Kenya National Union of Teachers (Knut) secretary-general Wilson Sossion had been pushed into a corner in September and had thrown in the towel but begged for an honourable exit.
The man who was expected to replace him, Mr Hesborn Otieno, had also agreed to offer him a safe passage out of the hot seat.
The infighting within the giant union and mediation efforts to save it have been revealed by the secretary of the rival Kenya Union of Post-Primary Education Teachers (Kuppet), Mr Akelo Misori, in a book to be released early next year.
Mr Misori claims in the book, Teachers Unions and Labour Relations: A History of the Kenya Union of Post-Primary Education Teachers, that Mr Sossion was ready to quit for the sake of the union. He has co-written the book with Mr John Onyando. It is published by Free Press Publishers Limited.
At the time, Mr Sossion was facing a rebellion from members of the National Executive Council (NEC) and the Steering Committee on one hand as he fought to block the Teachers Service Commission (TSC) on the other, who were keen to deregister him as a teacher.
“On September 16, 2019, Mr Sossion called me to discuss the situation. I candidly urged him to consider whether he was part of the problem. If others feel that you are the problem, it is important that you listen to them even if you disagree,” Mr Misori writes.
“To my surprise, he was thinking exactly in the same way, though he was afraid that his colleagues were not handling his removal well,” he writes.
“‘I have worked for Knut for so long and they can’t throw me out like a dog,” he told me, and said he could leave “even tomorrow” on mutually agreed terms.
“At the time, disenchanted teachers, who had missed out on a salary increment that was enjoyed by Knut non-members, were said to be leaving the union in droves.
“The NEC and Steering Committee had approved Mr Sossion’s removal. Mr Otieno took over in an acting capacity while the union also changed bank account signatories to keep Mr Sossion completely out of Knut’s affairs.
“Seeing a window for Knut to get over the matter, I inquired from Mr Sossion whether I should reach out to his colleagues, which he agreed to. When I asked specifically whether I should broker his honourable exit, he said he would appreciate my doing so. In the absence of such exit, he said, Knut would suffer irreparably.
“I have my own supporters in this institution and they would not take kindly to my being hounded out of office,” he quotes Mr Sossion as saying.
He says that he reached out to Mr Otieno and arranged to have dinner together.
“Without disclosing I had been in touch with Mr Sossion, I counselled Mr Otieno extensively on how to address the situation by giving Mr Sossion an honourable departure,” he writes.
During the dinner, Mr Misori writes that Mr Otieno agreed to the proposal. However, there was no action from the Knut leadership on the safe exit for Mr Sossion.
“Nearly three weeks after our discussion, nothing had happened in Knut towards a soft exit for Mr Sossion, who was to triumphantly resume his office after the court ruled his ouster to have been irregular. But Mr Sossion’s self-inflicted woes are far from over for himself and the union. On the contrary, they keep piling up,” Mr Misori writes.
The book, which details the history of teachers’ trade unionism in Kenya and a justification for the formation of Kuppet, reveals the cracks that have existed between primary schoolteachers (who form the majority in Knut) and their secondary school counterparts.
“Under Sossion, Knut developed a proclivity for picking fights with Kuppet over non-issues. Being a post-primary teacher, he has frustrated efforts by the two unions to demarcate the boundaries for our membership. This is for selfish reasons because it would bar him from holding a position in Knut. As someone I have known for many years, and whose intelligence I trusted, I many times put my views candidly to Sossion about his taking Knut down the wrong path,” Mr Misori writes.
He adds that he is the one who advised Mr Sossion to challenge the order by then Cabinet Secretary for Labour Phyllis Kandie, requiring him to resign after his nomination to Parliament. He, however, told Mr Sossion that would only win him temporary reprieve.
In the 2017 elections, three Kuppet national officials (Omboko Milemba, Catherine Wambilyanga and Ronald Tonui) were elected as MPs. They, however, have not faced the same hostility that Mr Sossion has.
Mr Misori explains that they tweaked their laws to accommodate the officials.
“We changed our Constitution to provide for part-time officers. All the three MPs were being paid for part-time work in Kuppet. At the same time, we made the TSC’s work easier by requiring the three MPs to resign from TSC employment. The officials agreed with the cogency of my arguments but were unsure what to do. The solution lies in Knut officials making it clear to Mr Sossion that he must put the interests of the union first.”
Mr Misori says that the current woes that Mr Sossion faces regarding his deregistration are as a result of his “stubbornness and failure to plan and adhere to the law”.
“Mr Sossion wants to have his cake and eat it,” he charges.
Mr Misori, who gives the number of Kuppet members as more than 110,000 at the end of November, says that the union has managed to stay out of TSC firing line by complying with the law. The employer has struck out Mr Sossion’s name from the role of teachers saying his role as an ODM nominated legislator is in conflict with his duties as a teacher.
Mr Misori is not only critical of Mr Sossion’s leadership style (he says they have been friends since their days at Kenyatta University), but also of respected former Knut leaders like Ambrose Adongo, John Katumanga, David Okuta Osiany and Lawrence Majali. He, however, has polite words for Francis Ng’ang’a.
“Knut secretaries-general after Mr Ng’ang’a did not know how to deal with Kuppet. They were stuck in a time warp, treating us as a small outfit. Mr Majali, in particular, was always very dismissive of Kuppet. At one time, Mr Osiany, who succeeded Mr Majali in 2010, cavalierly asked me, ‘Akelo, does Kuppet pay any of you full-time salaries these days?’ I was horrified more by his ignorance than the fact that he was trying to demean me, despite us having known each other for a long time,” Mr Misori writes.
Of the indefatigable Mr Adongo, Mr Misori says, “Adongo was a shrewd political player. While his public posturing was of a tough unionist, he had a fantastic relationship with the single party government which ensured the two sides safeguarded each other’s core interests. Adongo’s increasingly lazy leadership was illuminated again in 1992. That year, the then Industrial Court Judge, Justice Saeed Cockar, awarded teachers a two per cent salary increment. Amid the rapid deterioration of the shilling following economic liberalisation, two per cent was a pittance.”
“The chairman, Katumanga, rubbished the idea of Kuppet, saying the union was created by the government to defeat the teachers’ united voice in negotiations. He said Kuppet’s founder, Chariga, was not even a teacher but an employee of the TSC.”
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