Raila does not lose sleep over who will be running mate, says Atwoli

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Central Organisation of Trade Unions (Cotu) Secretary-General Francis Atwoli during an interview at his Ildamat Home in Kajiado County on April 29th, 2021. [David Gichuru, Standard]

It is easy to see why Francis Atwoli picked Ildamat, Kajiado County, for his home. On a chilly day, he can choose to stay indoors and savour the hypnotic beauty of Mt Suswa, visible on the horizon, and the surrounding hills. Sunny days are perfect for the outdoors. A constant breeze and the tranquil sound of water lapping in the fountain in front of the Atwolis’ guest house offer a calming effect.

Besides the weaver birds colonising his acacia tree, Mr Atwoli doesn’t have to worry about any noise in his space. Living 90km away from his Solidarity House office – the headquarters of the Central Organisation of Trade Unions (Cotu) in perhaps the noisiest place in the capital, Gikomba – buys some peace. Perhaps the only downside may be that he hardly seems to have neighbours.

Occasionally, a helicopter or two will disrupt the calm of the Ildamat sky. More often than not, the chopper will be landing in Atwoli’s homestead.

We are seated inside the guest house and have barely started our interview. Atwoli’s wife, Mary, had joined in briefly but left. She has a cold. Her husband has spent the last 20 minutes eulogising President Mwai Kibaki, describing him as a diligent worker.

He doesn’t look his usual upbeat and has a constant wince on his face. I assume he is in some sort of pain. I don’t ask. Soon, I won’t have the chance to ask much; soon we (a colleague and I) will be rushing to shoot questions and he will be rushing to answer as briefly as he can.

Atwoli has friends coming over and he hates to keep them waiting. The rule doesn’t just apply to prospective deputy presidents – like Peter Kenneth – who is waiting at the Atwolis’ side lawn, probably watching their pigeons feed. The Cotu secretary-general applies the same standards to all his guests, including journalists, to whom the 72-year-old attends as soon as his house manager, Tanya Pavic, informs him they are done setting up.

He had assumed a restful posture on his bergère – Ms Pavic calls it “Mzee’s special seat” – until he picked up the sound of an approaching chopper. The trade unionist was still relatively calm as the chopper’s thrumming became louder. He, however, seemed eager to spring from his seat when it went silent, clasping his chair’s arm like someone about to rise. But we do enough to stall him.

Saturdays, he had told me, are the worst days for interviews. “That’s when I see my friends. I only let you come because you insisted.”

Atwoli had set the particular day for a “review meeting” with friends in the Azimio la Umoja One Kenya coalition to discuss “emerging challenges”. Later, Junet Mohamed, the secretary-general of Azimio’s executive committee, will join Atwoli and Mr Kenneth and they will post their meeting on social media. 

The Cotu boss said he also expected Westlands MP Tim Wanyonyi, but he was yet to show up by the time we were leaving. My colleague overheard Kenneth lament that Mr Wanyonyi wasn’t picking up his calls.

Nairobi governor

One of the emerging challenges, it seemed, revolved around the Nairobi governor race. The day before, Azimio had announced newcomers Polycarp Igathe and Philip Kaloki as their nominees for Nairobi governor and deputy governor, respectively. Wanyonyi, Raila Odinga had said, would seek re-election in Westlands. Atwoli is a common face in negotiations that result in such outcomes, a staple of this year’s election cycle, but, the Cotu boss says, he sat the Nairobi one out.

“I avoided attending the meetings because I would have pushed a contrary view,” he says, denying that he was involved in brokering the Azimio deal in Nairobi. “I would have preferred a (Richard) Ngatia and Wanyonyi ticket.” 

In the absence of Wanyonyi, they talk for more than an hour inside a canopy tent put up on the side lawn. With Kenneth around, the subject of a running mate shouldn’t be far off. And it is because Mr Odinga is yet to pick one and politicians from Mt Kenya and Ukambani leaders aren’t giving the ODM leader any space, almost harassing him to pick “one of their own”. The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission insists that presidential aspirants must name their running mates by May 16.

Azimio has set up a panel to recommend the ideal running mate to Odinga, something the Cotu boss thinks the ODM leader should do on his own.

“As those close to him, we told him we will leave that to him because if someone chooses a running mate for him and the running mate causes him problems, he would curse us. We don’t want curses… nobody wants a trouble-shooter (trouble-maker), like what Uhuru underwent (with Deputy President William Ruto),” Atwoli says, asserting that the choice of a running mate wasn’t causing Odinga sleepless nights.

“Raila can’t be under any pressure. He has been to jail. That (picking a running mate) is a very minor thing to him. That is a minor thing to me, what is more important to us is offering the best services to mwananchi. Politics is like a huge river that sometimes breaks its banks… whether they agree or not, eventually, they will move together,” he says.

Atwoli has always seemed to be at the centre of the decision-making process within Azimio and he frequently hosts the coalition’s meetings. But just as he denied playing a role in crafting Azimio’s Nairobi ticket and being a part of discussions to determine Odinga’s prospective deputy, he denies being part of other affairs, despite leaving visible footprints.

One such matter is the formation of Azimio, which he credits entirely to Odinga, and the Building Bridges Initiative that essentially birthed the coalition. 

“Azimio was Raila Amollo’s brainchild. Even when we sat with him, we didn’t know what he would come up with,” he says.

The Cotu boss says he took interest in Azimio because of Odinga’s ideals that, he says, would change the country by eradicating corruption and safeguarding a future for coming generations.

Countless meetings

“I didn’t have any input. My job was just hosting them,” Atwoli adds, referring to the countless meetings he has hosted in the last year. And he has the perfect statement to prove how far he is from the centre of things.

“I hardly meet President Uhuru… I don’t even talk to him… I communicate with him through the press,” he says.

But Atwoli has done more than host Odinga at his home. Just recently, he led several workers’ unions to support his presidential bid.

Amid rumours that Musalia Mudavadi would be joining Ruto, Atwoli endorsed Odinga at a mega rally at the Bukhungu Stadium in Kakamega in December last year. Since then, he has kept Odinga’s flame burning in the former Western province, spending weekends-on-end on the campaign trail in the region.

He has also been on Ruto’s neck, telling everyone who cares to listen why the deputy president shouldn’t succeed Kenyatta. And for his trouble, Atwoli earned a slur from the DP, who called him “a stupid man”, when their wars recently escalated. He said Ruto was bitter with him because he stopped him from “controlling National Social Security Fund”.

It is easy to see why Atwoli’s friends choose Ildamat as the venue for their meetings: Guests can arrive in and leave out without a worry that some journalist could be on a stakeout. Atwoli, too, is quite a host, who insists that his guests mustn’t leave without sharing a meal with him.

And that is how we found ourselves waiting on the front porch, watching the Cotu boss and his friends talk and later at his home restaurant.

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