Kenya: Can workers unions and COTU help Raila win presidency in 2022?

By Victor Abuso

Posted on Wednesday, 5 January 2022 10:11, updated on Monday, 20 June 2022 11:15
A supporter of Kenya's Opposition leader Raila Odinga walks past his election posters before the Azimio la Umoja (Declaration of Unity) rally to unveil his August 2022 Presidential race candidature at the Moi International Sports centre in Kasarani, Nairobi, Kenya 10 December 2021. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

The leadership of Kenya's Central Organisation of Trade Unions (COTU), a national umbrella body of trade unions, says it is endorsing veteran opposition leader Raila Odinga’s bid to vie for presidency on 9 August this year.

On numerous occasions, COTU secretary general Francis Atwoli has been at the forefront, championing Raila’s run for presidency.

On 31 December 2021, Atwoli organised a political rally in the Western region to campaign for the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) leader. “Workers support you because you support decent jobs,” he said. “Any knowledgeable trade unionist must know and be aware of what is expected of the next president.”

Atwoli challenged trade unionists to stand up and fight against corruption. “He [Raila] is a person who has shown us how he intends to grow the economy and expand employment opportunities.”

Prior to the rally, Atwoli had been among the top speakers during the 10 December 2021 event in Nairobi where Raila announced his bid to vie for presidency.

Picking apart Ruto

Atwoli said Kenya’s second in command, William Ruto, does not deserve to be president. “William Samoei Ruto is not a leader who deserves to lead this country, we shall not allow him.”

Signs of the COTU leadership supporting Raila came into play during the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) campaign, which President Uhuru Kenyatta and the ODM leader wanted to use to amend the constitution.

This came as no surprise seeing as the union had also supported the ‘handshake’ between Kenyatta and Raila in 2018, saying it brought stability that improved the economy.

What are Ruto’s allies saying?

Didmus Barasa, a parliamentarian and close ally of Ruto, however describes the COTU move as unfortunate, terming Atwoli as a political broker and conman.

According to him, Atwoli is only supporting Raila for his own advantage and has forgotten his role in advocating for workers’ rights. He says: “As an elder in the country and workers representative, he only aims to enrich himself, if at all [Raila] Odinga wins.”

Barasa insists that it is improper for the union leadership to force members to support a preferred candidate. “The minister for labour should disband COTU because it’s now a political entity, it does not represent workers.”

Workers’ take on Cotu’s political drive

Hillary Ingati, a 32-year-old mason, is a member of the Kenya Building, Construction, Timber, Furniture and Allied Trade Employees Union, an affiliate of COTU.

He supports the latter’s endorsement of Raila saying: “I think the umbrella [body] is free to decide […] who it wants to support… I believe [Raila] Odinga will remember us if he wins.”

Politics in the trade union is not a joke. He [Atwoli], as a leader, has influence over those he represents.

However, Jayson Sagina, 37, a communication expert at the Tourism Regulatory Authority in Nairobi, does not support the move by COTU and says workers are being forced to support Raila.

“I’m not happy with COTU. It should leave us to make our choice,” he tells The Africa Report. “Workers should be left out of politics. […] I will not obey his plea.”

Listening to workers

Herman Manyora, a professor of political science at the University of Nairobi, says the voice of trade unions in Kenya should not be dismissed ahead of the August 2022 election.

According to Manyora, the political rally that the COTU leader organised to endorse Raila was a testament to workers’ trust in him. “Politics in the trade union is not a joke. He [Atwoli], as a leader, has influence over those he represents.”

Raila’s plans for workers if elected

During his presidential campaign launch, Raila said he plans to liberate the country’s economy and that workers will be the largest beneficiaries. The ODM leader told supporters that his government will create an enabling environment for growth and the expansion of the country’s industrial base.

Raila said Kenya needs a system where industrious staff are rewarded for their hard work and that nepotism, tribalism and favouritism must end. “I envisage a civil service defined by discipline, hard work, high morale, efficiency and high ethical standards.”

The history of trade unions and politics in Kenya

In Kenya, trade unionism began in the early 1930s to advocate for workers rights.

Before COTU was formed in 1965, the trade union had been referred to as the Kenya Federation of Labour. It joined other African nationalists in the struggle for freedom against British colonial rule, which resulted in independence in 1963.

More recently, during the 2017 presidential election, seven trade unions endorsed Raila’s bid for presidency. The unions that threw their weight behind him included the Kenya National Union of Teachers, Kenya University Staff Union, Dock Workers Union and University Academic Staff Union, Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Union and the Kenya National Union of Nurses.

Currently, COTU represents more than 1.5 million workers, both in the public and private sectors. Kenya has 42 trade unions, 36 of which are under the COTU banner.

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