Tuesday, 30 April 2013

He drives a Sh30m Merc yet he speaks for the working poor

Liz Muthoni | NATION Cotu secretary general Francis Atwoli when he addressed workers during Labour Day at Uhuru Park on May 1, 2011. He has worn gold ornaments for over three decades and, as he says, “gold is a great material.” His watch, bracelets and a chain are just some of the conspicuous ornaments he dons.
Liz Muthoni | NATION Cotu secretary general Francis Atwoli when he addressed workers during Labour Day at Uhuru Park on May 1, 2011. He has worn gold ornaments for over three decades and, as he says, “gold is a great material.” His watch, bracelets and a chain are just some of the conspicuous ornaments he dons. 
By  BILLY MUIRURI bmuiruri@ke.nationmedia.com
Posted  Friday, May 6   2011 at  22:00
When you hear him describe the daily struggles of a low-wage worker, you would think he is speaking from personal experience.
He can recreate the portrait of a miserable Kenyan working for a multi-billion shilling industry while company fat cats take all the money. He calls himself the spokesman for the common Kenyan.
If what Kenyans were treated to in this week’s Labour Day celebrations is anything to go by, then the Cotu’s secretary general Francis Atwoli has no borders on what to say and what not to say.
Yet Atwoli’s lifestyle is one of the most privileged in the country. One of his Mercedes Benz cars- an S300 model- is said to be the only one of its kind on Kenyan roads. It was delivered to him last year at a cost of a cool Sh30 million. Only months earlier, another was imported from Germany.
He is a man in love with the Mercedes Benz brand. One of the most remarkable features of his latest car is that it changes colour with the weather.
His personal assistant, Adam Barasa, recounts his experience with the car on a typical journey to Nakuru. “When you are in Limuru, it is metallic blue; it changes to black when you approach Naivasha, while it becomes reddish by the time you are within Nakuru town. It marvels us,” he told Saturday Nation.
Atwoli himself does not shy away from the fact that he loves good things in life.
Kila kitu yangu ni mzuri. Huwezi kwenda kwa matajiri na koti imeraruka na unaenda kuulizia watu mshahara? (Everything I own is good. You cannot face employers with tattered clothes and yet you are bargaining for higher salaries).
He is not just in love with the Mercedes. He has worn gold ornaments for over three decades and, as he says, “gold is a great material.”
His watch, bracelets and a chain are just some of the conspicuous ornaments he dons.
“Don’t you think I look good in them?” he asks of a choice he made as a teenager.
His obsession with “meeting my workers” will take him to some nondescript neighbourhoods in Nairobi’s Eastlands, one of the most common being the Kenyatta Market, where he loves to eat nyama choma. “The meat there is great,” he says.
His humble education background is unmistakable; count him out to sustain a conversation in English without invoking Kiswahili.
Maneno ya elimu wachana nayo. (Leave education matters out). I’m telling all about my life in a book that is coming out soon,” he tersely deflects my curiosity on just where he went to school. Some records say he attended St Mary’s High School in Machakos in 1963.
His roots are in Khwisero in western Kenya, but he grew up in Mbotela, in Nairobi’s Eastlands.
“I know what it means to have a low salary. Mimi ni mtu wa mtaa (I am streetwise),” he says.
An early riser, Atwoli will spend at least an hour in the morning reading all the main newspapers before he goes to the office at 6am.
“This is always the next item after his morning prayers,” says an aide.
Atwoli is a strict Catholic.
He is so depressed when he has an issue that does not appear in the newspapers that he always orders the placement of advertisements when he is not covered.
Open communication has enabled him to have a solid base among shop stewards from affiliate member unions. He has never had two mobile phone numbers, and his number will personally receives all calls.
“This number never goes off. It is for any worker to call me,” he says, and adds that his choice is the Blackberry Torch phone.
Atwoli does not stop doing anything because it is late. Workers at Cotu offices say he can call any of them past midnight and ask for a document.
“I have personally come to office very late. If a letter should be done, it must be done when he wants it done,” reveals Barasa.
A confessed polygamist, Atwoli will not discuss the exact members of his big family. “I can’t discuss my wives and children,” he says. None of his wives, however, lives in his Kileleshwa home and he, instead, prefers they “keep his rural homes.”
“I have cattle and chicken in my Kakamega home. Si unawacha mama anaangalia hizo. Kileleshwa atafuga nini? (Let the wife look at the livestock at home. There is nothing for her to look after in the city).
Although he spends most of his time resolving problems, Atwoli’s major weakness is that he does not accept advice against a position he has taken.
“He will tell you to go to hell if you come in between him and an idea,” says the aide who has worked with him for six years.
One such scenario was in the 2007 elections when he publicly denounced his second wife, Roselinder Simiyu’s bid for the Webuye parliamentary seat. The mother of five is a former Cotu executive board member and chairperson of the Kenya Sugar Plantation Workers Union.
Those who interact with him say he is “very wealthy and generous” and that is why he has managed to maintain his stranglehold on trade unions in the country.
Whether it is his money, fear or respect, Atwoli is yet to face any credible opposition.
“He has managed to neutralise any dissenting voice. No one dares to raise a voice against him as he will ensure all your followers leave you,” says an official of a hotel workers union.
His fiercest rival in trade unions politics, journalist Eric Orina, is categorical that Atwoli’s words are ‘hollow.’
“He has perfected the art of intimidation,” says Orina.
Orina, who has a case with Atwoli in court, is one of the few people who takes him head on. “He has not managed to unite workers across the board,” says Orina.
Atwoli differs. “Those saying I stifle voices are those who want to take over unions in an unorthodox manner. The trade union movement is quiet because we do not interfere with elections of members’ unions,” he says and breaks into his characteristic loud laughter. “Let them come for elections. We have elections in two weeks,” he says.
Elected a shop steward for the East Africa Posts and Telecommunication Corporation in 1967, he was sacked in 1986 “in the public interest”.
In 1994, he was elected general secretary of the Kenya Agriculture and Plantation Workers Union after two of his predecessors died in quick succession after assuming the office. It is this seat that enabled him to vie for a Cotu seat when Joseph Mugalla retired.
Many politicians excuse his behaviour to little education and most will not want to engage him. He does not apologise for what he says. Early in the year, he rattled Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka by saying he will never be Kenya’s President. Demands for him to apologise were met with more vitriol.
On Friday, he insisted: “Musyoka is a fisher of opportunities who waits for things on a silver platter. This country cannot have a leader with his low level of charisma.”
He has a lot of respect for President Kibaki and thinks he is one of the greatest leaders in Africa. “Were it not for the Constitution, this man (Kibaki) would still retain the Presidency in 2012. He is democratic,” he categorically says.
On Prime minister Raila Odinga, he says, “He is a terrible mobiliser with poor advisors.”
He may appear to despise politicians but in 1997, he took on Martin Shikuku for the Butere seat but lost miserably. It was won by former planning minister Amukowa Anangwe.

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