Tom Mboya- Kwame Nkrumah row jolts trade union movement

Kenyan trade unionist Tom Mboya addressing workers.  [PHOTO: STANDARD]

 Kenya’s independence hero Tom Mboya was articulate, highly intelligent and very persuasive. These attributes thrust him to the forefront of the fight against colonialists.

 But unknown to many, the qualities that made Mboya a darling of Kenyans also endeared him to international leaders, and at some point put him on a collision course with Ghana’s first President, Kwame Nkrumah. 

 Before the Mboya-Nkrumah tiff in 1958, the flamboyant Kenyan trade unionist was the toast of Accra, enjoying the benevolent patronage of the would-be leader of emerging Africa, Ghana’s then Prime Minister Nkrumah.

 In 1959, Time magazine reported that the principal difference between the two men was that Nkrumah was the unchallenged boss of an independent nation of 5,000,000, almost all of them black, while Mboya, in the multi-racial British colony of Kenya, was merely the leading African politician in a government where the whites ran things.

 “When Nkrumah held his All-Africa Peoples Conference, he propelled Labour leader Mboya into the chairmanship, and the stage seemed set for a lasting alliance of Mboya’s rising influence in East Africa with Nkrumah’s power on the West Coast.”

 But this was not to be. Last week, Nkrumah’s obedient press in Ghana was lambasting Mboya for being a ‘stooge of imperialism’ and ‘under the thumb of the Americans’. The reason: Mboya had dared to challenge Nkrumah in the race for leadership of the budding trade union movement in Africa, reported Time.

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 Around that period, Nkrumah, and his close ally Sékou Touré of Guinea, were posing as neutralists in the Cold War that pitted the US against the Soviet Union and, by several accounts, were trying to build an ‘independent’ union movement in Africa and cut labour ties with the free world’s International Confederation of Free Trade Unions.

But many, including Mboya, suspected this concealed an inclination to affiliate with a communist-backed rival, the World Federation of Trade Unions. The push to break away from the US did not please Mboya, given that his union headquarters in Nairobi had been built with $35,000 contributed by US unions. Besides, he was a staunch supporter of the US-backed trade union movement and chairman of its East, Central and Southern Africa affiliate.

 In May 1959, Mboya called a conference in Lagos, Nigeria, to spite Nkrumah, to form the first All-Africa ICFTU labour organisation. Ghana took months to reply to Mboya’s invitation, but when it finally did, it sent word that the idea of a conference was all right, but that it should be held in Accra – then capital of the All-Africa Movement.

Mboya declined to change the venue, pointing out that Nigeria, with a population of 35 million, was the largest African country. Ghana decided to call a trade union conference of its own at the same time as Mboya’s, reported Time.

 In Lagos, Mboya’s meeting drew union leaders from 29 countries. Nkrumah’s affair was a flop. Later, Mboya told Time that he had no quarrel with Nkrumah, but the magazine concluded that it was no secret that he strongly disliked the way Nkrumah ran his unions like government departments.

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Kwame Nkrumah Kenya Ghana