By Owei Lakemfa
It has taken me eight years to get round to writing this. George Muchai, Deputy Secretary General of the Kenyan Central Organisation of Trade Unions, COTU, was also the serving Member of Parliament for the Kabete Constituency.
I was the Secretary General of the Organisation of African Trade Union Unity, OATUU, the central organisation of Labour centres on the continent. I was in Accra, Ghana. The main people he was advising me about were the leadership of the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC in Abuja and the Acting President of OATUU, Francis Atwoli who was also the COTU Secretary General.
Muchai was worried that I was not taking seriously his repeated warnings that my life was endangered and needed to take preventive measures.
His analysis was that while a labour leader in Ghana who was working with the security services against me, and the Abdulwaheed Omar-Ayuba Wabba leaders of the NLC were desperate to get me out of OATUU, the main danger to my life was Atwoli, his own boss in COTU. Muchai and Atwoli had grown up together in Nairobi and had known each other for half a century.
On December 28, 2014, Muchai offered to send me a return ticket to Nairobi for us to compare notes. I told him that if as he claims, the real threat to my life was Francis Atwoli and his gang, how can I be safe in Nairobi? Muchai, a tall unionist and politician with an arresting voice, laughed. He told me he would arrange adequate security for me as he had done for himself. He explained that apart from him having armed police guards and private security, he had also taken other security measures.
Muchai said he was prepared for an armed attack from Atwoli and some of his colleagues in COTU and assured me that any such attempt would lead to a bloodbath.
The altercation between Muchai and some leaders of COTU followed his allegations that six Kenyan labour leaders; Francis Atwoli, COTU Chairman, Rajah A. Mwondi, Treasurer, Rebecca Nyathogora, and Trustees, Francis Wangara, Joseph O. Nyabiya and Washington Adongo Ododa, had embezzled 190 billion shillings belonging to COTU. He followed up his allegations by going to court and asking the Labour Relations Court to direct the Registrar of Trade Unions to audit the accounts of COTU.
Muchai also alleged that Atwoli as COTU scribe, was operating 13 secret accounts. He asked the court to order six commercial banks to reveal the operators of the accounts. As an interim measure, he wanted the court to freeze all accounts of COTU.
He also alleged that Francis Atwoli falsified documents on the September 2007 sale of a piece of land in Mombasa, had lied to the Criminal Investigation Department, CID about it and that: “Because of my refusal to cooperate in the scheme, I have been intimidated by goons and stopped from accessing my office.”
The COTU leadership responded to Muchai’s allegations by suspending him as Deputy Secretary General.
Muchai told me that Francis Atwoli wants to kill him. He said that as part of the plot, some COTU leaders had started a rumour that he was dating someone’s wife and that the husband was threatening to kill him. In response, he said he had called a press conference with his wife to refute the fake news. At the press conference, Muchai said: “This is a fabrication of people who are opposed to my leadership at COTU and who want to eliminate me and attribute my elimination to the so-called bitter husband, or rather to adultery.”
On Saturday, February 7, 2015, Muchai and his family were returning home from a family outing. It was about 2.30 am. His family was in a car behind him. Muchai’s silver Toyota Fortuner slowed down at the junction of the Uhuru Highway and Kenyatta Avenue roundabout. A Mercedes Benz station wagon rammed onto the front fender of the car carrying Muchai. A tall, dark passenger alighted from the Mercedes Benz car and walked towards Muchai’s car. He was wearing a Balaclava mask with his gun concealed in his jacket. Apparently, a professional marksman, he shot Muchai’s driver, Stephen Wambugu, the two police bodyguards, Samuel Kalikia and Samuel Matanta, and Muchai. He then shot all four a second time. All bullets were on target. The entire shooting lasted about one minute. All four men died on the spot.
It appeared that Muchai’s public claims that some COTU leaders want to murder him, had come to pass. But it could also be a case of an opportunist taking advantage of the Muchai-COTU public spats to eliminate him.
However, not a few believed that Muchai was murdered by his trade union colleagues. At his February 13, 2015 burial in his Kamulu home, some mourners publicly said so. These included the Cabinet Secretary (Minister) Ministry of Labour, Social Security and Services Hon. Kazungu Kambi and Muchai’s colleagues in parliament including Honourables Alice Ng’ang’a, Thika and Moses Kuria of Gatundu. They also called for the arrest of Francis Atwoli in connection with the murders.
Atwoli was to complain that the public officers said: “The six COTU officials are responsible for Hon Muchai’s death, we want to see them in handcuffs for Muchai’s murder.”
That day, an angry COTU leadership issued a rebuttal. Signed by Benson Okwaro, the man who replaced Muchai as COTU Deputy Secretary General, it read in part: “we are equally aggrieved and saddened by the sudden death and brutal manner in which our late colleague met his death but for anyone to associate his death with COTU (K) would be the most unfortunate and diversionary engagement meant to hoodwink Kenyans into not knowing who killed our late Brother Muchai.”
Francis Atwoli and five other COTU leaders filed a 500 Million Kenyan Shillings defamation suit against Cabinet Secretary Kambi Kazungu over accusations that they were complicit in the murder of Muchai. However, Justice Alfred Mabea ruled that the trade unionists case was without merit.
Seven persons charged with Muchai’s murder were granted bail in December, 2022. Many consider them as fall guys.
It seems that the ghost of Muchai would not depart. When Francis Atwoli allegedly threatened then Kenyan Vice President William Samoei Ruto, that his name will not be on the ballot, Ruto’s supporters would not take the threat lightly; they linked it to Muchai’s murder. Ruto won and was sworn in as Kenyan President on September 13, 2022.
On July 5, 1969, Kenya’s most famous trade unionist, Tom Mboya, was shot dead on what is now Moi Avenue in Nairobi.
As the eighth commemoration of his murder rolled by this Tuesday, I made a silent prayer for my friend, George Muchai. May his murderers never know peace. Amen.
Owei Lakemfa, a former secretary general of Organisation of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU), is a human rights activist, journalist, and author.