in demerara waves Opinions June 12, 2017
Rodney, the exemplar of Social Justice activism and People’s Power.
As we remember Walter Rodney on another June 13, we again honour the life and contributions of a product of our Guyana and Caribbean who gave hope to tens of thousands that a Guyana that guarantees the security of all its diverse groups is possible. We honour our brother, not as an elitist scholar and activist, but as a person who put his individual gifts to the service of the collective, always acknowledging that his opportunities and achievements were made possible by the sacrifices of the people, especially the working peoples of the country and region. Walter Rodney was a committed partisan for social and ethnic equality, justice for the downtrodden, government that is premised on and responds to the power of the people and the empowerment of those at the bottom of the social ladder to determine their own emancipation. He was an exemplar of Social Justice activism and People’s Power.
Here in Guyana, Dr. Rodney is remembered most for his tireless crusade against dictatorial governance and his firm belief that such governance can be turned back most effectively by a multi-ethnic movement of the working peoples and their allies. His intervention in this regard brought to the fore the inherent contradictions in Guyanese politics and society, that would eventually facilitate his assassination. That his assassination resulted from a politics of spite, one-manism and a desire to monopolise power as an end itself is, therefore, beyond doubt. Clearly the mobilization of people across ethnicity and to some extent across social class in defence of their fundamental rights ran counter to the agenda of the then rulers.
The gains of Rodney have not been sustained
Since Rodney’s assassination, there have been inevitable changes in government—the dictatorial regime against which he fought was eventually voted out of office. The successor government continued the dictatorial ways of its predecessors and met the same fate. The present government has promised much, but seems unable to move beyond the narrow confines of traditional modes of governance.
Through this all, the plight of the poor and powerless regardless of ethnicity and gender, have become progressively worse as our governments have become more and more wedded to the neo-liberal model of development that privileges markets and elites over people. Walter Rodney’s critique of the politics and economics of underdevelopment is still relevant today and should be utilized as a rallying point of departure for those willing to confront neo-liberalism.
On the ethnic front, the gains of the Rodney era have not been sustained. The removal of the PNC from office in 1992 and the return of free elections were accompanied by a resurgence of ethnic insecurity and its attendant ills. The PPP government did not help matters by turning its back on a Government of National Unity and pursuing, in part, an undisguised ethnic agenda. By the time it left office, the country was as sharply divided as it was in the wake of the ethnic upheavals of the 1960s.
The need for a revived Multi-Ethnic Movement
It should be clear to all who want Guyana to advance that this would be facilitated most effectively by a multi-ethnic movement along the lines articulated and mobilized by Walter Rodney and his comrades in the WPA. We believe that the time has come for the building of such a movement to serve as a push-back against the unhealthy politics of ethnic division and domination and the economic assault on the working peoples. This is our call to action on this 37th anniversary of the assassination of Walter Rodney.
The debate over the future of sugar and proposed government action in that regard have serious ethnic implications. So too is the on-going struggle against official corruption. Whatever one’s feelings on these issues, it must be acknowledged that they threaten to further tear our people apart. In the end, we must, in the Rodneyite tradition, summon the courage to reach across the ethnic divide and search for common ground. We have learned from experience that such action often run counter to the agendas of entrenched political parties to which many of our people are affiliated. This is the daunting challenge we face, but it is one that must be confronted. Walter Rodney’s example, scholarship and activism offer us something to work with.
Government must stop marginalizing Rodney
On this anniversary, we also renew the call on the government to put aside partisan differences and honour Walter Rodney as a Guyanese patriot. I understand the reluctance to touch the recommendations of the controversial Walter Rodney Commission of Inquiry, but are we doomed to be forever imprisoned by partisan instincts? How can we boast of a Unity Government that includes Rodney’s party and comrades, yet the very government continues to marginalize him in such blatant ways? The government has not seen it fit to implement the very non-partisan recommendations of the COI—some of which its constituents have, in the past, called for.
Where are the Rodneyite ideas in the praxis of the government? There was no more enlightened activist of what we now call social cohesion than Walter Rodney. Yet our government publishes a strategic plan on social cohesion without the integration of a single of his ideas or those with which he is associated. We must do better than that.
This government has a historic duty to be a government of all Guyanese. It must decisively break with the past. In this regard, it must follow through on the big promises it made in its manifesto. Constitutional reform must take pride of place on the agenda. There can be no social cohesion and good governance outside of constitutional reform that targets excessive presidential powers, the sharing of executive power and the return of proper local democracy.
The government must find a way to witness more for the poor in our midst. It has to find space for investment in our people even as it navigates the dictates of the IMF regime. The coming of the oil economy will not be automatic salvation for the poor. Experience has shown that oil wealth, like other forms of wealth, ends up benefiting the privileged.
Our government must also give true meaning to the notion of Coalition. Currently it is more a coalition in name than in practice. Coalition assumes consultation and partnership in word and deed. Democratization should mean a widening of the decision-making space to include the breath of our interests.
WPA must recapture its Rodneyite Soul
In that regard, I must be self-critical of those of us in the WPA and other Rodney associates. I have no place for those critics of the WPA who opportunistically use Rodney’s name to malign the WPA. But, I think we have not done enough to advocate for Rodneyite ideas in recent times. We seem to be caught in between support for the government and fidelity to our own traditions which are largely grounded in Rodney’s praxis and have not found a way to properly balance the two.
Our collective voice has been too muted in the face of wrong turns by this government and other negative developments in our politics. To the best of my knowledge, we have been reluctant to speak up for Rodney in the halls of power. We have remained silent for two long as the working poor cry out for defence. The WPA and its associates must quickly engage in a reality check, if we are to retain any semblance of relevance to contemporary Guyana. We cannot continue to hide behind the reality or myth of State Power. Our responsibility, in the Rodneyite tradition, is ultimately to the country and all its peoples, regardless of ethnicity and other differences. The WPA must recapture its Rodneyite soul in the interest of Guyana. We can no longer afford to muzzle our voice in the service of partisan politics.
Rename UG Walter Rodney University of Guyana
I have in the past call for the renaming of the University of Guyana, the Walter Rodney University of Guyana. Guyanese across generations have contributed much to scholarship locally, regionally and globally, but none can doubt that Rodney’s contributions in this regard is monumental. At a time when our university is fighting for survival, the spirit of Rodney could serve as a morale booster for that institution and as a reminder to students that academic excellence and creativity are part of our education tradition.
Further, our scholars at the university should integrate Rodney and other Guyanese thinkers into the curriculum. It is a crying shame that while there is a Walter Rodney Chair at the University, there are no courses on Rodney’s ideas. This robs students of the opportunity to engage indigenous ideas.