Can East African workers overcome cooptation and suppression?

  • July 24, 2021

Work & Workers

Are radical worker struggles, which waned as a result of protracted government efforts to infiltrate and co-opt organized labor, making a comeback in East Africa?

Young man selling padlocks in the streets of Kisumu, Kenya. Photo : Marcel Crozet / ILO / Flickr

This essay is published in collaboration with Public Services International

In early November 2020, four Kenyan doctors died within a span of 24 hours. Up to that point, East Africa had remained comparatively under-harmed by COVID-19, but this was a wake-up call to the nearly 8,000 members of the Kenya Medical Practitioners Pharmacists and Dentists Union (KMPDU — a member of PSI, the global union federation of workers in public services). Taking to the strike to secure proper PPEs, backpay and health insurance from dictator Uhuru Kenyatta’s kleptocracy, health workers found themselves fighting for the things they had deserved all along.

KMPDU — fairly effective in securing modest demands in recent years through conventional labor campaigns — is actually closer to the radical end of unionism than the majority of organized labor in East Africa. At a time when dictators are leveraging the pandemic to concentrate their power and silence their critics, most workers who belong to trade unions or labor associations in the region have taken little action. Some unions have become almost entirely idle and lack membership.

Recent union leadership changes in Kenya may not offer any solace to this state of affairs. On June 25, William Sossion, a tenacious eight-year general secretary of the Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT), resigned amidst accusations of state cooptation and unilateral decisionmaking during the latter portion of his tenure. “Sossion’s resignation completes the capture of the workers’ movement by Uhuru’s government,” said Kenyan activist Henry Makori.

Dilution of East African unions did not begin with the heightened repression of this pandemic, however. The waning of revolutionary worker zeal — very much present in the region’s anti-colonial struggles — can be attributed to a more protracted effort by political leaders and private sector emissaries to infiltrate and co-opt organized labor. Nevertheless, the remnant spirit of the workers’ struggle is finding ways of picking up the pieces to get what they need.

Against extractive colonial work

Not unlike most other locales, East Africa’s worker history is complex and at times contradictory. It is not without its revolutionary advances, though.

Prior to assimilation into the global value chain, work in East Africa was largely characterized by caring for land, waters and other natural resources. Work was derived from a finite geography, often a homestead and its surrounding gardens, or seasonal grazing areas. European colonization — by the British especially — altered this perspective through widespread imperialist violence. Kikuyu and Maasai prophecies of an iron snake that would pillage the land were fulfilled when the Standard Gauge Railroad (now Chinese-owned and still a target of worker protests today) cut from Mombasa inland to Uganda. This generated large human settlements in semi-arid areas, like the Kenyan capital Nairobi, and threatened what previously had been largely sustainable local economies.

The change from closed economies to extractive global economics necessitated an organizing strategy for farmers. Agricultural cooperatives were established in present day Tanzania in 1925 and in Uganda in 1913 as a way to undermine value chain control by white and Asian middlemen, building upon struggles such as the Maji Maji Rebellion in which a quarter million lives were lost in attempts to resist German slavers in the cotton business.

Building the infrastructure for colonial occupation and land and resource theft at such grand scales required workers. The British sought alliances with kingdoms that more closely resembled their monarchical governance, such as the kingdom of the Baganda in present-day central Uganda. Such alliances enabled the colonization of other nations. The Lango people across the Nile from Buganda to the north, for instance, refused to help build what they called “the road that would never be finished” while wondering why Baganda workers were agreeably laboring when compensated with such insubstantial gains.

Colonialists perceived those who refused to work on their terms as stubborn and insubordinate. Churchill’s map of Uganda is said to have labeled Nilotic groups such as the Lango as “omiro,” or “wild beasts.” Such imperialist attitudes ushered in Penal Codes across East Africa — and elsewhere — with clauses that effectively criminalized unemployment. These laws are still selectively applied today, especially against young informal workers and activists, even when in direct contradiction with since-revised national constitutions.

In one such instance, four young and unemployed Lango members of a Ugandan liberation movement were arrested at 11pm on New Year’s Eve, 2015 in the town of Lira for being “rogue and vagabond” and in possession of balloons while watching the movie Gandhi. This was cause for much laughter among journalists and rank-and-file police who had never before heard of such a charge.

Two years later in the same town, 100 youths — many of them minors — were arrested in the wee hours of the morning for being “idle and disorderly.” They were charged in corrupt courts quickly before human rights workers could respond, and allegedly transferred to Loro Prison Farm where dictator Yoweri Museveni’s family benefits from free forced labor. These incidents and others in Lira are a microcosm of the more systemic issue of youth unemployment and the criminalization thereof that is common across East African states.

Workers, liberation and postcolonial leftism

One Ugandan worker by the name of John Okello, born in 1937 and raised as a cattle-keeper in present day Alebtong District, took to Kenya and Tanganyika, dabbling in various lines of work before arriving at the island of Pemba off the coast of Dar Es Salaam where he joined a painters’ union. The nature of his job allowed him to travel throughout Zanzibar and Pemba where he witnessed the marginalization of fellow East Africans under Oman’s occupation and a minority Arab elite with British support.

This mobility allowed Okello to visit many union branches. He was said not to be fluent in the geopolitics of his day, but charismatic, courageous and willing to pit segments of society against one another. His speeches among fellow unionists rallied workers behind him. In January 1964, he led a few hundred workers with hand tools in surprise attacks against police stations and armories. The revolution gained a quick foothold and seized the radio stations to declare a new government. Sultan Jamshid bin Abdullah fled from Okello’s death threats.

“We remember Mr. Okello as a revolutionary legend,” said Jina Hassan, secretary general of Zanzibar Public and Allied Workers Union (ZAPAU — a PSI member). “Although since we are new unions, we don’t necessarily heed him as our hero or influence, except at mapinduzi [liberation] celebrations.”

Okello’s tenure in the People’s Republic of Zanzibar and Pemba was indeed short-lived. His contemporary anti-colonial activist Julius Nyerere, an African socialist and father of the Ujamaa ideology of communitarian economics, is believed by some to have felt threatened by Okello, allegedly scheming to prevent his return to the islands to ensure that Tanganyika and Zanzibar could unite as a common nation.

While Nyerere’s ideas about an “Africa that belongs to the Africans” were taking root, his fellow head of state across the border — Milton Obote — was championing what was known as the “Move to the Left” in Uganda. By the early 1970s, private corporations were under 60 percent state ownership. Before Obote was overthrown in Idi Amin’s 1971 coup, over 2,500 cooperative societies and over three dozen unions were formed.

But the legacy of Obote’s regime is not so straightforward. His party, the Uganda People’s Congress, was largely born out of Uganda’s first union, which organized transportation workers. The party may have also in the end devolved the momentum workers had built over the decades.

“Obote’s Move to the Left was the death of unions in the party,” said Bwesigye Mwesigire, a member of Uganda-focused left publishing collective Ubuntu Reading Group. “The presidency became the party, and other parties were indirectly banned.”

Key in this early post-colonial period was Nyerere’s Arusha Declaration, a leftist charter written for the Tanganyika African National Union, a “party of peasants and workers.” The Arusha Declaration centered afrosocialism in the region’s political agenda — or at least Tanzania’s political agenda just three years into unification with Zanzibar and Pemba.

Unfortunately the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (“Revolutionary Party”) championed by Nyerere — one of the longest undefeated political parties in Africa — has slipped regressively rightward with each new administration. Still, it is in the tradition of this document that 50 years later, movements, unions and organizations from across Africa gathered together in 2017 to launch the Kilimanjaro Declaration and the Africans Rising Movement.

Privatization and state capture

Considering the constrained conditions East African unions are forced to navigate today, it is impressive that the Kenyan doctors’ union KMPDU has been able to carve out enough space to pressure for incremental demands. “We are not yet satisfied with the results of the strike,” said newly instated secretary general Dr. Davji Atela. “We went into it with 11 demands and received little else but promissory notes from the President and Minister of Health.” Workers in other sectors are dealing with even more troubling circumstances, with the existence of unionism itself on the line.

“Francis Atwoli, the secretary general of the Central Organisation of Trade Unions (COTU), is being used by multinational corporations and the state to hinder radical trade unionism in Kenya,” said Julius Okoth, a former hotel worker who was among those beaten for launching a parallel umbrella union outside of state control in 2012. “We resolved to form the Confederation of Kenyan Trade Unions (COKETU) without registration. We members of progressive unions who Atwoli refused to register were brutalized by his goons that day, and that was the end of COKETU.”

Okoth explained that the recently resigned teachers’ union leader Sossion posed a threat to the state as a potential successor to Atwoli. “The state made a protracted effort to water down and fragment the teachers’ labor movement, leading to this month’s resignation,” he said.

The cases of Atwoli and Sossion offer a window into the present circumstances of East African unionism at large. State capture of labor may be the tallest hurdle for workers to jump. Whereas colonial governments had sometimes placed outright bans on unionization, authoritarian administrations during the neoliberal era have covered their iron fists with velvet gloves. Unions are now allowed to exist, but are largely infiltrated by employers and the state.

“We ran a program trying to give our solidarity and strategic support to any union we could find,” said Carol Odaru, an organizer with movement support organization Solidarity Uganda who had also campaigned for two years with members of the (now employer-infiltrated) Uganda Horticultural Industrial Service Providers and Allied Workers Union (UHISPAWU). “I must have visited every union office in Kampala, and I was only received warmly by one. The situation of unionism in Uganda is bad.”

How did we get here? The power of today’s authoritarian regimes and mafia-style ruling families was not created overnight.

In the 90s and 2000s, cooperatives — which once employed more workers than governments in the region, not even including cooperative members themselves — were taken over and often privatized by authoritarian administrations. Known historically for putting the economy in the hands of farmers and other workers, their structures allowed for a high degree of financial autonomy of members, which meant that nascent regimes had less financial control — and therefore, less ability to buy votes. In the late 80s, early in Museveni’s administration, economic liberalization was swiftly implemented. According to the International Labor Organization, cooperatives were unprepared for this and rapidly declined. The consequence of Museveni’s economics: poverty has risen alongside Uganda’s GDP.

The late 80s in Burundi also saw a national rent-based economy arrive at its logical conclusion: a near-halving of GDP per capita over less than three decades and a 1986 structural adjustment program that doubled aid in a nation majorly reliant on subsistence farming. Civil war and subsequent political strife continued to increase the burdens on farmers and other workers.

As a result of predatory lending from the late 80s onward, factories across much of East Africa were emptied of workers. Land, machinery and other means of production were sold off by executive members of once-vibrant companies who pocketed the money. The privatization encouraged by the opportunism of the West helped normalized state infiltration and the capture of labor leadership in the name of “development.” Many cooperative societies are now run by the wealthiest members, who themselves become land grabbers, thieves, and capitalist bullies. From Rwanda’s energy sector to the water of Dar es Salaam, mass privatization — backed by the brutal repression of dissent — has caused mass layoffs and soaring bills for the poor. It has forced East African workers between a rock and a hard place when mobilizing for their demands.

Fragments of hope for labor’s return to war

John Okello understood that his comrades were less armed, less trained and less organized than the Sultan, his police and the colonial powers that enjoyed the Sultan’s diplomacy. But Okello counterposed this with the element of surprise, overwhelming the Oman regime’s weak spots with sheer numbers and unconventional tactics at opportune moments. Before making systematic revolutionary advancements in the region, East African workers are gleaning a bit of this courageous and conniving “Okello-ism” to gain their own momentary footholds.

Members of the Kenyan National Union of Nurses (KNUN) — one of 25 PSI-affiliated unions in the region — have leveraged this pandemic moment. After creating countless WhatsApp groups to raise member contributions for colleagues killed by the virus, their 23,000-member strike is seeking compensation for 26 of their deceased members.

Informal workers in the bustling downtown Kampala area had been organized by Kampala City Traders Association (KACITA), which once had enough clout to call multiple days of general strikes across the capital, sometimes in cooperation with taxi drivers and other urban workers. With trust in the KACITA leadership now eroding as the state inches ever closer with its soft power, hawkers decided to unionize afresh.

In 2019, a group known as “Fubba Tukole” (loosely translated as “toughen up and work”) convened impromptu street sensitizations to gather hawkers under a common umbrella. For attempting to enlist members, leaders John Paul Kwizera, Abdul Musisi and Isma Mubiru were arrested and taken to Luzira Prison, a detention site for political prisoners. According to Mubiru, after KACITA stonewalled several of the group’s requests for solidarity, they took their plight to local government councillors, only to discover they had connived with the army to suppress the hawkers’ unionization. A number of their own members had also been bought off by police to report their hideout locations and strike schemes.

“We wrote to several members of the last Parliament who were unresponsive to the plight of unlicensed informal workers who do not pay tax,” explained Mubiru. “We are offering our lives to this cause, because we know that once the hawkers of Kampala receive licenses and no longer get arrested while carrying out their daily work, then other hawkers in the towns across the country will also benefit from the same rights.”

Dodging local government abuse is indeed part and parcel of informal work across Uganda’s smaller cities. Six hours north of Kampala in the towns of Lira and Gulu, market and street workers were not availed foodstuffs promised to them by Uganda’s government after receiving a half billion dollar IMF loan for pandemic relief. Local government’s attempt to embezzle the foodstuffs was thwarted by sex workers, who gathered at radio stations and announced their intentions to release a list of their politically-connected clients should they not receive the items budgeted for them. Within just a few hours of receiving this threat, local government carried out the food distribution.

From development to worker power

The internal and external challenges workers and their unions face today do not lend themselves to simply calling strikes to force collective bargaining agreements. The traditional tools and formations of labor struggle might be taking a backseat to the scrappy ingenuity of informally organized workers. The question is: can this labor power that currently lives in the margins evolve at a scale that can meet the challenges of unregulated capitalist development?

With reactionary dictatorships entrenching their rule in East Africa and the world’s longest heated crude oil pipeline freshly commissioned across western Uganda and northern Tanzania, what does the future look like for organized labor? With restrictive lockdowns and state brutality escalating, there is no well-marked path to victory.

“The secret ingredient is the knowledge of the workers,” said Atela. “They must know why they’re joining the union so that they can overcome intimidation, which is the norm under Uhuru’s government. Doctors used to go abroad because there were no appropriate salaries, but now they join the Kenyan medical system because they trust in the union’s fight.”

Another challenge ever-lingering is the propaganda of development. In almost all communities and industries so directly and negatively affected by corporate and state takeover of local economies and resources, dissent is accompanied by a neoliberal asterisk, à la “We don’t want land grabbing, but we do want development.” There is an attitude of resignation toward development, and indeed even hope in it. The pervasive culture of liberal NGOism has entrenched this false hope among the grassroots, which affords neoliberal governments greater impunity.

This narrative of development in East Africa must be subverted to raise enough consciousness to undermine the unregulated profiteers of the 21st century. Otherwise, communities will be fighting for incremental compensations for their land and livelihoods instead of stopping expansionist projects that will pit them against one another in the long run.

An awakening is needed. With so many hungry and struggling in these pandemic conditions, no time is better than the present to tap the power of the People’s Shock Doctrine. The great paradox of change, though, is that some infrastructure is needed to make change at scale, and workers’ organizations are, on the whole, crumbling.

Workers have of course united throughout history to overcome their draconian opposition against the odds, especially when conditions are intolerable. As dictators and their private sector cronies ramp up repression and line their pockets during this pandemic, workers too can find their power. The hope emerging among organized labor in East Africa may not be found in the offices of general secretaries or even necessarily in registered unions themselves, but in collectives of workers that exercise their agency, courage and creative power at the industry level and in their communities and workplaces. Northern Uganda’s sex workers and Kenya’s medical professionals may sound anecdotal, but a little unconventional Okello-ism could help tip the balance in workers’ favor.

In partnership with ROAR, this article has been commissioned by Public Services International (PSI) and supported by Union to Union and Kommunal under the project “Organising workers for trade union unity of action, density and quality public services in East Africa.”

Phil Wilmot

Phil Wilmot is a unionist, writer and organizer. He is an editor with Beautiful Trouble and writes extensively on resistance movements. Phil founded Solidarity Uganda and lives in East Africa with his family.

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Twinomugisa Pius

Twinomugisa Pius is an activist, writer and Climate Clock Uganda organizer focused on climate justice, human rights and student organizing. He also works with Insurrectionist, a revolutionary media platform in East Africa.

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