At 60, Kenya Red Cross Secretary-General Abbas Gullet leaves with a mottled legacy from the helm of an organisation he joined aged 14.
That he has been a hands-on CEO who led his troops from the front is not in doubt — as described by Asha Mohammed, one of his three deputies who will take over from him when he leaves office in December.
That has led to accusations that he is domineering. But his juniors do not think so. “He has energised the team because when you look up to the leader, of course you cannot be left behind when he is already running ahead of you,” she told Lifestyle.
“He is always in the front and maybe also having the advantage of being tall and with long legs, taking long strides and therefore the rest of us with short legs have to keep running a little bit faster to keep behind him.”
This is due to a philosophy Gullet lives by: to take charge of his team to any operation if he can.
“I always say that I’ll take the first bullet. Because they (Red Cross staff and volunteers) have to believe in our cause,” he said in an interview on Thursday.
“From my basic principle of leadership and management, I lead from the front, not the back. Yes, we have foot soldiers. Yes, we have staff and volunteers. But why should they put their life on the line if you are not willing to put yours?” He posed.
Despite all the good attributes that have seen him serve as the secretary-general for 14 consecutive years (he first served the role between 2001 and 2002 then from 2005 to date), questions linger on the organisation’s reputation at the moment, especially when it comes to handling money.
The organisation suffered a blow in March when it launched a fundraising appeal to help residents of 17 counties that were facing starvation.
The Kenya Red Cross (KRC) set a target of Sh824.5 million to enable it address the situation.
“Our interventions will focus on key areas, among them cash transfers, food distribution, water, sanitation and hygiene, health and nutrition as well as livelihood support,” said Gullet during the launch of the campaign on March 21.
The response to the appeal was a stark contrast from the "Kenyans for Kenya campaign" in 2011, where such an initiative saw Red Cross collect an impressive Sh633.8 million.
This time, there were Kenyans who questioned the society’s financial probity. Some appeared to favour a fundraising by musician Esther “Akothee” Akoth over the Red Cross one.
“Our money is safe with Akothee,” tweeted Kihura. “Red Cross can go party at Boma Hotel. Akothee give us a Paybill number.”
Mourine noted: “Instead of giving money to the Kenya Red Cross, if you feel sufficiently philanthropic to give, pass the money to Akothee. She is sometimes crude but legit!”
Gullet blames the negativity towards Red Cross on bloggers who are “guns for hire”.
“There was nothing wrong with the appeal. There was drought. There is still drought today in Kenya. But someone somewhere decides to deny it and to look for negativity and you’ll then say, ‘Red Cross, we give you all this money, what do you do?’ You build these hotels and all that?” Gullet shot back.
“Do your research on these hotels and show me one penny that Red Cross has taken from the public and put into these facilities,” he added.
One point raised by Kenyans amid the March fundraising controversy was the expenditure of the money contributed during the Kenyans for Kenya campaign.
An audit report on the KRC website says the organisation spent Sh113.9 million on food, cash transfers and transport, but there has not been an updated report to show how the rest of the money was spent.
Fielding questions from the Sunday Nation readers on the “Ask Your Question” platform in April, Gullet said the cash was used in long-term projects: The Kaikor irrigation farm in Turkana “where water still flows to date”, the Chesirmion Dam in Tiaty, Baringo - “a main source of water in this current drought” - and the Walda irrigation farm in Moyale, Marsabit - “that is doing exemplarily well”.
In the Thursday interview, Gullet did not wish to discuss much about the Kenyans for Kenya matter. “People are still asking me about Kenyans for Kenya. The audited accounts were posted six years ago. People don’t read,” he said.
Despite the criticism from some quarters, he said there are Kenyans who understand the organisation.
“They truly and sincerely appreciate the work of the Red Cross. The few bloggers who have given themselves the role of judge and jury and everything, it’s very sad for this country when you actually know they are guns for hire,” he said.
After 14 years at the helm, the Kenya Red Cross announced in June that Gullet will be leaving at the end of the year when his contract comes to an end.
While announcing the news, the KRC board praised him for increasing the organisation’s revenue.
The then KRC governor, Mohamud Said, noted that Gullet had brought efficiency and speed to disaster response.
Gullet told Lifestyle that he is the one who requested to leave. “It was a decision that I made. I told my board, ‘After 14 years in this job, time was up for someone else younger, brighter and fresher with more energy to come and take over,’” he said.
He described his successor, Mohammed, as “a very good person: well-qualified, well-trained”.
Gullet, who has two honorary doctorate degrees from Egerton and Kenyatta universities, was not very forthcoming on his future plans.
He however did not rule out a return to Mombasa, where he grew up. “Well, I’ll leave this job; but I’m sure there will be many other things I want to do,” he said.
“Would I go to Mombasa? Yes, that’s my hometown. Whether I’ll go there for many years is yet to be seen, but there are plenty of things I want to do, both inside and outside the Red Cross.”
From a very young age, Gullet, who was born in Modogashe in Garissa, grew up in Mombasa after he was adopted by Salhan Rahemtullah and her husband, the late Soud Suleiman Saleh Mizra.
The two, who are of Omani extraction, adopted him because he lost his parents early in life. They then relocated from Garissa to Mombasa.
Gullet said he can also try a hand in farming, only that he is yet to acquire land. “Maybe I’ll go into farming,” he said.
A father of four, he said he will also use the time to realign his relationship with his family, admitting that it has not been easy balancing family with the demanding nature of his job — which has been forcing him to report to office at 6.30am every day and return after sunset.
“My kids are grown up, so they have their own lives. I’ll just have to find a way of rediscovering my relationship with all of them; to have better relation with the family, for sure. Because these jobs worldwide are the same. It’s families that suffer,” he admitted.
Gullet joined Red Cross in 1973 as a Form One student at Mombasa Technical High School. He joined not as a first priority, but because it was necessary to get a medal under the President’s Award Scheme.
“To do your bronze medal, you had to learn first aid and that was either through Red Cross or St John’s,” he recalled.
“I was fortunate enough to join the Red Cross to learn my basic first aid for my bronze medal with the Kenya Red Cross Mombasa branch,” added Gullet.
That marked his entry into an organisation that has been his sole employer to date. Between 1973 and 1984, he was attached to KRC as a volunteer at the Mombasa branch.
“From January 1985 to date, I’ve been a full-time employee of the Red Cross,” he said.
In January 2001 to December 2002, he was seconded by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) to be the secretary-general of the Kenya Red Cross.
“During that time, we were able to turn around the deficit and the issue of image and credibility of the society,” he said.
One of the tragedies Red Cross handled during that period when Gullet was at the helm was the dormitory fire tragedy at Kyanguli Secondary School, Machakos County, that claimed lives of 67 students, an incident he described as key for KRC.
“That was the turning point for us in terms of our decisiveness to respond to emergencies but also to truly bring hope to people in distress. That was a good beginning and the rest, I should say, is history,” he said.
On December 2002, he returned to Geneva where he worked with IFRC untill June 2004, upon which he returned to Kenya and was elected as the KRC national treasurer on May 2004.
Come April the following year, the KRC’s national executive committee asked him to resign from the treasurer position to be secretary-general, a title he has been holding since then on two-year renewable contracts.
“From May 2005 to date, I’ve been in this position. I’ve been privileged to have been in this position, for which I thank Lord Almighty,” he said.
He will leave the Kenya Red Cross with a lot to ponder. One thing that he has been reflecting on is whether Red Cross should stop giving media updates on figures during tragedies.
He flashed back to a call he received from Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i during the January terror attack at Dusit D2.
This was after he had addressed the media about the number of people who were unaccounted for.
In one of the reports, the BBC quoted him saying 45 were unaccounted for.
“I was called by Minister Matiang’i at one point. He asked, ‘Are you contradicting the government?’ I said, ‘No, I’m not contradicting the government. It’s just that we had less than 18 hours to reconcile this, which will probably take two to three days,’” recalled Gullet.
He then explained to Lifestyle how the Red Cross collects names of those suspected to be missing during tragedies and how it attempts to account for them.
“Maybe what we’ll do in future is just never talk to the media (on figures),” he said.
“We will have to be very careful in the future to say that for anything to do with numbers, please go to the government and don’t ask us. Let us do our work.”
He will also be reflecting on some of the low moments he faced at KRC, among them the violence following the disputed 2007 General Election.
At the height of the chaos, he recalls, there were times when even his volunteers would dread venturing into some of the violence hotspots.
He is however glad that Red Cross never faced any resistance in rescue efforts.
“We had unfettered, unparalleled access to all the sides of the conflict; and we were able to be there within minutes,” he said.
He also has sad memories etched in his memory regarding a move by the Tanzanian government in 1995 to eject millions of refugees from Ngara.
“They moved with all their possessions on their backs. It was deeply saddening to see women and children chased and moving like animals to nowhere,” he said in a past interview with Business Daily.
The tragedy of people dying at accident scenes has also been stirring his thoughts for a while.
The most recent case happened in Tanzania where at least 64 died when trying to fetch fuel from a tanker that had overturned in Morogoro.
A similar incident happened in Sachang’wan, Nakuru County, in 2009 where 91 people perished while trying to collect fuel from an overturned tanker.
“However poor you are, it doesn’t give you the right to go and grab (from an overturned vehicle). That’s basically stealing or looting. That’s not right.
"So, something has to happen to change the lifestyles of people, to improve the economic aspect of ordinary citizens to share the national wealth where it is available,” he reasoned.
He has also led the organisation during tragedies like the butchering of 21 police officers in Kapedo in 2014, the Westgate and Garissa University terror attacks, among others.
The driving force, he said, is the accolades they receive from Kenyans.
“That is the biggest satisfaction one can have. No amount of money, wealth, favours or material gains will give you that satisfaction: Just hearing ordinary Kenyans telling you, ‘You are doing a good job’. Their prayer and their support is all that matters,” he said.
“I thank God and I cherish every minute and second of it.”
Gullet leaves KRC proud to have placed it on the path of what he calls self-sufficiency.
This is due to the four businesses that the society currently runs: Boma Hotels, the Boma International Hospitality College, E-Plus ambulance services (that has 128 ambulances across Kenya) and Switch TV, a station targeting youth between aged 18 and 35 that was launched last year in October.
He said close to 3,000 people have been employed by the businesses. While fielding the questions in the April session, Gullet said that through funds from the businesses, Red Cross has been able to respond various emergencies over the past three years, which include 3,200 road traffic accidents, 1,257 fire incidents, 334 flood incidents, 103 water body incidents and 47 collapsed buildings.
“The investments are long-term and in 10-15 years, we hope to be a leader in financial sustainability and independence,” he said.
However, there is a widespread belief that Red Cross uses citizens’ donations to run businesses.
“It is so sad and sickening that I have to answer that question not once, not twice. And this is what I say to these bloggers: Even if this blogging of negatives and maligning people like Gullet is part of your bread and butter, please have some decency.”
“My money has been clean and I can account for every penny that I have earned in this world,” he added, saying that he is open for a public audit once he leaves Red Cross.