Tom Mboya.

Tom Mboya.

| File | Nation Media Group

From Mboya to Atwoli, labour movement has been the training ground for politicos

What you need to know:

  • If you have been watching the behaviour of Francis Atwoli – and I am really sorry for comparing him to Tom Mboya – he follows a script that was perfected by the late Mboya.

British syndicated columnist and big game hunter Robert Ruark did not like Tom Mboya – and he never shied from saying it.

“When he is abroad and sweetening it up for the press and public and the TV, he is Doctor Jekyll. When he gets back to Africa he is Mr Hyde.”

Although Mr Ruark was quoting an unnamed government official for his syndicated column, he seemed to liken Mr Mboya, an accomplished trade union leader and political organiser, to the characters in the Gothic novella, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hide, – and where Dr Jekyll was outwardly good and Mr Hide depicted as shockingly evil.

It was an impression he got by interviewing Mboya many times.

“Here in Nairobi, one sees Mboya, the golden boy of East African politics, by going to a house on Victoria Street (now renamed Tom Mboya) and walking up some stairs…the corridors are narrow, and are jammed with Africans in various stages of dress, ranging from elegant to shabby to patched pants and rain-sodden hats,” he observed.

Mboya, although Ruark never acknowledged, was the man of the people – but because he did “not smile” when he met the journalist he got the impression that Mboya was a man with a split personality. “Mboya is a very black man with a round head, a low forehead and almost eyes that can alternately slit and swivel like a leopard’s…he has a wide mouth which can smile at banquets. The wide mouth did not smile for me.”

But as Kenyans celebrated yet another Labour Day on Saturday, what has never been denied was the role he played in building the labour movement – and also laying the foundation on which trade union leaders rise into, and influence, politics.

If you have been watching the behaviour of Francis Atwoli – and I am really sorry for comparing him to Tom Mboya – he follows a script that was perfected by the late Mboya. More so, when you see the Central Organisation of Trade Union (Cotu) leadership schmoozing and acting politicians like a power broker, it is all born out of that squirmy history. (So, forget Atwoli!)

To start with, Cotu was founded by a presidential decree in August 1974 and which explains its toothless bulldog status before it metamorphosed into what the Americans would call ‘all hat, no cattle’ status.

Before Kenyatta intervened, the labour movement in Kenya was getting entangled in cold war politics.

Cotu Secretary-General Atwoli's speech on Labour Day

Collective bargaining

Mboya had mastered the politics of trade union and he favoured negotiating industrial settlements and the emergence of industrial unions where he could carry out collective bargaining. He had cut his teeth when he was the secretary of the Nairobi Municipal Staff Association and from that position he worked his way up the ladder – faster than anyone would imagine.

In his 20s, Tom Mboya was already making national negotiations with the likes of Richard Luyt, the Minister for Labour and at 30 Mboya was already leading the Kenya Federation of Labour (KFL) and he invited Governor Patrick Renison for the opening ceremony of Solidarity Building, the KFL headquarters. Today, this is the Cotu headquarters, a legacy of Mboya’s fundraising skills and connections.

What was not openly said then was that Mboya had the support of the CIA-backed International Confederation of Free Trade Union (ICFTU) and which financed the building of Solidarity Building and whose grants to Mboya’s Kenya Federation of Labour in the early 60s rose to $8,000 per month. More funds from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) were wired through the Fund for International Social and Economic Education and which contributed more than $25, 000 to Mboya’s federation.

The location of Solidarity Building away from the Central Business District and at the heart of a constituency he was to represent was a way of showing his might to the workers – those who lived in the Eastlands.

Mboya had also managed to convince the colonial government to allow workers to finance the unions via monthly contributions deducted by the employers. Mboya had also convinced the various unions affiliated to his KFL that his organisation required more powers to inspect union books and to intervene in case of a crisis.

How Mboya escaped arrest during the pre-independence struggle has always bothered historians and why KFL, when most of the other political organisations were in trouble, was left to operate.

US role

There is a 40-page document that was published in 1970 by Africa Research Group, founded by Daniel Schechter, an investigative journalist, to uncover the covert operations of the US government in Africa.

He claimed that the CIA had pegged their hopes on Mboya since Jomo Kenyatta, who was still in jail, was not being considered “sufficiently safe.”

“Mboya even propounded a brand of African socialism which favoured "free" - anti-communist - trade unions and encouraged foreign investment, foreign banking, and foreign land ownership,” wrote Schechter.

Since the US was financing its own trade unions in Africa and encouraging those that existed to join ICFTU – which had split from the Communist-led World Federation of Trade Unions – Mboya became the most important man in Africa. On March 7, 1960, he made it to the cover of Time magazine.

Time poured accolades on him as the “handsome Tom Mboya” and that “few can match his organisation of a case or his smooth command of English. While it said that “he is second only to Kenyatta as a Swahili orator, whipping African crowds into a frenzy of chants and shouts by the skillful rhythm of his speeches” it also dismissed Kenyatta as an “alcoholic wreck” and as “wild-eyed Kikuyu spokesman and student of telepathy, magic spells and Kikuyu lore” who leads a “strange creed called Mau Mau, (who seal) the bond by drinking blood and waving cat corpses in the air as they sat facing the holy mountain.”

By aiding Mboya’s labour movement and strengthening his place in Africa through ICFTU, the US administration was eager to have him upstage Kwame Nkrumah, the new President of Ghana.

Interestingly, it was Nkrumah who in 1958 had propelled the young Mboya into the chairmanship of the All-Africa Peoples Conference and during the same year, he was elected the ICFTU chairman for East, Central and Southern Africa with Nairobi becoming the headquarters of all regional ICFTU affiliates.

Mboya’s rise became his waterloo. He was a marked man by his detractors in S. Africa and back home. The first to target Mboya was Ghana’s Nkrumah and Guinea’s Sekou Toure whose wish to form an independent Africa wide labour organisation was resisted by Mboya.

 Kwame Nkrumah

Kwame Nkrumah, who led Ghana after the country got independence from Britain in 1957.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

The Western press claimed that Nkrumah’s desire was to affiliate the new movement with Communist-backed World Federation of Trade Unions. To showcase his might, Mboya decided to host an all Africa trade union summit in Nigeria and to counter it, Nkrumah organised another in Accra, under the banner of All Africa Trade Union Federation. “Mboya's meeting drew union leaders from 29 countries. Nkrumah's affair was a flop, with officially accredited delegates only from Guinea, Morocco and the United Arab Republic,” the Time magazine reported.

After that, an Africa-wide campaign was started in Accra dismissing Mboya as a “stooge of imperialism” and as a traitor.

Nkrumah then decided to invite Mboya’s Kenya Federation of Labour’s assistant secretary-general, Arthur Ochwada, to Accra in a bid to break the affiliate. That is how Ochwada – “a tall, bespectacled, slow speaking, intellectual” according to Mboya biographer – founded his own Kenya Trades Union Congress.

While KFL had the backing of the Eastern bloc, the TUC had become the local chapter of Communist-backed labour movements. TUC was also the home-base of the anti-Mboya group.

Political battles

At one point, Mboya said that he was surprised by the transformation that Ochwada underwent in Ghana during a recent visit. He was surprised that TUC could afford to pay office rent even though they did not have membership – apart from the Ochwada-led Building and Construction Workers Union.

Mboya continued to build his political base around KFL, while his opponents tried to rally unions around TUC. When he became the Minister for Labour, just before independence, Mboya left his seat to Clement Lubembe. But a camp had already emerged within KFL led by Dennis Akumu and Ochola Mak’Anyengo, key followers of Oginga Odinga – and the Cairo-based anti-Mboya group known as Kenya Bureau. It was financed by President Nasser and was behind Ochwada’s attempt to become Kanu secretary-general and upstage Mboya.

In 1964, in a bid to split Mboya’s KFL, Akumu and Mak’Anyengo formed the Kenya African Workers Congress, which they affiliated to Nkrumah’s All Africa Trade Union Federation. Kenya was now home to two umbrella organisations and at the back of it, it was known that Akumu’s group was more, or less, the Kanu wing that supported Jaramogi Oginga Odinga in his wars with Kiambu mafia and where Mboya was used to do the dirty work.

As the two groups started fighting, Jomo Kenyatta set up a inter-ministerial committee to recommend the way forward. And that is how he decreed the formation of Cotu with Lubembe as secretary-general and his arch-rival, Akumu, as deputy.

But Cotu remained a highly political organisation – and most of the top officials waded into national politics and at best, they are more concerned with survival and hardly press for workers’ rights. From the days of Juma Boy to Joseph Mugalla, Cotu has been the training ground for politicos.

But so far, nobody can match Mboya – our Dr Jekyll and Mr Hide. Robert Ruark also once called him a tin pot politico. On July 5, 1969, he was shot dead.

[email protected], @johnkamau1


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