Martha Karua: The steely lady who wants to be Kenya’s president
Posted Saturday, February 23 2013 at 00:00
A scrutiny of this no-nonsense woman’s winding journey to political stardom is the story of a steadfast lawyer, human rights defender, and women rights activist all wrapped in one ambitious person who wants to lead her country, writes Billy Muiruri.
When Martha Wangari Karua first ventured into politics in 1992, it was a David Versus Goliath contest in Gichugu Constituency. This female lawyer was challenging former head of Public Service, Geoffrey Kariithi.
Everything about the two candidates was distinctly different. Kariithi was wealthy, experienced and respected because of his age. Karua was young, poor (lawyers aren’t the most moneyed people in this country), and a political novice. Their only similarity could have been that they both had a good education, but she had the better of it. The results were shocking; Karua felled Kariithi. Instantly, she became the giant killer, and the long journey in politics for the tough talking lawyer had begun.
Just the beginning
A career whose springboard was sending old man Kariithi home has graduated into producing one of the most powerful women in Kenyan politics, now a contender for presidency.
Recently in Nairobi, she came tops in a presidential debate organised by the media, and whose debaters included Prime Minister Raila Odinga and his two deputies, Musalia Mudavadi and Uhuru Kenyatta. “She is just amazing. She grasps issues with the mastery of a hands-on leader. She does not flinch or hesitate and seems to have answers on her finger tips,” said Reuben Motari, a political activist and youth leader in Nairobi. Earlier, Karua had rated herself as an ordinary person with “extra ordinary dreams for my homeland, Kenya”.
The 56–year-old exudes confidence and is famous for her no-nosense approach to issues on corruption and integrity. About a month ago, she declared her wealth as KShs66m (Kenya shillings), and dared other presidential candidates to follow suit. Although none has been “bullied” into declaring what they own, she made her point: Let Kenyans know how clean you are.
A well known toughie
During President Kibaki’s second tenure in 2008, she was one of the people appointed to the “Half cabinet”, a list of 21 ministers the President named as the post-election violence intensified, a position she would hold until the acrimonious fallout with President Kibaki in 2009.
By her action, described as the boldest by a Kenyan woman politician, Karua became one of the very few Cabinet ministers in Kenya’s history to have ever resigned from government outside an election year. Her father, Jackson Karua, was quoted from their Kimunye village in Kirinyaga County as having “beseeched” his daughter not to throw away the flag (resign from Cabinet) and instead try to solve issues out within the government. She stuck to her guns.
No-nonsense, from way back
Karua’s belligerent tendencies are home- grown. Born in a humble family of eight, four boys and four girls, Wangari, as she was known then, hated injustice. In fact, her school life was eventful, transferring from two schools under circumstances described by one of her schoolmates as bordering on “intolerable assertiveness”.
“My childhood dream was to become a judge. At the time, I did not know the Gichugu MP dream would come true,” she says.
The critics and the believers
Amongst her supporters, she is regarded as firm and resolute in upholding the law and abiding by the rule of law, and during the controversial vote tallying at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre (KICC) in Nairobi, in December 2007, her true character and energy to uphold the rule of law were evident.
In fact, she walked out of the whole fiasco with the tag of “the only man in PNU (Party of National Unity- President Kibaki’s ruling party)”, a reference that emanated from her tough stance in defence of what she believed was the best legal course of action in the crisis.
“I still believe the post-election violence was unfortunate and unnecessary. In fact, the matter should have gone to court for determination,” she says.
Her critics concede that she is too tough on account of her no-nonsense approach to issues she holds dear. So, why does Karua attract admiration and criticism in equal measure? “I speak my mind. I cannot stomach what I believe is wrong,” she says.
This fact, former Naivasha MP Jayne Kihara, who describes her as “consistently consistent”, can attest to.
“I admire her boldness and forthrightness. When you wrong her, she will tell you directly. She does not hold a grudge or send someone to tell you about it. After this, she moves on,” says Kihara.