Dennis Akumu and the intrigues of a nascent labour movement - Daily Nation

Dennis Akumu and the intrigues of a nascent labour movement

Sunday August 28 2016

Trade unionist Dennis Akumu. He was in a class of his own. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Trade unionist Dennis Akumu. He was in a class of his own. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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In trade union, Dennis Akumu, who passed on this week, was in a class of his own; a titan. Again, if any man became a cog in the 1960s rivalry between Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and Tom Mboya then it was Mr Akumu.

That is before he switched allegiance to Kiambu mafia.

For more than 10 years, Mr Akumu had been out of limelight silently battling a kidney complication that saw him seek treatment in Kenya and India.

Akumu’s story is the story of the early years of trade unionism in Kenya – and how cold war politics helped shape Kenya’s politics.

Akumu was only 23, and had lost his job at Ruaraka’s East African Breweries when he in 1958 joined Mboya’s campaign trail against Clement Argwings-Kodhek, Kenya’s first African lawyer who had returned from University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire (now Cardiff) with hubris, a law degree, political ambition, and a European wife, Tate Mavis – the daughter of an Irish engineer.

The return of Argwings-Kodhek in 1952 with a license to practice law saw him become the only African lawyer in Nairobi defending Mau Mau cases in the Kenya colony.

It also threw the colonial segregation laws into limbo since it was illegal for a black man to kiss or hold hands with a white woman. Again, Argwing-Kodhek’s wife Tate Mavis was not allowed by law to stay in Nairobi’s eastlands, reserved for blacks, and the lawyer would also not live in Westlands which was a whites-only zone. He went to court to stage his fight and preserve his marriage.

The only other star on the rise then was Tom Mboya, a trade unionist who had been introduced into politics by Nyanza’s member of legislative council Walter Odede, later his father-in-law.

It was during his work as a unionist with Local Government Workers Union that he met Akumu, who had been fired from breweries because of his union activities. The two, Mboya and Akumu, struck a cord with the later becoming the Nairobi district organiser.

The lifting of African political parties in 1956 saw Argwings-Kodhek attempt to register a nationwide party, Kenya African National Congress, but he was denied registration and in its place he registered Nairobi District African Congress (NDAC) to run for the 1957 elections.

Mboya, then 27, reached out to Dennis Akumu, 23, to help him mobilise voters and hecklers. He had twice been heckled at the Nairobi airport by Pro-Argwings-Kodhek supporters who had arrived in two hired buses with placards reading: “We don’t want your speeches or underground lies – even Americans know what you are.”

It was Akumu’s mobilisation that gave Mboya political lifeline as he helped found Mboya’s Nairobi People’s Convention Party (NPCP). Since Mboya did not want to be seen as splitting Nairobi politics, he allowed Akumu to get the organising secretary position and took no party position until after the elections.

In the ensuing 1957 campaigns for the Nairobi legislative council seat, Mboya won the Nairobi seat with 2,138 votes against Kodhek’s 1,743 votes. It was after this that Mboya assumed the leadership of the party and replaced Akumu with Omolo Agar, later elected as Karachuonyo MP as an independent.

Agar had returned from an Indian university with an economics degree. Akumu was swiftly dispatched to Mombasa to take charge of the giant Dockworkers Union as a member of Mboya’s Kenya Federation of Labour (KFL), an organisation that brought together various unions.
Covert alliance-building

By organising KFL, Mboya now had a multi-tribal machine. “The existence of this machine was essential for his covert alliance-building between the Nairobi Peoples Convention Party and other local parties,” observed Mboya’s biographer David Goldworthy. “It gave him opportunities to travel abroad... build his reputation as a statesman but also give him ready access to the resources in cash and kind which could be used to consolidate his political support at home.”

Akumu was part of this Mboya machine and it was the one which fundraised to build the Solidarity Building which today houses Central Organisation of Trade Unions (COTU) in Gikomba, Nairobi. At that time, there was a thin line between Mboya’s party and KFL and that is why Akumu was taken to Mombasa without any fall-out.

The first open crash between KFL and Oginga Odinga was when Mboya attempted to organise workers at Odinga’s Ramogi Press to join the Printing and Kindred Workers’ Union which was part of KFL.

Odinga tried to form a breakaway branch of the union and would later infiltrate the sugar workers union and had his henchmen elected to take on Mboya from within. Odinga saw KFL as a colonial outfit and Mboya as the blue-eyed boy. He says as much in his Not Yet Uhuru autobiography.

It is now known that the American CIA was bankrolling Mboya’s International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) in the hope that communists such as Odinga would not be able to form unions like those in Eastern Europe. Mboya knew as much and that is how he later fell out with Akumu. But even before the fallout, he had fallen out with Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah who was opposed to Mboya’s rise as the powerful African union leader.

To tame Mboya, Nkrumah invited Odinga to represent Kenya in a meeting organised to found another pan African All African Trade Union Federation. Odinga was not a trade unionist and his presence was simply to belittle Mboya.

At the airport, Mboya took a snide at Odinga: “How did the old capitalist like the trade union conference? The workers are a terrible lot... they have no mercy on big businessmen like you.” According to veteran journalist Alan Rake who witnessed that drama “Odinga could scarcely refrain from laughing as he (Mboya) stood protesting, waving his arms in the air.”

It was Odinga who organised the splits that saw Akumu’s Dockworkers Union and Ochola Mak’Anyengo’s Oil and Petroleum Workers Union leave Mboya’s KFL.

In the dash to build his image, Mboya had stepped on so many toes “and was notorious for wanting to run things his own way,” according to his biographer. Soon, Akumu and Mak’Anyengo became Mboya’s utmost critics as the battles to control the newly formed Kanu started.

For his part, Odinga called for the release of Jomo Kenyatta from Mararal restriction without any conditions as Mboya and Gichuru continued to dilly-dally with political negotiations in London.

The radicals within Kanu would coalesce around Akumu who had now formed what he called Ginger Action Group (GAG) which was bankrolled by Odinga. This was an outfit formed to derail Mboya and besmirch his image.

It was to work with Kenya Office in Cairo, a pro-Odinga group funded by Egypt’s President Abdel Nasser and which was to help students travel to communist countries for study. Akumu was a frequent visitor to its Cairo secretariat which was headed by Wera Ambitho, Odhiambo Okello and a former Mau Mau wanted for Lari massacre, Abdullah Karungo.

When the Ginger Action Group was founded, it was to be a forum for Kanu radicals who were opposed to the moderation of both Mboya and Gichuru.
Actually, shortly after Mboya stated Kanu’s new stand after the London talks on the future of Kenya, Akumu’s Ginger Action Group wrote an open letter.

“It is reported that some Kanu national leaders intend giving settlers a guarantee of continued ownership of farms to expel fear of expropriation. This assurance is unrealistic and absurd,” said the group.

“Land is the life-blood of the African struggle and thousands who believed they were fighting for their land were killed during the emergency…if it means a fresh struggle after independence we shall do it, not necessarily by negotiation,” they warned.

Thus, it was not Odinga but Akumu who started demanding the exit of whites from Kenyan farms with British compensation. Akumu’s group was also opposed to assurances that were being given to settlers that their titles would be respected and was calling for nationalisation of some companies:
“It is not honest for Kanu to give these assurances on land and property and investment rights. We believe in plain talking. We do not believe in driving the immigrant races out…the British government may have to pay compensation. It may also be necessary to nationalise certain utilities for the benefit of the nation.”

The idea was to force Kanu’s moderates from giving in to British machinations at Lancaster — and Akumu played this role effectively via his lobby group.
White-owned land

While Akumu said Odinga was not a member of the Ginger Action Group, he told a press conference in Nairobi that Odinga was “sympathetic” to the group’s agenda. Actually, shortly after Kanu leader James Gichuru and Mboya delivered their statement on the future of white-owned land, Odinga criticised their stand. This was seen as an endorsement to the stand taken by Akumu’s Ginger Group.

Ginger Group was nothing more than a sign of power play within Kanu where backstabbing had started. When the Daily Nation broke the story on the power-play, Kanu released a statement, interestingly signed also by Odinga, denying that there was split in the party.

The paper had said that the Ginger Group was opposed to moderates and that Odinga wanted to take over the party leadership.

Mboya at a rally in Nairobi’s Makadara Hall, while protesting the publication of the story, did not mention anything about the power struggle, nor the position taken by the Ginger Group. Instead he criticised the media. “We don’t want any newspaper to take sides or become partisan in our struggle,” Mboya warned. “Either this paper becomes responsible or we rescue it from its ill-conceived mission.”

Gichuru, then Kanu president, had by November 1960 got tired of Akumu’s Ginger men. At a rally held in Mombasa, Mboya passed Gichuru’s message to the rally saying the group was not affiliated to Kanu.

But the group remained a constant irritant as they held many populist press conferences proposing nationalisation of foreign-owned property and criticising both Mboya and Gichuru in public.

But apart from Joseph Mathenge, who was the Nyeri Kanu branch chairman, the other group members had not made a mark in politics. Akumu, still a budding trade unionist, could not be equated to Mboya.

Finally, it was Mboya who triumphed over Odinga and Akumu was left at the Dockworkers Union. The battles between Mboya and Odinga emerged within the two rival labour unions, Mboya’s KFL and the Odinga-backed Kenya African Workers Congress led by Akumu and Mak’Anyengo.

After several violent encounters between the two groups, in June 1965, President Kenyatta appointed a ministerial committee to recommend on the future of the groups.

On the recommendation of the committee – Charles Njonjo, Lawrence Sagini, James Gichuru, Dr Julius Kiano and James Nyamweya – President Kenyatta dissolved the two rival trade union umbrella bodies and formed COTU which was headed by Mboya-ally Clement Lubembe as secretary-general and Akumu as his deputy.

In 1966, Mboya managed to cripple Odinga’s Lumumba Institute too which was designed to help him build a formidable party structure. He also managed to have Odinga dethroned from his number two position in Kanu and subsequently he left to found the opposition, Kenya People’s Union.

The exit of Odinga left Mboya exposed in Kanu and his (Mboya) financiers Robert Gabor and Richard Garver were deported by Home Affairs minister, Daniel arap Moi.

The formation of KPU complicated matters for Akumu and he threw his support to Odinga. Akumu and his pro-Odinga unionists, Mak’Anyengo and Mathenge were detained without trial.

Interestingly, when the second February 1969 COTU elections were called, the Kiambu politicos sided with Akumu, who had formed “Kenya Group” to have the labour movement side with Kanu and in a bid to tame Tom Mboya.

That is how Akumu won his COTU seat with 64 votes against Lubembe’s 37 and KPU-backed Mak’Anyengo’s 24. Five months later, Mboya was assassinated and in October, Kenyatta was stoned in Kisumu. As a result, KPU was banned and its leaders detained.

It was Akumu, now mellowed by detention, who would become the new Nyakach MP after the detention of KPU MPs. He would later move to Accra, Ghana, to become the founder of the Organisation of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU) and its first Secretary General and emerged again during the multi-party politics as the Ford-Kenya MP for Nyakach after several attempts.

But it was in labour movement that Akumu left his mark.

[email protected] @johnkamau1