Akumu: A fiery politician who cleared path for trade unionism
By Maina Kiai
| September 5th 2021
The 5th anniversary of the passing of James Dennis Akumu was marked on August 18.
Popularly known as JD Akumu, he was inevitably drawn into the labour movement in the 1950s when Kenya was under a ferocious State of Emergency with the onset of the armed struggle for independence.
At the time, the line between organising workers and politics was quite thin — as it should be — and JD also gravitated towards political organising in Nairobi while working for the East African Breweries.
The labour movement was one of the three pillars that the struggle for independence leaned on. The other two were the political movements formed around parties like the Kenya African Union and its predecessors and the armed struggle, borne out of frustration from the slow pace of the political struggle.
With the Emergency, both the political and armed struggles were banned and seriously oppressed and thwarted, making the labour movement one of the better places for agitation on all manner of issues, including dignity of Africans, freedom and independence.
JD Akumu was a protégé of the late Tom Mboya, who had started off, and maintained a defining role, in the labour movement, that also included Markhan Singh, Fred Kubai and others.
Mboya was not only a gifted organiser with considerable skills in labour and politics, but he had an eye for talent that he brought on board to work with him towards the goals of liberation.
JD Akumu was one of Mboya’s key mobilisers and supporters in Mboya’s campaign to be one of the first African members of the Legislative Council (Legco) in 1957. With this foray into elective politics, Mboya persuaded JD Akumu to re-focus on trade unionism, which led to JD’s move to Mombasa as General Secretary of the Mombasa Dockworkers Union, where he served for 10 years.
Being General Secretary of the Dockworkers Union, exposed JD Akumu to a world beyond Kenya and he traveled across Africa and the world, often with Mboya. Mixing with regional and diaspora giants contributed to a genuine sprit of pan-Africanism in its truest sense.
He reveled in learning from and about Ghana from Kwame Nkurumah, one of his heroes. He rubbed shoulders with Michael Manley of Jamaica, Philip Randolph and William Lucy who were African American trade union leaders and created lasting friendships.
JD Akumu would also serve as Deputy Secretary General and later Secretary General of the Central Organisation of Trade Unions (Cotu), in the days when Cotu mattered.
The twin calls of trade unionism and pan Africanism found fertile ground in his service as the first Secretary General of the Organisation of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU) from 1973, based in Accra, Ghana. Though he was a diplomat in this role, his daughter Achieng reports that he barely did the expatriate life, living as much as he could as any Ghanaian would.
Achieng herself attended high school at Achimota School or Motown as it is commonly known.
Yet despite all his success and achievements as a trade unionist, the call of politics was always close perhaps because of the origins of trade unionism in Kenya.
Even as a trade unionist, JD Akumu had been part of Tom Mboya’s People’s Convention Party, which later folded into Kanu when national, rather than regional, parties were allowed to function.
JD and Tom Mboya started drifting apart when JD chose to side with the progressives in Kanu seeking restoration of land for the majority and social justice as opposed to those who saw independence as a chance to loot, grab and replace the settlers with themselves.
These progressives gravitated around Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, who was the most vocal and consistent voice for the poor at the time. So, when the Kenya Peoples Union was formed in 1966, JD Akumu joined in, and for his troubles, was detained for almost a year. He also served a fortnight in the cells after saba saba in 1990 as a supporter of FORD.
On July 5, 1969, Tom Mboya was assassinated in Nairobi in a way that suggested high level involvement and subsequent cover-up, and then in October 1969, KPU was banned and Odinga placed under house arrest, making Kenya a one-party State, and a country governed by silence and fear.
In these circumstances, JD Akumu vied as a representative for Nyakach under Kanu and was duly elected. But these were difficult times for those of independent and critical mindset, and it is perhaps not too surprising that JD Akumu accepted to take up the OATUU position when it came up.
JD Akumu the man, the human being was jovial and loved a good laugh. He was studious and read as much as he could get his hands on. And if you wanted to be in his good books, a gift of a good pen or an aged Remy Martini cognac would do the trick.
He would make time to listen, advice and encourage, and I for one benefited a lot from that. We were in the trenches in the 1990s fighting for the second liberation, but I got to know him better as the uncle of Agnes Pala, who married my boyhood friend Zeeky Bukhala, a wedding where I was honoured to serve as best man.
JD Akumu was not a perfect human being. None of us is. He was warm and kind and his legacy lives not just from his work but by his actions and life outside work. He is a genuine Kenyan hero and we would do well to remember people like him.
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