A Caribbean-led commission of inquiry into the June 1980 bomb blast assassination of internationally-acclaimed historian and US Black Power Movement activist Walter Rodney could soon get underway in his native Guyana, but even as preparations are being heightened for the probe, controversy is brewing about the mandate the three-person body has been given to work with.
Authorities in Guyana late last month named respected Barbadian jurist Sir Richard Cheltenham to head up the probe into Rodney’s assassination after years of campaigning by opposition outfits, activists in the governing People’s Progressive Party (PPP) and local and regional rights groups.
In the past week, the terms of reference for the commission was published in local newspapers for all to see but the main opposition A Partnership For National Unity (APNU) is already signaling discomfort with two key clauses and the presence of Trinidadian Senior Counsel Seenath Jairam, because of his perceived closeness to the ruling political elite in Guyana.
Rodney who co-founded the then radicalized and left-leaning Working People’s Alliance (WPA) was leading a spirited fight against the then unpopular regime of Prime Minister Forbes Burnham when he was killed near the main city jailhouse on the night of Friday June 13, 1980.
Local and regional political activists, churches, opposition parties and others immediately blamed aides close to Burnham for his death; charges his PNC party has persistently denied any involvement, explaining that It too, over the years, has called for a full probe and contends that it expects the evidence would point away from PNC involvement.
APNU Communications Director Mark Archer said this week that the multiparty coalition is uncomfortable with Jairam on the panel and regards Clause Four in the terms of reference as “a witch hunt” against the military and other security and enforcement agencies.
The clause asks the commission to examine and report on the actions of state agencies, the military and paramilitary in particular, and those who were in command or supervised state agents, to determine whether they were mandated to conduct surveillance of those in opposition then, and whether doing so had led to Rodney’s death.
Another clause talks about facts and circumstances immediately and prior to Rodney’s assassination, in order to determine “who or what was responsible for the explosion which resulted in Rodney’s death.
Rodney, who wrote the highly-acclaimed and still-in-demand book: “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa”, was killed by an explosive device he was handed while sitting in his car near the main jail with his brother, Donald. Donald survived to tell the story.
WPA leaders immediately pointed to ex-army sergeant Gregory Smith as the main who handed him the device. Smith was spirited out of the country to French Guiana., where he lived and worked for years before he died without ever giving evidence. Clause Three specifically refers to him, as commissioners are being asked to determine what role he “played in the death of Dr. Walter Rodney” and to determine who had counseled him to do so.
More than 100 witnesses are lined up to testify, but the commission is also appealing for others with information to also testify.