OPINION: Atwoli must demonstrate leadership by agitating for workers’ rights not gov’t interests

Francis Atwoli
COTU Secretary General Francis Atwoli during Labour Day celebrations at Uhuru Park Nairobi. Photo/Courtesy

By Ohaga Ohaga

I first met the Central Organization of Trade Unions (COTU) Secretary General Francis Atwoli back in 2006 when I was a cub-reporter with Kenya Times. It was on May 20, 2006, during his re-election bid held at Tom Mboya Labor College in Kisumu.

This was my biggest assignment yet. In attendance wasn’t just the all-powerful, all-domineering COTU Sec-Gen himself but Orange Democratic Movement opposition leader Raila Odinga who by then was a presidential aspirant for the upcoming elections in 2007. There were also talks that the then Labor and Human Resource Development Minister Newton Kulundu, and Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister Martha Karua would attend.

While at the assignment, I observed that the event was well-organized, and the participants remained largely peaceful and calm – an unusual scenario in any Kenyan election.

The reason the election was peaceful was that Francis Atwoli didn’t have any challengers. With the benefit of a hindsight, I learned that COTU Secretary-General had allegedly done everything within his power to make sure that he and his Executive Board faced no challengers. This revelation was contained in a Wikileaks dossier. A leaked brief from the USA Economic Affairs station in Nairobi.

During the event, I also noted that Atwoli was the Master of Ceremony, moderator, and chief speaker of the gathering. Ordinarily, this should not be the case. But because he was the sitting Sec-Gen and with no challenger, he was the man running the show. Atwoli would emerge ‘victorious’ and delivered his victory speech in ways only he could. Hearty claps and laughs echoed the hall as he roared and bellowed while the delegates cheered him on. He returned to Nairobi as the SG for another five years.

It’s May 2021 and Atwoli is still the SG of the COTU. A position he will keep for the next five years. Reminiscent of 2006, Atwoli was elected unopposed after the only challenger and Kenya National Union of Nurses (KNUN) Secretary-General Seth Panyako was barred from the race for not being a bona fide member of COTU.

Also elected unopposed were 34 members of the secretariat and executive board. There are a lot of things that are wrong with Atwoli’s re-election and indeed his current COTU leadership.

Atwoli’s missteps

Firstly, Atwoli has been in power for 20 years. By the end of this term, Atwoli will have been at the helm of COTU for 25 years. An achievement only dictatorial rulers like Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Denis Sassou Nguesso of Congo, and Paul Biya of Cameroon et al have mastered. This perhaps explains why in September 2019 he proposed that President Kenyatta should lead for another term.

Secondly, back in 2006, Atwoli was a firebrand. Fiery. Fierce. Feared and respected by both the public and the Government. Loathed and loved in equal measure. Atwoli was a true reflection of what a Sec-General of any Union should be. He was sharp, active, focused, and truly dedicated to the cause of defending his workers.

When he coughed, the government caught a cold. When he joked, people laughed even if it wasn’t funny. Atwoli didn’t speak with saliva in his mouth.

While sitting next to him after his victory speech, as a rookie journalist I felt intimidated by his presence. But I also admired his tenacity in fighting for his workers.

Also Read: Atwoli dismisses Kibwana’s move to Supreme Court over BBI 

For a man who once commanded respect from both his workers and the government, Atwoli has become a regime conformist. A government apologist. A co-conspirator in the molestation of his workers by the government. A shareholder of government extortion of workers that he vowed to defend. Mr. Atwoli has turned into a pseudo-unionist. Often pandering to the political elite. He no longer represents the interests of the workers but his own and his proxies.

Atwoli has abandoned workers’ interests. He has forgotten that his first and foremost duty is to agitate for workers’ rights. That his loyalty lies with the workers, not with a regime keen on taxing workers to death.

Presently, the only active role Atwoli has played in defending workers is to make regular appearances at Jeff Koinange’s show on Citizen TV. If he is not on the JKL show, Atwoli is throwing jabs at anyone who criticizes the BBI and the handshake.

In the immortal words of Phillip Randolph, ‘the essence of trade unionism is social uplift’. Workers depend on their union leaders to champion their rights including socio-economic uplift as well as advocating and defending their welfare.

Economic hardship

Kenyan workers are currently overburdened by taxes and high fuel prices. Food prices have skyrocketed while many workers have lost jobs; and/or endured salary cuts. Others are working in the most horrible conditions with the least pay. Others have no medical cover. Over and above this, the coronavirus pandemic has turned Kenyan workers into beggars often settling for peanuts as pay from their employers.

According to the statistics from KNBS, over 1. 7 million workers lost their jobs when Kenya imposed coronavirus-induced lockdown that led to layoffs and pay cuts. Data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) indicate the number of people in employment fell to 15.87 million between April 2020 and the end of June 2020 compared to 17.59 million the previous quarter.

Nothing to celebrate

Moreover, companies are reporting losses daily forcing them to further cut down on human resources. Wilson Sossion, the Secretary-General of the Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT) — an affiliate of COTU — was quoted by Taifa Leo saying that they have nothing to celebrate on Labor Day as teachers have been denied salary increment.

The tourism sector is in ruins even as youths complain the government has ignored their businesses.

As if that’s is not enough, Kenyans are most likely to pay at least Ksh. 300 more for cooking gas following the re-introduction of the 16 percent value-added tax on the commodity. This is in line with the Finance Act that restored value-added tax (VAT) on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) but deferred the levy for one year to July 2021 due to concerns about the cost of living.

However, as the Secretary-General of the largest workers union in Kenya, what has Atwoli done?  During his speech on Labor Day, Atwoli left many wondering who he works for.

While acknowledging that there will be ‘’an unprecedented economic meltdown that will see a slow performance in the world economy,’’ Atwoli promised to join hands with both the government and employers to examine the post coronavirus period and was ‘’optimistic that with the strong solidarity it has with the government, they we will rebuild the economy in the shortest possible time’’.

What lacked was how this will be done. He didn’t offer suggestions on how to mitigate the myriad challenges faced by workers today that required immediate action nor did he propose measures the Government should take to help alleviate the suffering of the workers.

He added: “We will continue to support you (President Uhuru) despite these difficult times we find ourselves in and we are now afraid and unable to make any demands for a Minimum Wage increase as we have always done’’. Yet, in President Uhuru’s admission, his government loses Ksh. 2billion per day. How about Atwoli demanding better accountability and end to corruption that is hemorrhaging public funds? Atwoli of 2006 would have by now mobilized workers to a nationwide protest demanding accountability from the Government.

Atwoli in his speech preferred talking about the BBI and heaping praises on President Kenyatta for his leadership. Workers’ plights were mentioned in passing like a footnote in a long lecturer’s notes.

Moving forward

Workers in Kenya need hope. They need tax breaks. They need tax reliefs.  Workers wish to see the COTU boss address the social and economic difficulties they are facing amidst COVID-19. Workers are suffering from frustrations due to joblessness and economic hard times. They are hopeless, and despondent. Workers want the run-away corruption contained. Workers want better working conditions. Workers want safety and security in their work places especially in this COVID-19 times.

Two, with the advent of COVID-19, the working environment and dynamics have changed and may remain this way for a while. Workers are no longer working from their offices but home. But how would workers work from home if there is no home?

Three, with all intents and purposes, Atwoli needs to retire. We must stop kidding ourselves. There’s nothing new Atwoli will do today that he hasn’t done in the last 20 years. He has lost his mojo, he’s tired and he has run out of steam.

Lastly, we must not normalize people turning offices into personal property. We must allow others to serve. For those who are okay with keeping the status quo, Atwoli’s re-election is a good thing. But for the Kenyan workers who know better and deserve better, Atwoli should retire and let others take over.

Indeed, while reacting to a cartoonist’s depiction of Atwoli on Saturday Nation, May 1, the President of Law Society of Kenya Nelson Havi wrote on his Twitter handle: “Finally, a cartoonist of like mind as myself agrees that COTU Secretary-General, my Uncle Olumasayi Atwoli has sold out and been captured by the State. The vibrant workers’ union has been transformed to a parastatal and workers are just but slaves of an inconsequential COTU”.

The author is a Kenyan journalist, writer, and communication specialist with a special interest in media law and political communication. He remains a close observer of, and participant in, Journalism and the Media. 

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