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The making of Walter Rodney


His classic, ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’ is one of the most powerful and influential books to be written on the fundamental causes of the continent’s crisis of pervasive poverty and underdevelopment. Implicit in Walter Rodney’s analysis in the book are radical and revolutionary paths for Africa out of the grips of perennial backwardness far different from the so far ineffectual prescriptions of scholars who do not look beyond internal factors on the continent and the alleged inherent weaknesses of Africans for their developmental predicament.

Like other Marxist and dependencia theorists, Rodney argues that it is impossible to meaningfully explicate the developmental stagnation, even degeneration, of Africa without thoroughly interrogating her experience with slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism as well as her forceful incorporation into the global capitalist economy on a weak, exploited and unequal basis as a supplier of raw materials and consumer of imported products through an international trade process predicated on what the late Samir Amin described as ‘unequal exchange’.

In his tome, Rodney examines how various parts of Africa developed prior to the continent’s contact with western imperialism demonstrating that several political entities had made remarkable progress and recorded meaningful achievements in diverse spheres before the colonial intrusion disrupted their likely continued upward evolution.

Demonstrating amazing knowledge of the diverse peoples, kingdoms and cultures of Africa, the Guyanese revolutionary, profound scholar and activist provides concrete facts and figures to demonstrate the devastating impact of slavery and colonialism on Africa while also articulating the ways in which the exploitation of the continent’s human, material and natural resources contributed significantly to the accelerated upward developmental leap of the west after the colonial encounter.

Rodney’s work on underdevelopment continues to spur productive discourse on the African condition with some supporting and elaborating on his theses and others vehemently opposing them. For instance, I once read a book by an author, whose name I cannot recall now, titled ‘How Africa underdeveloped Africa’. Mainstream liberal scholars particularly of the West are more likely to find the conservative arguments espoused in such a book putting the blame for Africa’s fate squarely and solely on the shoulders of Africans, more agreeable.

I remember working as a bar man in a hotel in Ilorin, Kwara State, sometime in the early 1980s to earn some money to augment my allowance before returning to school and avidly reading ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’ in between serving my customers. At that time, the construction industry was quite vibrant in Ilorin and many expatriates patronized the bar where I worked.

On a particular day, I had Rodney’s book on the bar counter while I served two white men their drinks. Obviously noting the title of the book and understandably displeased, they went on to discuss at length the dishonesty, laziness and corruption of the black workers whom they supervised on their construction site without making any direct reference to me.

Of course, I continued reading my book and studiedly ignored them even though I kept an ear on their prejudiced conversation. As Professor Peter Ekeh famously argued in his theory of the two publics, even the widespread leadership and followership corruption often blamed for Africa’s underdevelopment, cannot be properly understood without reference to the way that the colonial intrusion bifurcated African polities into mutually denigrating public spheres – the civic and primordial publics.

Thus, because of their mistrust of and alienation from the colonial state, an attitude transferred to its post-colonial successor, occupants of public office in the civic sphere are not averse to diverting resources from the state to benefit their primordial ethno-cultural public constituency often with the enthusiastic support of the latter.

A large number of no less influential works on Africa also draw inspiration from Walter Rodney. For instance, in the dedication of the book he co-authored with Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, ‘Financialism: Water from an Empty Well’, Brian Browne writes, “I dedicate my contributions to this book to the memory of Walter Rodney, whose ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’ stands as one of the most important contributions to our understanding of the modern political economy, and to Dudley Thompson who dedicated his life in pursuit of freedom for the black race”.

And the authors of the book, ‘The Saga of African Underdevelopment’, Tetteh A. Kofi and Asayehgn Desta, write, “Three names deserve special mention as key catalysts for the birth of this book. The first is Walter Rodney, who, through his incredible knowledge of the political history of Africa, presented in his book entitled ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’ directed us to understand the political and economic history of Africa”.

Again this background, it will be understandable why I consider the book, ‘Walter Rodney Speaks’ a collection of conversations with the revolutionary conducted by the Institute of the Black World in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1974 and published by the Africa World Press in 1990 is one of my favourite volumes on my bookshelf. In the introduction to the book, Howard Dodson writes, “In this work of sustained reflection, Walter tells us in his own words how he came to be the person that he was. He reflects on the nature and meaning of his life at a critical juncture in his career…He also discusses his view on the leading political and social trends in Africa, the Caribbean and Black America during the mid-1970s – a period of critical shifts in Pan-African and world affairs. For all who seek to continue “grounding” with this brother, this work is essential”.

In the book which touches on diverse themes, Rodney talks about his father who was a tailor- an independent artisan for most of his life- and his mother, a housewife and part-time seamstress. His parents had progressive political inclinations and it is no wonder that even as a primary school student in Guyana, he was already involved in distributing the manifesto and other materials of the nationalist People’s Progressive Party (PPP).

This also served as the root of the development of his ideological and class consciousness even as a seven year old. In his words, “After a while, without knowing anything about class, I knew that there were certain kinds of Guyanese into whose yard one did not go to carry a PPP manifesto. You could tell from the kind of house or the shade or complexion of the lady reclining, sipping her tea, or whatever she may be doing. You don’t intervene in that situation and say, “Read a PPP manifesto, we’re asking for workers to do this and that”.

And on ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’, Rodney says “And among several other things, this text was designed to operate outside of the university. It might get into the university, yes. I hoped it would. But it was designed to operate from outside in the sense that it would not be sponsored by the people who considered themselves, and whom many others considered, to be the ones at the time who had the last word to say on African history and African studies. The aim of this publication was to reach our own people without having it mediated by the bourgeois institutions of learning”.

I am told that the legendary Fela Anikulapo Kuti bought hundreds of copies of the book which he distributed free to students on his frequent shows on various campuses. Born on March 23, 1942, Rodney was assassinated on June 13, 1980, in Georgetown, Guyana, by agents of the Guyanese government.

The Nation

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