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Road name row a sign of Kenya’s strife

The Nairobi road sign honouring a trade union leader was replaced after opponents burnt it down.

By Jane Flanagan

A road sign honouring one of Kenya’s most prominent union bosses has opened a new front in the battle between anti-corruption activists and the country’s political elite.

The naming of Francis Atwoli Road ignited a furious backlash by critics who claimed that roads in Nairobi, the capital, were being politicised and that the 72-year-old labour figure did not deserve the tribute.

Clashes between the two sides have focused on the black and white sign in the suburb of Kileleshwa which has been uprooted, replaced, burnt and then restored once more. Atwoli, who is known for his abrasive style and chunky jewellery, has vowed to set up security cameras to protect it. Boniface Mwangi, the opposition figure, has vowed to use his own hands to tear it down again and re-erect the previous sign, Dik Dik Road, named after a small buck. “This is not over,” Mwangi told his 1.7 million followers on Twitter.

Atwoli’s opponents say that he has done little to improve the lot of workers in his two decades leading the Central Organisation of Trade Unions. But Mwangi and other opponents point out that he has supported a longstanding effort by President Kenyatta to amend Kenya’s constitution to expand the power of the executive and create more positions and parliamentary constituencies. The Kenyan High Court has blocked the proposed changes but Kenyatta’s government is now appealing against the decision.

Patrick Gathara, a political commentator, said that the government’s road rebranding campaign was part of its attempt at the “Africanisation” of Nairobi, which still bears the names and paraphernalia of its colonial past. However, he said, the new naming regime was just as discriminatory as it “not only signified the marginalisation of the whites and Indians, but also reflected the ethnicised politics of the day . . . and celebrated the new African elite across the continent”.

The Star, one of Kenya’s leading independent daily newspapers, criticised the waste of public funds at a time when Kenya is weighed down by £55 million in external debt, adding that the union boss was very much alive and required no commemoration. Some residents in Kileleshwa, which is four miles from the city centre, have also threatened legal action against the local authorities for failing in the legal requirement to consult them on renaming Dik Dik Road.

Atwoli said that honouring him with a road was not his idea and the vandalism of the sign had not offended him. “After all if I was asked to choose, I’d have chosen very, very prominent road in Nairobi to be named after me — a bigger road than that one,” he told broadcaster NTV.

This article was published by The Times.


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