Francis Atwoli: Straight shooter takes no hostages over street name

Cotu boss Francis Atwoli

Cotu boss Francis Atwoli. FILE PHOTO | NMG

A man of Francis Atwoli’s age is revered and his word respected, especially by the young who look up to them for guidance and as role models.

When the time to honour him comes, there should be no questions especially for a man who prides himself as a defender of workers’ rights and perhaps his only undoing is his dismissive ‘Shenzi’ shouts.

But not for the abrasive trade unionist who attracts praise and criticism in equal measure. At 71 and in an African traditional setting, Mr Atwoli should be dispensing wisdom, which he does sometimes but in his usual abrasive manner.

A week ago, Nairobi Deputy Governor Anne Kananu decided to honour the long-serving Cotu secretary-general by naming a road after him.

Before that, the Nairobi County government had renamed Accra Road, at the heart of the city, after multi-party hero Kenneth Matiba. There was no noise. In fact, not many people noticed the change.

Another road in Eastlands area was renamed after former Garissa senator Mohamed Yusuf Haji and there was no noise either.

But not the road which was formerly known as Dik Dik Road in Kileleshwa, which was renamed after Mr Atwoli. Besides being launched with much fanfare, hundreds of people took to social media to criticise the move.

Hardly a day after it was erected, the road sign was removed by unknown people. It was replaced and none-other than Mr Atwoli himself, announced that the road sign had been put back and CCTIV cameras installed to ward off would-be vandals.

Activist Boniface Mwangi, who was abroad at the time, announced that he would take up the challenge and remove the road sign, after Mr Atwoli issued the warning.

Mr Mwangi arrived at the scene only to find three heavily built men, guarding the road sign. The post ignited the social media, with some making fun that the road sign had created jobs and urged unpopular politicians they named, to take cue and have roads named after them so that they could create employment.

Others who failed to locate him during the Madaraka Day celebrations, which were held in Kisumu, made fun claiming that he skipped the event to guard the road sign. His handlers, however, fished out a photo of him and ODM leader Raila Odinga leaving the stadium to dispel the rumours.

Some analysts however said the stand-off on the renaming of Dik Dik Road offers and opportunity for enactment of a law on street-naming.

“Perhaps the best gift that the Francis Atwoli Road saga can bequeath to the country is the fast-tracking of the draft National Address Systems Policy developed in 2017 and an expeditious enactment of appropriate legislation to regulate the proper use of this valuable national resource” William Maema, aa senior partner at DLA Piper Africa, IKM Advocates says in an op-ed published in the Business Daily.

Lawyer Ochiel Dudley said as per the Kenya Heroes Act, 2014 naming of roads, buildings, public spaces is a privilege reserved for those recognised as national heroes. A person can only be declared a national hero after a public discussion on if or not that person deserves the honour.

When not campaigning for the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), Mr Atwoli has been trying to unite Luyhas to have one presidential candidate for the 2022 polls. His efforts have not borne fruits though.

For those who admire Mr Atwoli, the long-serving secretary general is a responsible trade unionist, who campaigns for better terms for workers. For others, such as former UCTAD secretary general Mukhisa Kiuyi, Mr Atwoli is an irritant.

And in politics, they say there are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests. The same can be said for Mr Atwoli for a few years ago, the man gifted Deputy President William Ruto a Bible and a rosary when the latter was being tried before the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, when he paid Mr Ruto a surprise visit on October 15, 2013, in a show of solidarity with the DP.

The position has since changed and Mr Atwoli is now a fierce critic of Mr Ruto, whom he has said will not be in the ballot in the 2022 general elections.

And after crowning Mr Musalia Mudavadi as Luhya spokesman in December 2016 in Kakamega after financing a project to find the most popular leader in the community, he turned around two years later and called him a coward.

Late last year, Mr Atwoli had a spat with senior counsel Ahmednasir Abdullahi who said the trade unionist would one day be made to account for his billions.

Mr Atwoli fought back saying he was not a billionaire.

“I am just a hardworking man who enjoys the sweat of my work. But unlike you I am a generous man," he said.