For the second time in two years, Mr Hesbon Otieno has been installed and uninstalled as the acting secretary-general of the Kenya National Union of Teachers (Knut) to replace his boss, Mr Wilson Sossion.
His latest installation lasted only a weekend after Justice Hellen Wasilwa of the Employment and Labour Relations Court ruled that “the status quo of the Knut register of officials be maintained with regard to the operations of the Knut bank accounts at Kenya Commercial Bank, Equity Bank and Standard Chartered Bank, pending further orders of the court”.
Mr Otieno was placed on the hot seat by a rebellious faction of the union's National Executive Council (NEC) in controversial circumstances last Thursday. Mr Sossion had obtained orders barring the meeting the previous day. But the officials held a meeting they said was different from the one Mr Sossion had blocked, so they did not violate any law.
As the battle for the union’s control continues, Mr Sossion maintains that only the Annual Delegates Conference (ADC) can fire him. The delegates will convene in Kakamega on December 1. His bullish stance towards the delegates’ vote is causing discomfort in the NEC. He is a renowned grassroots mobiliser, who has long enjoyed near-fanatical following among teachers, although the recent developments might have changed this.
Mr Otieno, 53, was born in Nairobi, and was first posted as teacher to Unity Primary School in Umoja Estate in 1989. Seven years later, he joined union politics, when he was elected to represent then Embakasi Division as branch executive committee member from 1996 to 2006. He was then elected Nairobi assistant executive secretary.
“I served under Ambrose Adeya Adongo, and it is from him that I learnt the spirit of give-and-take and organisational skills,” he told the Nation in an interview. He credits lessons learnt from the legendary Knut leader for his rise in the labour movement.
When Nairobi branch executive secretary Xavier Nyamu retired in 2009, Mr Otieno acted as the branch boss until 2011, when he was confirmed through an election.
Having new responsibilities awakened in Mr Otieno the need to improve his people management skills. He enrolled for a Bachelor’s degree in human resource management at the KCA University and quickly followed it up with a Master’s degree in the same field, graduating in 2016.
“It was important for me to take the course. I’m a better manager of people now. I know when to exert force and when to negotiate,” he said.
He rose to the national office in 2013 as assistant secretary-general through a by-election.
It was at the same poll that Mr Sossion also took the coveted secretary-general’s seat following the retirement of Mr David Okuta Osiany.
Mr Dan Oloo, an NEC member representing Mombasa branch, faults Mr Otieno for “too easily falling for a well-choreographed State machinery out to wreck Knut”. “I expected him, as an HR person, to understand the tenets of crisis management. Two wrongs don’t make a right. He missed a point by opposing his boss,” he said.
He rubbished claims by some NEC members that Mr Sossion is arrogant saying: “You cannot measure a person’s arrogance.”
The two men who are now embroiled in a bruising fight that threatens the future of Knut would get closer in 2015, when Mr Sossion’s deputy, Mr Charles Gatege, retired. Mr Otieno contested the seat and won. He recaptured it in 2016 to serve a five-year term.
“I’m a moderate and not as combative as some people would expect,” said Mr Otieno. Those close to him say he has strong negotiation skills.
The first time he temporarily replaced his boss was in May last year before the move was overturned by a court. He says this time around, Mr Sossion has no choice but to quit. He claimed that whereas 25 out the 42 NEC officials wanted him out last year, the number has now risen to 36, with eight out of the nine National Steering Committee members vowing to kick him out.
“How will he govern without these organs? The fact is that members are not getting the services they deserve,” he said. The soft-spoken Otieno contrasts sharply with the fiery Sossion and, if he finally manages to unseat him, it will be interesting to see how he marshals the wounded 180,000-strong union that has been characterised by forceful, witty, charismatic and straight-shooting leaders.
Mr Otieno dismisses those who claim that he is supported by the government because it views him as more pliable than the gladiatorial incumbent. The three months before the ADC will be critical for Knut. If members continue to quit at the rate they have reportedly been leaving, whoever becomes secretary-general on December 1 will be left holding a shell.
He or she will have the tough task of galvanising fatigued, injured, cowed and demoralised members and recruit more to belt out “Solidarity Forever!” with renewed verve.
Josphat Kathumi, the Knut executive secretary of Embu branch expressed confidence that Mr Otieno is the right person to take Knut forward.
“Knut is not a one-man show. Mr Otieno will execute decisions made by the steering committee, the NEC and the ADC,” he said.
The union leadership also has a lot of rebranding to do in order to regain the lost goodwill from a public that recently views Knut as an irritant that is always too ready to call strikes and litigate rather than negotiate. Mr Otieno’s supporters have said that they want to mend the fractured relationship between the union on one hand and TSC and the Ministry of Education on the other.
“We have to return the working relationship. Maintaining good relations doesn’t mean agreeing with TSC or the ministry. Right now, we are not talking to each other. How will we serve our members in such a poisoned environment?” he posed.
If Mr Otieno has his way, either through the courts or the vote, he seeks to strike a balance between combativeness and diplomacy so that he fights for teachers’ rights assertively. His eyes are already on the next collective bargaining agreement in 2021.
“This should be for two years, according to best international practice, after which we negotiate another one according to the economic environment,” he said.