The Kenya Federation of Labour (KFL) was a ‘colonial’ outfit and bore little similarity to the earlier worker-led organization of Singh, Kibachia, Kubai and others. Strongly affiliated to the US-led ICFTU an ideological shift had taken place and within the resultant tensions; Dennis Akumu tirelessly strove for the rights of the workers and the Kenyan people.
Born on 7 August, 1934 in Nyanza he completed his high school in Uganda and in 1951, joined a medical training school in Nairobi planning to become a doctor. The declaration of the Emergency, however, forced him to relinquish his studies and take up a job as a laboratory assistant in East African Breweries. His concern for the blatant disregard for workers’ rights made him join the Distributive and Commercial Workers Union, but his employers did not approve of trade unions and dismissed him.
1958 saw his first foray into politics when he supported Mboya in his electoral campaign against Kenya’s first African lawyer, Clement Arwings-Kodhek. Earlier in 1956, Africans had been finally allowed to form their own political parties. Mboya won and with Akumu’s mobilization founded the Nairobi People’s Convention Party (NPCP). It was this outfit which raised the finances to build a ‘home’ for the workers: Solidarity Building, the present headquarters of COTU (Central Organisation of Trade Unions).
Having noted Akumu’s organizing ability Mboya asked him to move to Mombasa and help to get the large Dockworkers Union back on to its feet. In no time membership of the Union increased tenfold and over time the wages rose, benefits improved and new ones were added and industrial relations harmonized. Akumu was re-elected four times as General Secretary of the Union.
This platform gave Akumu the opportunity to travel widely in Africa and beyond and to meet political and trade union leaders. It came to his attention that the American CIA was promoting and funding Mboya as a counter weight to Jaramogi Odinga whom it perceived as a ‘communist’. Yet it was Odinga who was calling for the release of Jomo Kenyatta while Mboya and Gichuru were taking their time negotiating in the UK.
Within KANU a group of radicals including Akumu got organized as the Ginger Action Group (GAG) and began to protest against the revisionist policies being adopted by KANU. They were particularly concerned about the land issue and the settlements being made with the settlers at the expense of land for the freedom fighters, and proposed nationalization of certain utilities for the benefit of the nation. They even threatened to re-ignite the Mau Mau struggle for land. Though not a doctrinaire Marxist, Akumu leaned towards socialism and believed that well planned private and government-owned development projects would benefit the people most.
Other political leaders held the same views and this led to a rift within KANU between the radicals and the conservatives. The 1965 assassination of Pio Gama Pinto exposed the true nature of the KANU regime; Odinga was effectively side-lined and he left to form the Kenya Peoples Union (KPU). Akumu joined the new party which was soon banned and he, together with Odinga and others, were detained without trial.
After his release Akumu joined Government as the new MP for Nyakach; a position he was elected to again in the era of multi-party politics when he stood on a Ford-Kenya ticket.
But it was in labour that Akumu made his mark. In KFL it was not long before he clashed with Mboya. In 1961, Ghana launched the All Africa Trade Union Federation and Mboya sent a KFL delegation with strict instructions to oppose any move to disaffiliate from the US-led ICFTU. Akumu attended but was not part of the delegation; his views were well-known. He shared Makhan Singh’s firm conviction that Kenya’s labour movement should never be tied to east or west but rather should be a strong labour movement with no government control. In Ghana the KFL stand was defeated much to Mboya’s displeasure.
Akumu initially formed a dissident group within the KFL but the group later moved out taking with it the Dockworkers Union and the Oil and Petroleum Workers Union led by Ochola Mak’Anyengo to form the African Workers Congress. The confrontations between these two organisations at times turned violent and this gave the KANU Government the opportunity to disband them and form a new umbrella body – COTU. It was headed by Mboya-ally Clement Lubembe as secretary-general and Akumu as his deputy. Its constitution was written by the Government and continues to ensure that the workers organization remains under its control.
Following his release from detention and his term in Parliament, Akumu moved to Accra, Ghana, to become the founder of the Organisation of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU) and its first Secretary General. The workers and people of Kenya and Africa have lost a true friend and comrade whose full impact on our history is yet to be recorded.