Wednesday, July 23, 2008



Kenya Times
July 23, 2008
By Paul Amina

It is laudable that the Kenya government has shown interest in honouring our heroes posthumously and retrieving stolen artefacts as part of an effort to preserve the national heritage.

However, much needs to be done to meet the expectations of historians and the public. One in many examples explains the double standards that puts the Ministry of National Heritage and relevant authorities on the spot.

Thomas Joseph Mboya as an accomplished trade unionist is a celebrity 39 years after death but as a shrewd politician, minister and party official is one amongst “obscure” personalities in the political history books. Other than naming a street neighbouring the road where he was gunned down by a lone gun man, what else do students of history know about this man.

Why is Mboya fondly remembered by Kenyan workers and labour leaders and not political peers? Workers, unlike politicians, felt that Mboya’s contributions were no mean achievements to be wished away and put up a college named after him when the political leadership and even his former employers, the Nairobi City Council, could not name a road after this charismatic Kenyan.

The Kisumu-based ultra modern Tom Mboya Labour College is a fitting posthumous tribute to Tom’s contributions to the labour movement. Amidst disagreements, Mboya’s successors used the workers contributions to construct the college on the shores of Lake Victoria not only as an honour but as reciprocation of an office block he put up as a labour centre headquarters.

If Mboya never thought of putting up an office block for the defunct Labour Centre, Kenya Federation of Labour (KFL) on Digo Road, Nairobi, successor apex union, the Central Organisation of Trade Unions ( COTU), would still be housed in a rented office block somewhere in the city.

Mboya and his latter day successor, Francis Atwoli, may be poles apart politically but there are remarkable similarities in the two as trade union leaders: visionary, selfless and knack for innovation, qualities that many of their contemporaries and Labour Centre predecessors seriously lack. One such exemplary innovation is the idea to modernise and expand the college that was once run down and neglected. An elegant multipurpose international Resource Centre is under construction within the college.

Seven years ago, for instance, Atwoli inherited the abandoned institution that had also lost huge chunks of their land to grabbers. The College was in a bush infested with snakes, mosquitoes and in a state of disrepair. Solidarity Building Mboya put up and equipped was an eyesore with leaking roofs and stinking toilets. At last, these facilities were saved the shame they were then.

Rehabilitation of these facilities have done the movement proud, pals and foes are in agreement. And now COTU dreams of hosting the first continental Labour University. Why should a college be named after a non-academic? A good question.

Inspired by his stint at Ruskin College, Oxford, Mboya organised airlifts to the United States for students proceeding there for further studies after which the thankless graduates landed big jobs in the newly independent Kenya. Mboya valued not only workers’ education but academics as well.

Among his numerous achievements were founding of the giant Kenya Local Government Workers Union (KLGWU) and workers umbrella body KFL forerunner of COTU which he led until he was elected as a Nairobi member of parliament and appointed a minister. The labour centre has had eight secretaries general of whom six, including Mboya, got elected as parliamentarians in respective constituencies.

“Were it not for the trade union movement, we do not know how long the political independence could have taken Kenya?” Atwoli asked. TJ or Tom as he was popularly known, transformed the trade union movement into a formidable weapon to fight colonialists when political activities were banned in the country. Why is this politician of rare qualities and oratory skills shunned by political peers. (Paul

Amina is a free-lance journalist. email: