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Francis Atwoli and the Making of the BBI

By Babere Chacha and John Wahome | November 5th 2020 at 02:00:00 GMT +0300

The Central Organisation of Trade Unions (COTU) Secretary General Francis Atwoli. [Standard]

Whichever way one interprets the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), the March 9, 2018 handshake between Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga – two perennial antagonists who occupy Kenya’s opposite political extremities - was a significant, defining moment with potential implications for the future of the country.

What remains to be seen, after so many false starts and multiple governance experimentation raging from the single-party model to multi-partyism; from the old constitution to a new one and from a centralised form to devolved units, is whether the eureka moment has finally arrived which will bring about “comprehensive changes that will strengthen the rule of law, unite Kenyans, deepen our constitutionalism and launch a comprehensive reform process to consolidate this momentous opportunity”, to quote the official BBI website. The main test remains whether the BBI will succeed in bringing an end to perennial ethnic competition and antagonism that almost always precedes national elections.

Much effort has been made to unearth the mysterious originator of the M-Pesa phenomenon which introduced mobile banking to millions of citizens. Similarly, curiosity is bound to intensify about who ‘invented’ the BBI idea which is already pervading the lives of Kenyans. Whereas it is difficult to finger and fete a single ‘Aladdin’ whose magical lamp unleashed this benevolent genie which builds bridges, it is possible to identify certain preceding events culminating in its October 26 launch.

On September 7, 2017, Central Organisation of Trade Unions (Cotu) boss Francis Atwoli walked into a press conference and with his squeaky voice and signature histrionics, claimed that the key to lasting peace for Kenya rested on what he termed as an ‘urgent friendship between Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta’.


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Sincere dialogue

He appealed for sincere dialogue between the two leaders to end the political impasse that had long plagued the country since the 2007 post-election violence (PEV) and which posed continual peril to Kenya’s democracy. Many did not take him seriously, but it has come to pass.

In addition, he proposed on the TV talk-show ‘JKL Live’ that were he Uhuru Kenyatta, he would call Raila and make peace with him. “I would give Raila...an appointment and…big offices somewhere… and that would be the beginning of a lasting peace in Kenya,” he said. This is why the Cotu boss is a silent member of our improvised shortlist of the ‘discoverers’ of the BBI, alongside the President and Raila Odinga.

In a similar TV show later on, Mr Atwoli made a curious ‘prophecy’ that DP Ruto would not be Kenya’s next president. This we are yet to see.

Though far removed from the centre of power, Atwoli had apparently keenly observed the president and his deputy and realised that their chemistry was quickly souring. Many emerging issues crystalised this apprehension, and to quote from Atwoli’s biography Fame, force and fury, “…streams of discontent were soon to converge before the public when Atwoli realised that Ruto was increasingly becoming a dominating figure in the Jubilee Party… wily and calculating, the DP had wormed his way to the nerve centre of state power...” 

Atwoli was not new to Ruto. During the era of PEV anxiety and period of the ICC post-election violence trials, he had bestowed upon Ruto a do-it-yourself spiritual resource in the form of a rosary to help win the case. The case was eventually terminated by the ICC.

It is not easy to unpack and decipher Atwoli’s true intentions in his recent political engagements. He is now fast approaching his retirement. Yet, he has often made it clear that the positions of governor, senator and MP are beneath his status. So why does he keep ‘circulating in the periphery of power’? Or does he want to become the president?

Atwoli has doubtlessly been there, done that. He has an enviable global experience gained through international exposure. He has served as the President of the Organisation of African Trade Union Unity which consists of 54 African member states and is headquartered in Accra, Ghana. He is an elected spokesperson and Chair of the East African Trade Union Confederation. Also, he represents, in Khartoum Sudan, the Trade Union Federation of Eastern Africa which comprises 14 Eastern Africa countries.

He is a member of the International Trade Union Confederation based in Togo and also a long-serving Vice President of the ITUC internationally based in Brussels, Belgium besides holding numerous other positions and having affiliations with unions in India and Switzerland. No other Kenyan could have provided a fairer test of the capacity of the labour community to influence national politics as did Atwoli. He has been the silent insider of state politics.

With such extraordinary accomplishments under his belt, would Atwoli clamour for a political position under the BBI? Is he hijacking the political process otherwise dominated by power elites to silently front the workers’ agenda and align political bureaucracy with workers? This workers’ boss is now a kingmaker who acts as a national political consultant, outgrowing his Luhya unity efforts to rise to organising at the national level. His Kajiado home, just like Ufungamano House, has become a melting-pot of high-stake politics.


Grassroots politics

Many people have long underestimated Atwoli’s capacity to influence the course of Kenyan politics, with one politician once describing him as having “nothing between his ears.” Not one to forgo an opportunity at mchongoano in high places, Atwoli has often returned the package of expletives to the sender, with more withering content.

Besides his privilege of age and the experience of leading powerful local and global labour organisations, he has the duality of understanding grassroots politics of both his rural roots in western Kenya and cosmopolitan Nairobi where he grew up.

In fact, no single Kenyan politician has in recent times typified such force in conventional political understanding. He balances a perfect ‘peasant’ life and a perfect elite lifestyle, effortlessly oscillating and cascading between ‘low’, ‘high’, and ‘deep’ politics.

In effect, he is therefore among the few individuals who successfully bridge the gap between ‘low’ politics (recently understood by Ruto as ‘hustler politics’) and the ‘high’ politics (practised by elites in big cities and high places). In other words, since understanding ‘high’ politics and ‘low’ politics (which forms deep politics) is the key to political mapping in Kenya, it therefore emerges that the man to watch in this era is Francis Atwoli. Atwoli is a master organiser of grassroots politics going by the many political-unity meetings he has held to pump up the so-called Luhya unity. Many political aspirants have found the stimulus they sought in Atwoli and his comedy of revolt.

With his magnificent nonchalance, his superb polemical style, Atwoli will fearlessly express what they wish to- but are not able or daring enough-to do. He is personable and optimistic. His deceptively clumsy and comical style is a priceless asset in arresting mass attention. Many have discovered his accommodating persona and a vision which they felt could pull the country together and bring transitional peace. This way, Atwoli has slowly morphed into a veritable national figure.

Given Atwoli’s ‘prophetic’ tradition and influence in high places, he arguably earns a place in national history as the father of ‘the BBI’. He embodies conservative tropes but certainly projects a unique political style. Journalists’ portraits and public estimation of this public figure may soon change.


Dr Chacha and Dr Wahome teach at Laikipia University. Dr Chacha is the author of Francis Atwoli’s biography, Fame, Force and Fury

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