Charity Ngilu – Pioneer female presidential candidate’s political journey

Hailed as the first woman in Kenya to run for president alongside Wangari Maathai, Charity Kaluki Ngilu has had a remarkable presence in the political arena. To date, she remains the female presidential candidate with the most votes following her attempt in 1997. She also served as the Kitui Central Member of Parliament as well as Minister for Health, Minister for Water and Irrigation, and Cabinet Secretary for Lands, Housing and Urban Development. In the 2017 General Elections, she again made political history when she was among the first three female elected governors in Kenya.

Charity Ngilu burst onto the scene during the politically- charged 1992 multi-party elections when, vying through the small Social Democratic Party (SDP), she unseated the then cabinet minister George Ndotto from the Kitui Central parliamentary seat.

The political landscape at the time was undergoing a massive wave of change after decades of intolerance and repression overseen by the powerful ruling party, Kenya African National Union (KANU), which had been unchallenged at the ballot in the previous four elections.

Between 1989 and 1990, a popular anti-KANU movement had been stoked by some clergymen and popularised by a small band of lawyers and politicians. By 1991, it had poured onto the streets as a protest movement for political reform. This led to constitutional changes that opened up the 1992 elections to competing parties.

It was on this popular wave that numerous politicians, including Ngilu, rode into Parliament and politics.

Born in 1952 as the ninth of 13 children, Ngilu grew up in Mbooni, Makueni County. From an early age, she witnessed the abject poverty around her. She would help her mother fetch water for the large household, having to walk several kilometres in search of the scarce commodity. She realised early that education was the only way out of poverty.

This resolve to escape her circumstances drove her to study hard and gain admission to the prestigious Alliance Girls’ High School. But she did not score the marks required to get to university so she joined the Government Secretarial College to train as a secretary instead. She got a job at the Central Bank of Kenya immediately after her training in 1973 and served as a secretary to the then governor Duncan Ndegwa. She resigned two years later to take a Certified Public Secretary course at the Kenya Institute of Administration, a qualification that enabled her to join Manhattan Overseas Corporation as an administration manager. She worked there for three years.

As she worked to shape her destiny, her independence manifested itself through an entrepreneurial streak. Ngilu’s next stop was business. She and her engineer husband, Michael Ngilu, opened a chain of businesses that included a small bakery, a restaurant and Ani-Plastics Limited – a plant manufacturing plastic pipes, electrical sheathing and plumbing materials. She juggled her business with community development work.

She took up leadership positions through community-based projects, which allowed her to mingle with the political class. Her interest in politics was piqued when she organised health groups and saw the adverse problems faced by ordinary Kenyan women.

In 1992, she became one of only five women in Kenya’s Legislature after clinching the Kitui Central parliamentary seat. It was then that she exhibited her tough nature, once famously stinging the government of the day when she addressed a group of reporters saying, “You cannot touch or take anybody to court over corruption when you yourself are corrupt.”

She fought for the inauguration of a new national insurance bill that would ensure that every Kenyan had access to affordable healthcare

Come 1997, Ngilu announced that she was running for president via the Social Democratic Party of Kenya. The euphoria that followed the announcement rocked not only Ukambani but the entire country. Paeans of “Kaa Masaa, Masaa ni ya Ngilu” (Look out, it is time for Ngilu) echoed throughout the country, even among critics, who did not believe she stood a chance.

She finished fifth in the presidential race and although other women have since followed in her footsteps, none has managed the number of votes she garnered.

The publicity Ngilu attracted during the campaigns raised her profile beyond the Kenyan borders. She is celebrated as the first woman presidential candidate in sub-Saharan Africa, together with Wangari Maathai who ran for the presidency in the same year.

In an interview with the Daily Nation on 18 July 1997, Ngilu made a statement about the place of women in politics when she said, “Gone are the days when the prime function of the Kenyan woman was to be treated as a man’s possession.”

Her political career has not been without challenges. During the campaigns in July 1997, she was attacked by a machete-wielding mob, thought by some to have been unleashed by KANU loyalists. During the tumultuous rally, she was also tear-gassed by police. That same year, the licence for her business premises, Boiling Point Hotel in Machakos town, was confiscated. And in 1999, rowdy youths pounced on her in Kitui South and she had to be hospitalised.

But she has held her own in the rough-and-tumble world of Kenyan politics, at times using unconventional means to get her point across. She once confronted a KANU official who tried to disqualify voters in Kitui Central. The next day’s headline read, ‘Ngilu Beats Up Official.’ She was also accused of assaulting a legal officer at the Lands department in connection with an ongoing row with the National Lands Commission when she was the Cabinet Secretary for Lands, Housing and Urban Development.

Ngilu has confounded both critics and supporters in light of changing political realities, when she has had to contend with making tough decisions. Her knack for landing on the right side even when critics believed the game was over for her came in handy in 2002, when her party, National Party of Kenya (NPK), was part of the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) that brought to an end President Daniel arap Moi’s 24-year tenure.

The coalition went on to win the election and President Mwai Kibaki appointed her the Health minister, a position she held up to 2007. During her tenure, she fought for the inauguration of a new national insurance bill that would ensure that every Kenyan had access to affordable healthcare.

This was after a harrowing experience in which she encountered a nine-year-old boy on the verge of death in a rural hospital. His family could not afford to pay for his care. Ngilu sent her driver to take the boy to a regional government hospital and he survived.

On her return trip to Nairobi, the plane she was travelling in was caught in severe turbulence. Living through it marked a turning point in her life. She was more determined than ever to make a difference in people’s lives.

Her plans stalled in Parliament, arguably due to budget constraints. But this did not stop her from applying the pressure – through giving countless speeches in the villages, where she urged local residents to demand care for their children at local health facilities. As Health minister she also called for liberalisation of Kenya’s abortion laws.

She generated a lot of controversy when she told a forum of the International Planned Parenthood Federation that abortion should be legalised in Kenya. Her position was also sharply criticised in religious circles in the country.

Despite the opposition, she won admiration from women’s organisations, among them the Federation of Women Lawyers-Kenya (FIDA). Jane Kiragu, who was chairperson at the time, said: “Ngilu should be commended for calling for increased debate on underlying causes of abortion in Kenya.”

Ngilu’s no-nonsense demeanor and tough stance saw her lead a walk-out of female MPs during debate on a new sex crimes law, after a male legislator made an unsavoury comment about an anti-rape bill. The male legislator told Parliament that women usually said ‘no’ to sexual advances when they actually meant ‘yes’. That remark did not sit well with the women MPs.

In 2007, Ngilu’s political manoeuvring saw her back the then Leader of Opposition Raila Odinga while still serving under the Kibaki government. This did not augur well for her – she was dismissed from government.

After the national accord that brought to an end the 2007-2008 post-election violence, she was appointed Minister for Water and Irrigation under the grand coalition government. She took charge and embarked on providing water in arid and semi-arid areas in the country.

The 2012 Bachelor of Arts (Leadership and Management) graduate has served for more than 20 years in legislative and executive positions.

On appointment by President Uhuru Kenyatta as the Cabinet Secretary for Lands, Housing and Urban Development in May 2013, some much-needed reforms were witnessed at the ministry, including an audit through which more than a million lost or misplaced files were recovered.

On leaving public office, Ngilu returned to politics, throwing herself into campaigns for the Kitui County governorship through her NARC party. She made history yet again by emerging as one of three women elected as governors in 2017.

Ngilu, a widow, has three grown children – two daughters and a son.

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