government and therefore viewed as the principal threat against the PNC. Prior to Rodney’s assassination in 1979, the historian and politician was charged along with other WPA members of an arson attack against a government facility.

Rodney was facing prosecution on these charges nonetheless he continued to organize and speak out against the PNC administration. Those close to Rodney say he believed that there was a plot underway to take his life. A key finding of the CoI was that there was a conspiracy involving the Guyana Defence Force (GDF), the Guyana Police Force and others to kill Rodney and that Burnham had to be aware of it. The CoI report also contended that the army, police and others tried to cover the tracks of Rodney’s likely killer, then coastguardsman, Gregory Smith.

According to the COI report, “Further, given the manner in which the country was run coupled with the threats issued by Prime Minister Burnham to the members of the WPA and the evidence of Mr Robert Allan Gates, we conclude that Prime Minister Burnham knew of the plan and was part of the conspiracy to assassinate Dr Walter Rodney….. given all the relevant facts, events and circumstances set out in the report, we unhesitatingly conclude that Gregory Smith was not acting alone but had the active and full support, participation and encouragement of, and/or was aided and abetted by the GPF (Guyana Police Force), the GDF (Guyana Defense Force), agencies of the State and the political directorate in the killing of Dr Walter Rodney.”

The COI concluded that an operative of the GDF, Gregory Smith, carried out the assassination of Rodney. Smith was then sent out of the country to French Guiana, a colony of Paris. Smith is said to have died in 2002. Another section of the COI report released concludes that: “We accept that Gregory Smith, renamed Cyril Milton Johnson, received State assistance in going to French Guiana. The choice of country was deliberate and was no doubt informed by the fact that (the) French government, of which French Guiana was a Department had a policy opposed to the death penalty. In short, it would have been difficult, virtually impossible, to secure the extradition of Smith/Johnson from French Guiana.”

Rodney was a well-known and influential Pan-Africanist and Marxist historian as well as a political activist who studied at the University of the West Indies, the University of London and held a faculty position for years at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.

After working for several years in Tanzania and as a visiting scholar in several higher educational institutions such as the University of Michigan in 1972, Rodney was invited by the University of Guyana to take a faculty position. However, the government of Burnham blocked the appointment in an effort to prevent Rodney from remaining in his country of birth.

Rodney remained and later organized the WPA bringing together several Left and Pan-African organizations. His presence in Guyana politically challenged the image of the Burnham government which sought to portray itself as a supporter of African liberation movements and socialism.

At the time of his assassination, Rodney was writing a seminal “History of the Guyanese Working People” which was published in its incomplete form after his death. His study entitled “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa”, initially published by the government of Tanzania in 1972, remains a signature text on the role of imperialism in the continuing struggle for genuine liberation and socialism in Africa and internationally.

The Granger administration eventually discontinued public hearings of the Commission, preventing the probe team from cross examining witnesses and taking evidence from others.

Amidst reports being circulated in the media on the contents COI Report, President David Granger had called the document “deeply flawed”, noting that the Guyanese society has been starved of the truth and closure, even though almost $500 million has been expended in the past two years on the Commission. The Head of State indicated that it is obvious that the Commissioners depended on hearsay and gossip instead of pursuing means through which the truth could have been found out. (Excerpts from Global Research online)