- Gullet joined Red Cross in 1973 as a Form One student at Mombasa Technical High School in order to get a medal under the President’s Award Scheme.
- One thing that he has been reflecting on is whether Red Cross should stop giving media updates on figures during tragedies.
At 60, Kenya Red Cross Secretary-General Abbas Gullet leaves with a mottled legacy from the helm of an organisation he joined aged 14.
That he has been a hands-on CEO who led his troops from the front is not in doubt — as described by Asha Mohammed, one of his three deputies who will take over from him when he leaves office in December.
That has led to accusations that he is domineering. But his juniors do not think so. “He has energised the team because when you look up to the leader, of course you cannot be left behind when he is already running ahead of you,” she told Lifestyle.
“He is always in the front and maybe also having the advantage of being tall and with long legs, taking long strides and therefore the rest of us with short legs have to keep running a little bit faster to keep behind him.”
This is due to a philosophy Gullet lives by: to take charge of his team to any operation if he can.
“I always say that I’ll take the first bullet. Because they (Red Cross staff and volunteers) have to believe in our cause,” he said in an interview on Thursday.
“From my basic principle of leadership and management, I lead from the front, not the back. Yes, we have foot soldiers. Yes, we have staff and volunteers. But why should they put their life on the line if you are not willing to put yours?” He posed.
Despite all the good attributes that have seen him serve as the secretary-general for 14 consecutive years (he first served the role between 2001 and 2002 then from 2005 to date), questions linger on the organisation’s reputation at the moment, especially when it comes to handling money.
The organisation suffered a blow in March when it launched a fundraising appeal to help residents of 17 counties that were facing starvation.
The Kenya Red Cross (KRC) set a target of Sh824.5 million to enable it address the situation.
“Our interventions will focus on key areas, among them cash transfers, food distribution, water, sanitation and hygiene, health and nutrition as well as livelihood support,” said Gullet during the launch of the campaign on March 21.
The response to the appeal was a stark contrast from the "Kenyans for Kenya campaign" in 2011, where such an initiative saw Red Cross collect an impressive Sh633.8 million.
This time, there were Kenyans who questioned the society’s financial probity. Some appeared to favour a fundraising by musician Esther “Akothee” Akoth over the Red Cross one.
“Our money is safe with Akothee,” tweeted Kihura. “Red Cross can go party at Boma Hotel. Akothee give us a Paybill number.”
Mourine noted: “Instead of giving money to the Kenya Red Cross, if you feel sufficiently philanthropic to give, pass the money to Akothee. She is sometimes crude but legit!”
Gullet blames the negativity towards Red Cross on bloggers who are “guns for hire”.
“There was nothing wrong with the appeal. There was drought. There is still drought today in Kenya. But someone somewhere decides to deny it and to look for negativity and you’ll then say, ‘Red Cross, we give you all this money, what do you do?’ You build these hotels and all that?” Gullet shot back.
“Do your research on these hotels and show me one penny that Red Cross has taken from the public and put into these facilities,” he added.
One point raised by Kenyans amid the March fundraising controversy was the expenditure of the money contributed during the Kenyans for Kenya campaign.
An audit report on the KRC website says the organisation spent Sh113.9 million on food, cash transfers and transport, but there has not been an updated report to show how the rest of the money was spent.
Fielding questions from the Sunday Nation readers on the “Ask Your Question” platform in April, Gullet said the cash was used in long-term projects: The Kaikor irrigation farm in Turkana “where water still flows to date”, the Chesirmion Dam in Tiaty, Baringo - “a main source of water in this current drought” - and the Walda irrigation farm in Moyale, Marsabit - “that is doing exemplarily well”.
In the Thursday interview, Gullet did not wish to discuss much about the Kenyans for Kenya matter. “People are still asking me about Kenyans for Kenya. The audited accounts were posted six years ago. People don’t read,” he said.
Despite the criticism from some quarters, he said there are Kenyans who understand the organisation.
“They truly and sincerely appreciate the work of the Red Cross. The few bloggers who have given themselves the role of judge and jury and everything, it’s very sad for this country when you actually know they are guns for hire,” he said.
After 14 years at the helm, the Kenya Red Cross announced in June that Gullet will be leaving at the end of the year when his contract comes to an end.
While announcing the news, the KRC board praised him for increasing the organisation’s revenue.
The then KRC governor, Mohamud Said, noted that Gullet had brought efficiency and speed to disaster response.
Gullet told Lifestyle that he is the one who requested to leave. “It was a decision that I made. I told my board, ‘After 14 years in this job, time was up for someone else younger, brighter and fresher with more energy to come and take over,’” he said.
He described his successor, Mohammed, as “a very good person: well-qualified, well-trained”.
Gullet, who has two honorary doctorate degrees from Egerton and Kenyatta universities, was not very forthcoming on his future plans.
He however did not rule out a return to Mombasa, where he grew up. “Well, I’ll leave this job; but I’m sure there will be many other things I want to do,” he said.
“Would I go to Mombasa? Yes, that’s my hometown. Whether I’ll go there for many years is yet to be seen, but there are plenty of things I want to do, both inside and outside the Red Cross.”
From a very young age, Gullet, who was born in Modogashe in Garissa, grew up in Mombasa after he was adopted by Salhan Rahemtullah and her husband, the late Soud Suleiman Saleh Mizra.
The two, who are of Omani extraction, adopted him because he lost his parents early in life. They then relocated from Garissa to Mombasa.
Gullet said he can also try a hand in farming, only that he is yet to acquire land. “Maybe I’ll go into farming,” he said.
A father of four, he said he will also use the time to realign his relationship with his family, admitting that it has not been easy balancing family with the demanding nature of his job — which has been forcing him to report to office at 6.30am every day and return after sunset.
“My kids are grown up, so they have their own lives. I’ll just have to find a way of rediscovering my relationship with all of them; to have better relation with the family, for sure. Because these jobs worldwide are the same. It’s families that suffer,” he admitted.
Gullet joined Red Cross in 1973 as a Form One student at Mombasa Technical High School. He joined not as a first priority, but because it was necessary to get a medal under the President’s Award Scheme.
“To do your bronze medal, you had to learn first aid and that was either through Red Cross or St John’s,” he recalled.