The Kenya National Union of Teachers (Knut) headquarters was Friday the scene of unprecedented chaos as top officials tried to kick out their boss in defiance of a court order.
Police lobbed tear gas in the air to disperse the officials who tried to force their way into Knut offices on Mfangano Street in Nairobi hoping to pass a resolution to replace Secretary-General Wilson Sossion with his deputy Hezbon Otieno.
It was strange territory for the 62-year-old union, whose trademark has been unrelenting unity in the face of frequent battles with the Teachers Service Commission and commanding unwavering support from its 200,000 members.
The officials of the National Executive Council, most of whom were from Central Kenya and Nairobi, engaged police in running battles as they fought Mr Sossion’s supporters on Mfangano Street. Police arrested four rioters.
Chaos erupted after the NEC officials turned up for a meeting to discuss Mr Sossion, only to find the doors locked.
Mr Sossion ordered the offices shut on Wednesday, ostensibly to allow employees time off to prepare their children for schools reopening next week. He also obtained court orders barring the NEC meeting.
Some of the officials waved placards calling for a shake-up in the union’s leadership and accusing Mr Sossion of pushing his political agenda at the expense of teachers.
They later held a meeting elsewhere and resolved to kick out Mr Sossion and replaced him with Mr Otieno.
Their attempt to have the changes endorsed at the registrar of trade unions failed after officials there refused to adopt the new official, referring to the court order.
The chaos signalled a most ignominious disintegration of one of the country’s oldest and most stable unions.
A senior Education ministry official who spoke anonymously said: “In principle, the union is very important to us because it provides for direct engagement with the teaching fraternity not merely on bread and butter issues, but also on matters of policy. For Knut, I don’t see how it can rise again to what it used to be after this leadership chaos.”
Whether or not the stubborn NEC officials succeed in removing Mr Sossion, merely replacing him with his deputy will only paper over deep divisions within the union.
The union survives on a monthly two per cent deduction from each teacher and, for the period up to about 2016, it has been receiving an average of Sh140 million monthly.
The formation of the Kenya Union of Post Primary Education Teachers (Kuppet) in 1998 left Knut scrambling for membership with the new union, which has steadily been slicing off a chunk off Knut’s edifice year on year.
Matters came to ahead two months ago after the TSC prepared two separate payrolls — one for Knut and the other for Kuppet — following the suspension of the third phase of the first-ever Collective Bargaining Agreement (2017-2021) after a labour dispute.
The TSC went to the Employment and Labour Relations Court in December last year after Knut issued a strike notice to protest the newly-introduced career development guidelines, teacher professional development programmes and the appraisal system.
Justice Byram Ongaya set aside the CPG rules, which guide promotions, ruling that the TSC should carry out the upgrades using the code of regulations for teachers and the relevant schemes of service.
The ruling turned out to be a pyrrhic victory for Knut because the TSC suspended the implementation of the CBA for Knut members because the new salaries were based on the career development guidelines.
This set off a wave of defections from Knut to Kuppet, which was not part of the court dispute by teachers eager to enjoy higher salaries.
With reduced membership and the withholding of union dues by the TSC for the last two months, the union is severely incapacitated.
Still, unlike the pugnacious Knut, Kuppet is seen as subservient and timid in fighting for teachers’ rights, a situation which could put the teaching fraternity at a huge disadvantage in the face of an uncompromising and assertive TSC.
Mr Sossion has been under pressure from some NEC members to quit following the fallout with the TSC and senior teachers over the implementation of the Sh54 billion CBA.
More than 18,000 school principals, their deputies and senior teachers who would have received massive pay rises in the deal, have since decamped from Knut and joined Kuppet.
On Friday, executive secretaries from the Nairobi, Central, Kisii and Eastern regions, accompanied by several teachers, spent hours at the Knut offices, waiting for an official statement from the National Executive Council.
The officials said they are dissatisfied with how Mr Sossion has been handling the standoff with the TSC, their employer.
They accused him of high handedness and failure to embrace opinions different from his own.
Meru Knut branch executive secretary, Mr Caxton Miungi, said Mr Sossion is no longer a teacher after he was deregistered by the TSC.
“We are going to force him out of office today. He cannot continue serving as the secretary-general when the TSC has already deregistered him,” he said. “We cannot allow him to continue being the SG yet teachers are suffering,” he added.
His Kisii South counterpart, Mr Victor Ombasa, said Mr Sossion has been running Knut affairs without consulting other national officials.
Ms Janet Nzisa, a teacher from Machakos, said the members are dissatisfied with Mr Sossion’s opposition to the teacher’s employer. “We cannot have a secretary-general who fights with the employer all the time,” she said.
Other issues that the teachers accused Mr Sossion of opposing unnecessarily are the implementation of the Competency-Based Curriculum, the Teacher Professional Development Programme and massive transfers to delocalise school management.
A teacher from Kisumu who declined to give his name defended Mr Sossion, saying, those against Mr him were only interested in his position.
“This is purely a tribal battle of people who want to get one of their own to the top position in the next elections,” he said.
Mr Sossion said on telephone on Friday: “I’m the only person mandated by law to call for such a meeting. Through proper consultation, I called off that meeting,” he said and referred to those protesting yesterday as misguided.
“What they are saying are misinformed claims. I’m the secretary-general and I speak for teachers and that is my job,” he said.
“Those thinking they can push me out of Knut through street decisions will not succeed. I’m not quitting my position because I’m legally elected and I can only be removed through an election,” Mr Sossion added.
He blamed his woes on the TSC and urged it to embrace dialogue in resolving problems. “All grievances should be resolved in an amicable manner with a view to achieving sustainable industrial peace,” he said.
All issues, Mr Sossion said, will be resolved on December 1 during the Annual Delegates Conference to be held in Kakamega.