Did The WPA Betray Walter Rodney’s Legacy

Image for post
Image for post

Since the Working People’s Alliance joined the People’s National Congress within A Partnership for National Unity (APNU), there have been several accusations claiming that WPA has betrayed Walter Rodney, who was a member of the WPA until he was assassinated in 1980.The accusation of betrayal stems from two issues. The first of which is that the PNC government which was led by Forbes Burnham is generally held to have been responsible not only for Rodney’s murder, but for the murder of other prominent critics of the government, including Ohene Koama and Edward Dublin, who were also WPA members. Father Bernard Darke, a Catholic priest who worked for the Catholic Standard newspaper which was critical of the government, was stabbed to death. There are concerns raised by those who do not understand how the WPA could join a coalition which includes the same political party which was responsible for the assassination of Rodney and others. The other issue is ideology and values. The WPA has joined a coalition which shares little of Rodney’s Marxist ideology and his commitment to the struggling masses.

Freddie Kissoon raised the question of whether or not the WPA had betrayed Walter Rodney in 2016. Kissoon wrote:

All eyes were on the WPA. Their explanation was that within the African community there was a psychic and cultural split that needed healing. Black people were torn between a Burnhamite PNC and a Rodneyite WPA. Both the PNC and WPA argued that a unity team would galvanize the Guyanese people to vote for APNU because they wanted to put the past behind and see the PNC and WPA in government. It happened. APNU is in power. But the question is; has APNU conceded state power to the WPA as it has to the AFC?

The answer depends on what perspective you use. Like the AFC, Ministries have been allocated exclusively to APNU coalition partners with one going to the WPA — the Education Ministry under the WPA co-leader, Dr. Rupert Roopnaraine. But the analyst is bound to ask the WPA, where are the expressions of the WPA’s core values in the manifestations of state power?

In other words, in coalition governments, there has to be a prominent role in the State machinery for the different units. We see that in Guyana with the AFC. APNU has majority share in the state machinery. Where is the WPA’s role? Why was there no state sponsorship of Rodney’s death anniversary last week?

The WPA’s position on President Davud Granger’s decision to unilaterally declare a GECOM chair also raised questions about whether or not the WPA had betrayed the legacy of Walter Rodney. Vishnu Bisram claimed that Kwame Apata was a real Rodneynite. Bisram wrote: “He [Kwame Apata] was a true Rodneyite who held dearly to political principle of opposing the racism of the PNC. This is quite unlike his former WPA colleagues, like David Hinds and Tacuma Ogunseye who crawled back to the PNC supporting its racism for two bits of silver selling out Rodney.” Bisram continued: “Apata never sought benefits from the PNC the way Hinds and Ogunseye did. He could not bring himself to team up with the PNC a la Hinds and Ogunseye who joined the PNC simply to remove the Indians from office. Apata also felt the PPP had to go, but not by teaming up with PNC. Rodney would never have teamed up with PNC as a way to topple PPP; this is political opportunism from Ogunseye and Hinds.”

Before getting into the discussion over whether or not the WPA’s position in the APNU is a betrayal of Rodney’s legacy, it is first necessary to understand how the WPA came to be in this position. Eusi Kwayana, one of the founding members of the WPA, explained that the establishment of fair and free elections wiped out the political space of the WPA because Guyana returned to the very racial politics which the WPA sought to overcome in the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1980s, the WPA joined into a political coalition which included the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), which was the leading opposition party at the time. Along with other opposition parties, the WPA and the PPP formed the Patriotic Coalition for Democracy, which fought for fair and free elections in Guyana. PPP eventually decided to break with the coalition and contest the election alone. The 1992 election became yet another racial contest for power and outraged followed when the PPP won. The PPP would remain in power for the next 23 years until losing the election in 2015 to a coalition formed between the APNU and the Alliance for Change (AFC).

The WPA had worked with the PPP in the 1980s to help remove the PNC from power and then later joined with the PNC to help remove the PPP from power. Although the WPA itself has never managed to obtain the same electoral success of the PNC and the PPP partly because of the racially divided nature of Guyana’s politics, the WPA had been able to effectively maintain the position of being an opposition party which spoke truth to power by denouncing the corruption and abuse of power within the government.

The circumstances that the WPA found itself in was similar to the National Joint Action Committee (NJAC) in Trinidad. Like the WPA, NJAC was founded in the 1970s in the midst of the Black Power movement which was sweeping throughout the Caribbean region. Makandal Daaga, NJAC’s chief servant, played a leading role in the 1970 Black Power uprising, which I wrote about in “Eric Williams, Independence, and the Black Power Movement in Trinidad.”

Like the WPA, NJAC called for unity among Africans and Indians in a society with deep racial tensions. For this reason, NJAC’s decision to join the People’s Partnership coalition was consistent with the aim of national unity in Trinidad. The problem with this decision was the corruption and ineffectiveness of the coalition. Daaga, who was once seen as a spokesman for Black Power and the African struggle in Trinidad, was reduced to being a symbolic figure within a floundering government. He was given the ceremonial role of cultural ambassador to CARICOM, but neither he nor NJAC maintained a significant role within the coalition.

Daaga promised that he would speak out and walk away if the coalition lost its direction, but this was a promise which he did not keep. Godfrey Vicent wrote:

First, NJAC has lost its way and become part of the PP partnership. Rather than develop meaningful community programs that engage the youth, Daaga has sold his soul for an Ambassadorship.

The reason why the young people don’t know anything about 1970 is because they were not taught. NJAC has abandoned its mission to create a new man and woman and promote people’s democracy to join right wing politicians who never supported NJAC or the 1970 Black Power Revolution.

Among those who criticized the new direction of Daaga, the calypsonian Chalkdust is especially notable because in the past Chalkdust had offered praise and support for NJAC in his music. In “Qualifications of a Politician,” Chalkdust praised NJAC as “the best” political party in Trinidad, while criticizing George Weekes (another leader in the 1970 Black Power movement) for selling his soul for a position in the government. In 2014, Chalkdust would intone “Daaga is that you?”

A significant difference is that WPA was not as silent as NJAC was. David Hinds of the WPA, in particular, was very outspoken about the missteps of the government, such as the decision to raise the salaries of political leaders and spending $500,000 in rent for government ministers. As a political party organized to empower working people, the WPA would naturally be opposed to political leaders using their position to enrich themselves and carve out a life of luxury in a country with so many poor and struggling citizens.

In eyes of some, these criticisms were not enough, however, since the WPA continued to remain in a coalition where the political leadership was intent on enriching itself at the expense of the people who voted them into power. More so than this, however, is the fact that the APNU+AFC government remained hostile to constructive criticisms. David Hinds and Lincoln Lewis, two critics of the government, were terminated by the government controlled newspaper.

Stifling freedom of press and silencing criticisms were the very actions which Rodney and the WPA had criticized Burnham’s government for. This is why Eusi Kwayana described the removal of Hinds and Lewis “as Burnhamism plain and simple.” Kwayana also went on to quote Burnham, who stated: “In Guyana we don’t tell people what to write we tell them what not to write.” This issue continues in Guyana today, which is why the Electoral Observer Mission of the European Union reported that the state controlled media in Guyana places the interest of the ruling party over the public interest. The difference is that in the 1970s and 1980s, the WPA was an opposition party fighting against these abuses of power, but today the WPA is part of the government which abuses its power.

Despite these issues, the WPA continued to remain within a coalition which not only did not share the same values and principles of the WPA, but a government in which the WPA had little input or little influence. There were limits to which the WPA was willing to stand by the government, however. The WPA had stated that it would separate from the APNU if any attempts at rigging the election occurred. This promise would be tested when Guyana held its elections in March and the government faced international accusations of tampering with the election.

After observing the election on behalf of the Organisation of American States (OAS), Bruce Golding concluded by stating: “I have never seen a more transparent attempt to alter the results of an elections.” Kit Nascimento stated: “I have to say this, that in all my life and career in and out of politics in this country, I have never seen such a barefaced, ugly and deliberate attempt to rig an election. Yes, I have seen attempts and I am aware of attempts where elections were rigged, but not in this kind of manner; not in this ugly, barefaced and obvious manner.” One would have hoped that the WPA would have held true to its promise, but thus far the WPA has not raised any serious concerns over these allegations against the APNU+AFC government.

Rather than raising concerns over the debacle that was Guyana’s 2020 elections, Hinds used the opportunity to call for the political parties to work out a solution. Hinds wrote:

So, the recount has unexpectedly brought us to the point where we may find out at the end of the recount that both parties tampered with the election. What do we do at that point? For, me the best solution would be to declare the elections a “draw” based on the fact that it was not credible. But both parties are likely to reject that option as they would view it as robbing them of victory. I still hold strongly to the view that once a winner is declared, it would lead to an extreme form of one-party rule as the winner and loser if they choose to negotiate would do so as what Dr. Roger Luncheon once called unequals. So, I say, accept the draw, sit down, and work out an amicable solution as equals.

At this point one struggles to find a basis upon which the APNU+AFC can proclaim victory or even a “draw” as Hinds states. The District Four Returning Officer (RO) Clairmont Mingo presented numbers which Golding described as being “fictitious”. Mingo’s numbers differed from the Statement of Polls which were in the position of the other political parties. A recount was held and the PPP was found to have won the recount. The APNU+AFC refused to concede, however. The party still holds out hope that they were the true victors of the election, although the evidence to support this contention is lacking and some within the coalition have since conceded defeat.

Dominic Gaskin, a former minister in the AFC and President Granger’s son-in-law, stated that the government had lost the election and that supporters have been misled into believing that the government won. Gaskin also stated: “It was never a valid assumption that having won the 2015 elections by a slim majority, the APNU+AFC Coalition would easily win the 2020 elections. It was always going to be a tough fight.” The Justice For All Party which is a member of the APNU also conceded defeat.

Keep in mind that the APNU+AFC lost a vote of no confidence and rather than conceding defeat, the APNU+AFC took the matter to court and subsequently lost, so it is not as though this is a government which has established a record of being able to accept defeat, even when they have so obviously lost. In this regard, the APNU+AFC governments brings to mind Prime Minister Denzil Douglas of St. Kitts and Nevis who also tried to prolong his stay in power through legal proceedings, but ultimately failed to remain in power.

Rodney advocated for national unity and I think he would be willing to join any coalition which was truly formed for this purpose, but Rodney was also someone who believed in the empowerment of the masses. His famous slogan was “People’s Power, No Dictator.” Rodney argued that the advancement of Guyana would only truly come through the activity of the masses, and he put himself at the service of those masses.

It has been apparent that the WPA has moved away from Rodney’s vision of people’s power. In fact, David Hinds has admitted as much himself. At around the 34 minute mark in the interview below, Christopher Ram asks if the budget put forward by the government is a budget which the WPA of the ‘70s and ‘80s would have supported. David Hinds’ response was, “No, but we’re not in the ‘70s and ‘80s.”

That exchange was very telling, as well as Hinds’ criticism of the government for not understanding its historical opportunity to raise the bar on governance in Guyana. It is not the government did not understand this opportunity. The government simply did not care. Later on in the same interview (around 48 minutes), Hinds acknowledges that he has become persona non-grata in certain government circles because of his criticisms of the government. This leads one to ask what purpose did the WPA serve within the government? The WPA has held the government accountable by criticizing certain government actions, but this could have been done from outside of the coalition as well, especially considering that the WPA’s criticisms of the government went ignored anyway.

In the five years that the APNU+AFC coalition was in power, the WPA did demonstrate some of the values and principles which the WPA of the past had expressed, but it is also difficult to imagine Walter Rodney sitting in a government which has committed some of the excesses which the APNU+AFC did. I think it may be too extreme to claim that the WPA has betrayed Walter Rodney, but the WPA’s behavior has left much to be desired. The WPA has remained one of the more progressive voices in the APNU+AFC government, but this is not enough for those who struggled to understand why the WPA continued to remain in a government which did not value the WPA or the principles which Walter Rodney stood for.

Dwayne is the author of several books on the history and experiences of African people, both on the continent and in the diaspora. His books are available through Amazon. You can also follow Dwayne on Facebook and Twitter.

Dwayne Wong (Omowale) is a Guyanese born Pan-Africanist, author, and law student.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store