For Cotu boss Francis Atwoli, there has never been a dull moment in the labour movement.
On September 3, the Central Organisation of Trade Unions Secretary General marks 50 years in trade unionism.
Known for his rouble-rousing and animated gestures, firebrand Atwoli is many things rolled into one.
First, the 66-year-old cuts the image of an urbane gentleman extensively informed on labour issues but who will not hesitate to fight off those he deems disrespectful to Kenyan workers.
And he is also a philanthropist who believes in assisting the needy.
Apart from being Cotu boss, Mr Atwoli holds a number of powerful positions in the trade union movement worldwide, key of them being a seat in the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
“I was once a victim of poor wages and I know how disturbing that can be. I, therefore, always have my hands full representing the interests of workers,” explains Mr Atwoli during an interview at his Kileleshwa home in Nairobi.
His rise to the office of Cotu secretary-general, he says, began on June 2, 1967, as a technician with the East African Post and Telecommunications after completing his ‘O’ level studies at Nairobi’s St Mary’s High School.
Three months into the job, the man who traces his roots to Khwisero in Kakamega County, but grew up in Mbotela in Nairobi’s Eastlands, was elected as a shop steward.
His first salary was Sh140 and a house allowance of Sh40. But the money was delayed for three months since it had to be captured in the payroll system.
“I used that cash to buy gifts for my close friends. I also bought a bicycle. My father was angry with the way I spent the money. Later, he agreed with what I did, saying maybe it is my nature. Since then I have never enjoyed my salary alone,” he says, breaking into a loud, hearty laugh.
Unfortunately, he was sacked in 1986 in “public interest.” Because of his abrasiveness, Mr Atwoli earned labour scholarships at the ILO College of International Labour Studies in Turin, Italy, Cotu Institute of Education in Limuru and George Mini Labour Centre in Maryland, USA, between 1974 and 1992.
Later he joined Cotu after his attempt to become general secretary of the Union of Post and Telecommunications Employees flopped. “I was rigged out of the elections,” he asserts.
In 1994, he was elected general secretary of the Kenya Agriculture and Plantation Workers Union after two of his predecessors died in quick succession.
This seat enabled him to vie for a Cotu position when former boss Joseph Mugalla retired.
“I mobilised workers to vote for Mugalla’s re-election. I attribute his victory to the work we did,” said Atwoli, who was appointed a director of the organisation in Cotu.
Since then, he has been at the helm of Cotu and easily defended his seat last year.
But he admits that the task of championing workers interest in Kenya is not easy.
He says his most challenging time was when Mr Kazungu Kambi was appointed Labour Cabinet Secretary by President Uhuru Kenyatta. “He was not a good listener… In my whole life as a trade unionist, Mr Kambi is the only minister who attended a universal meeting in Geneva and did not address the plenary of the ILO. He ashamed Kenya. What kind of person is that?” he asked.
Mr Atwoli was very excited when the CS exited government.
The Cotu boss, however, holds in high esteem former Presidents Daniel arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki, whom he describes as friendly.
“President Moi made sure I was comfortable and ensured Cotu was listened to. President Kibaki intervened once when we announced a major strike. Although some workers did not report to work, our concerns were heard,” he says.
“President Kenyatta has attended most of our Labour Day celebrations since he ascended to power and we are grateful,” he adds. “He is a people person. You will usually find him in places where other leaders would not visit. Many afternoons when he has free time, he will mostly have nyama choma for lunch at Kenyatta Market, Nairobi.”
“I am also a simple man. I love the meat there. At home, I take the simplest of meals. In all my homes there are no dining tables. I am a teetotaller. I was born drunk,” says the strict Catholic who never misses mass.
Always spotting a gold chain, bracelet and watch, Mr Atwoli says he loves the good things in life. He has an enviable lifestyle and he liberally speaks about it. He used to drive a Mercedes Benz car, S300 model worth Sh30 million, one of its kind in Kenya.
One of the most remarkable features of the vehicle was that it changed colour according to the weather.
This year, he will cough up millions of shillings to get another luxurious car, the Mercedes Maybach 6 Cabriolet, a car mostly preferred by heads of states in developed countries.
The vehicle scans the road surface for variations, preparing its suspension system for action before the wheels reach them. “It costs about Sh60 million and is still under production. It will be out in September. My continental friends, especially in the West and northern Africa, have contributed more than half of that cost and have paid an advance deposit of about Sh35 million.
“Once it is shipped, I will pay the taxes. But I expect you, the people I have served dutifully, to top up,” he says amid laughter.