Remembering Kenya's pioneer trade unionists

Thursday August 25 2016

Former Nyakach MP Dennis Akumu, who died this month after a short illness at a Nairobi hospital. Mr Akumu was one of Kenya's renowned trade unionists, having led the Mombasa Dockworkers in the 1950s and later serving as Cotu secretary-general. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


Trade unionists in Kenya have played a key role in the fight for workers' rights to fair pay, benefits and good working conditions and in the process contributed to the well-being of the people.

Today, trade unions are recognisable through the works of prominent personalities such as Francis Atwoli of the Central Organisation of Trade Unions and Wilson Sossion of the Kenya National Union of Teachers.

Long before they came to the scene, pioneers such as Makhan Singh, Fred Kubai and Tom Mboya paved the way for them by agitating for worker's rights in the colonial and independence era.

Here is a list of some of the trade union pioneers.




The former Nyakach MP, who died after a short illness at a Nairobi hospital this month, was one of Kenya's renowned trade unionists.

Long before he was a member of Parliament, Mr Akumu started work as a staff member of the Local Government Workers Union in the 1950s as a district organizer.

The highly efficient and organised trade unionist later ran the Mombasa Dockworkers Union in the early 1960s.

Mr Akumu also served as a Central Organization of Trade Unions secretary-general and later was elected secretary of the African Trade Unions.


Former Nyakach MP Dennis Akumu, who died this month after a short illness at a Nairobi hospital. Mr Akumu was one of Kenya's renowned trade unionists, having led the Mombasa Dockworkers in the 1950s and later serving as Cotu secretary-general. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


1927- 1965

Pio Gama Pinto was a Kenyan of Goan descent who was intimately involved with the freedom struggle. Born in 1927 of Goan parents in Nairobi, Pinto was educated in India, where he had an early taste of politics in the Goan National Congress, then locked in a bitter struggle for Goa’s independence from Portuguese rule.

He was only 19 when he returned to Kenya in 1946 and threw himself into local politics, making friends with Kenya African Union leaders, especially radical ones like Bildad Kaggia and Fred Kubai.

When in 1952 the colonial government declared a state of emergency and detained most African leaders, he mobilised resources for the Mau Mau in Nairobi.

In 1954, the British authorities arrested and deported him to Manda Island, where he was the only Indian.

In 1958 he was moved from Manda and subjected to a further year of restriction in the Rift Valley Province.

On being freed in 1959, Pinto flung himself back into politics, joining hands with a number of Indian politicians to marshal support for the African nationalist struggle.

In 1964 Pinto joined Dennis Akumu and other disgruntled individuals in the trade union movement to oppose the leadership of the American-leaning Tom Mboya.

Later that year, Pinto would be involved in raising money from the Soviet Union to set up the Lumumba Institute to train Kanu cadres in organisational and ideological skills.

He was reportedly later told his life was in danger because powerful forces in government were unhappy with his activities, but he refused to flee the country. He was shot in 1965 as he drove out of his Westlands home.

Kisilu Mutua was arrested and convicted of the killing.

(Read: Remembering Pinto)


Pinto surrounded by children. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP

Source: Nation archives



Born on August 15, 1930, the renowned trade unionist was one of Kenya's prominent politicians and statesmen.

Mboya was at the forefront of the fight to secure the rights of African workers long before independence, agitating for Africans to unionise to agitate for better working conditions and pay from their largely European and Asian employers.

Writing in 1955, Mboya said Kenya did not become trade union-conscious nation until 1947, when there was a big strike in the port of Mombasa under the leadership of Chege Kebachia.

According to an article written by Dennis Akumu and published on the Tom Mboya foundation website, Mboya was one of the most instrumental trade unionists in Kenya.

Akumu wrote that Mboya started work as a trade unionist when he joined the City Council staff association in the early 1950s. Mboya later changed the organisation to the Local Government Workers Union but the mayor refused to recognise it. Mboya took them to a tribunal and won the case.

In 1952, his union joined the Kenya Federation of Registered Trade Unions and he took over as secretary-general in place of Aggrey Minya. Again, he persuaded members to change the union's name to the Kenya Federation of Labour. Mboya expanded the international platform, which Minya had built, attacking colonialism and the State of Emergency.

The Kenya Federation of Labour (KFL) became the Kenya Africans Voice, during the emergency when all political parties were banned. KFL lead the struggle for the release of detainees and for liberty.

The former Nyakach MP Akumu credits Mboya with the construction of the present Cotu headquarters and the formation of trade unions in Uganda and Tanzania.


Tom Mboya and Pamela Odede before they got married. PHOTO | AFRICA24MEDIA

Sources: Tom Mboya Foundation


1949- 2016

The former Kabete MP, who was killed last year in Nairobi in mystery yet to be solved, was the deputy secretary-general of the Central Organisation of Trade Unions (Cotu) and the general-secretary of the Bakery, Confectionery Manufacturing and Allied Workers.

Muchai was known as the able lieutenant of Francis Atwoli, the current secretary-general of Cotu.

The two would appear together in matching purple shirts at the umbrella trade union’s events, at the Sunday shop stewards’ meetings broadcast live and loud on TV, or at press conferences or on Labour Day making fiery speeches agitating for workers’ rights.

Throughout his colourful and vibrant life, Mr Muchai devoted himself to fighting for workers’ rights seemingly effortlessly, belying the fact that being a trade unionist is an arduous task.

DN Muchai aa.JPG


Source: Nation archives



Kubai was the celebrated former freedom fighter and one of the famous "Kapenguria Six" who were detained for fighting against British colonialism in 1952, when a state of emergency was declared in the colony as a result of the Mau Mau struggle.

Even before he could be identified with the Mau Mau movement, Kubai played his role in trade union politics.

He was the first chairman of the Transport and Allied Workers Union.

Soon after, he was appointed the director of the Kenya Federation of Labour.

The same year, he was appointed president of the East African Trade Union Congress.

Tom Mboya wrote in 1955 that Fred Kubai and Markham Singh (Makhan Singh) made the first real attempt to a central organisation when they formed the East African Trade Union Congress in 1949 but the body was banned even before it was registered and Singh deported.

He, along with the five other freedom fighters - the first president Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, Achieng Oneko, Paul Ngei, Bildad Kaggia and Kung'u Karumba - were detained for seven years.

Their trial, actually a miscarriage of justice, was taken to the remote Kapenguria and they were detained in Lokitaung Prison.

He was among the nationalists who were charged with plotting to overthrow the colonial government through the Mau Mau guerrilla movement.

In 1960, Kubai was the first of the Kapenguria Six to be transferred to house detention and restricted in Kabarnet Township in Baringo District.

He was released from detention in May 1961 but was placed under house restriction. In 1962, he was set free.

Kubai died of illness on the Madaraka Day of 1996 at the age of 79.


The Kapenguria 6: Fred Kubai, Kung’u Karumba, Jomo Kenyatta, Achieng’ Oneko, Bildad Kaggia and Paul Ngei (off frame). FILE PHOTO

Source: Nation archives


Makhan Singh was the father of the labour movement in East Africa and a selfless freedom fighter in Kenya.

Singh, along with Fred Kubai, made the first real attempt to form a central organisation when they formed the East Africa Trade Union Congress in 1949. Following the organisation's formation, the colonial government deported Singh.

He had the courage to publicly proclaim Uhuru Sasa (Freedom Now) in 1950, became the longest-serving detainee and the last to be released in October 1961, several months after the venerated Kapenguria Six had been freed.

Yet, Singh was later shunted aside in independent Kenya by the Jomo Kenyatta government without any meaningful recognition for his contribution to Kenya’s independence.

Zarina Patel, his biographer, states that Singh was a bigger threat to the British than any other freedom fighter and hence he had to be isolated.

At one time while in detention, he requested to be allowed family visits but the British instead offered to release him on condition that he migrate from Kenya with his family and never settle anywhere in East Africa. He declined.

Singh died a disappointed man, having been sidelined by the new Kenyan leadership for being perceived variously as a leftist, a communist, and socialist who had no place in the capitalist-leaning Kenya.

(Read: Singh: Forgotten hero of independence)


Makham Singh with Jomo Kenyatta soon after independence. PHOTO | FRED OLUOCH | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Source: Nation archives