Martha Karua – Kenya’s iron lady of politics

Martha Karua is undoubtedly one of the most outspoken female politicians of our time; so much so that she was once referred to as ‘the only man in Kibaki’s cabinet’. The trained lawyer served as a magistrate before setting up her own law firm. She would then be catapulted into activism before delving into politics. As Member of Parliament for Gichugu Constituency, she served as a cabinet minister in the Ministry of Water Resources Management and Development and Ministry of Justice, National Cohesion and Constitutional Affairs. In 2013, she was the only female presidential candidate in the General Elections and in 2017, she vied for the governorship of Kirinyaga County, braving many a political fight with stoic endurance.

Two events in Martha Wangari Karua’s political career define her mettle. The first was when she walked out on Kenya’s second President, Daniel arap Moi, during a fundraiser, because she felt he had demeaned her on her home turf. The second was her resignation as Minister for Justice, National Cohesion and Constitutional Affairs because she felt her views clashed with President Mwai Kibaki’s.

Karua describes her father and grandmother as her role models. From them, the ‘Iron Lady of Kenyan politics’ learned the values of honesty, respect and hard work. “My grandmother was no push-over. She stood firm for what she believed in,” she says.

Born in 1957, the second of six children spent her early childhood in Kirinyaga. She learnt responsibility and hard work at a tender age as she helped to look after her younger siblings. She also helped her mother with domestic and farm work. Her father, a schoolteacher, worked out of town and joined his family for the weekends.

When she finished her high school education at Nairobi Girls School (now Moi Girls School Nairobi), she taught briefly at Gichugu Secondary School before landing a clerical job at the High Court in Nairobi. She studied Law at the University of Nairobi from 1977 and was hired four years later as a magistrate and posted to Nakuru. The following year, she was transferred to Nairobi and served at the Makadara and Kibera law courts.

Karua did not renew her magistrate’s contract, which expired in 1987. With one child and a second on the way, she needed a bigger income to support her young family, and private practice seemed the solution. That was the genesis of Martha Karua & Company Advocates. With her magistrate’s gratuity of Ksh30,000, she rented an office in downtown Nairobi.

“My work grew through referrals and reputation. Most of it was criminal and civil cases, although I also did some conveyance work,” she recalls.

Then the activist bug bit her. “When you need to question things, you go right ahead and question,” she says. Together with a group of other young lawyers, she questioned the intrusion of the ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU) party into the Law Society of Kenya (LSK), which they felt was tantamount to emasculating the LSK.

Words of Wisdom

  • “Everything we dream of is within reach if we work hard and honestly for it.”
  • “We have different capabilities. It may be easy to achieve a certain objective, but someone else may have to try harder.”
  • “Any pursuit without ethics is bound to achieve short-term gain.”

“KANU developed quite an appetite for co-opting institutions that appeared vocal. It started with the Central Organisation of Trade Unions (COTU),” she says. Soon after, the party took on Maendeleo Ya Wanawake Organisation, which became KANU Maendeleo Ya Wanawake. “Later, (President Daniel) Moi announced he would affiliate LSK to KANU, largely because the Society had assumed an unofficial opposition role. We smelled danger. We felt KANU was getting too close for comfort and interfering with our profession.”

The lawyers cautioned their leaders, whom she says “had started getting appointments to directorships.” As far as they were concerned, this was the prelude to a takeover by KANU. They began agitating for a special general meeting.

“I remember paying Ksh3,000 to book the InterContinental Nairobi for the meeting, only for the police to block LSK members from entering the hotel on the day. They even coerced the hotel to return our money.”

The lawyers made the news with statements denouncing the proposed KANU-LSK affiliation. During that period, Karua was elected to the LSK council.

“We became the face of activism, challenging the government on the rule of law, especially on issues of democracy.” They joined religious leaders, who were also demanding the opening up of the democratic space and a return to multi-partyism.

By 1992, Karua was firmly inside the opposition political movement, which successfully agitated for the reintroduction of multi-party politics. A conference she attended in Uganda as a Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) delegate opened her eyes to women’s rights.

“Yoweri Museveni’s guerrilla National Resistance Movement had just taken power with overwhelming support from women, who in turn crafted policies of gender inclusivity, putting Uganda way ahead of Kenya,” she recalls.

The Kenyan delegates reorganised themselves to agitate for women’s voting rights. They later created the League of Kenya Women Voters (LKWV), which was unapologetically pro-women. Before the 1992 General Elections, most women’s organisations had embraced political activism as a calling.

“Then one day, I asked myself, ‘Which women am I telling to come out, when as a woman in the frontline, I am not coming out myself?’” Karua, whose activism had prompted calls for her to contest the Gichugu parliamentary seat, bowed to the wishes of her supporters, who included her parents.

Her bid to run on a Ford-Asili party ticket was scuttled when the party linked to Kenneth Matiba nominated former Head of Public Service Geoffrey Kareithi instead. However, Democratic Party of Kenya (DP) gave her a ticket and she went on to win the election. Besides becoming the first female lawyer to be popularly elected to Parliament, Karua was appointed DP’s legal affairs secretary between 1992 and 1997.

As an MP, one incident – walking out on then President Moi during a fundraiser in her Gichugu Constituency in 2001 – thrust Karua into the national limelight. The walk-out was prompted by KANU’s authoritarian leadership style. During the event at Kerugoya Stadium, overtures were made for Karua to defect to KANU.

“The KANU chairman in Gichugu started insulting us (the opposition) when he stood up to speak. He said we (DP) were crazy to think Kenya could ever be ruled from Othaya.” Kibaki, who later became Kenya’s president, was both DP leader and from Othaya. “It was quite crude the way he (the KANU official) kept spitting insults,” she says.

Two seats away from Moi, Karua tried to seek the president’s intervention through KANU members Joseph Kamotho and Henry Kosgey. Moi asked what the problem was. “I asked him how he could let his chairman insult us. I said, ‘I’ve come to meet you as Head of State and to participate in development work.’”

She then asked Moi for just two minutes to address the gathering. The president wanted to know what she would say, and she assured him that she would give him his due respect as Head of State. Although Moi promised to allow Karua to speak, his body language said otherwise.

“I knew he wouldn’t. So I picked my bag and stood up. The police commissioner and Kamotho, who were sitting near me, pleaded with me in Kikuyu, ‘Please madam, please don’t go.’”

When Moi stood to make his speech, Karua walked across the podium in front of him, giving the DP salute as she left the stadium. “I could not make a commotion. That, I knew, was illegal. But there was no law obligating me to listen to a president. I was exercising my right to walk out.” As soon as she was out of the stadium, other people began to leave. The stadium was locked after more than 200 people had walked out.

“Within no time, Moi’s motorcade passed by. The fundraiser was hurriedly concluded and the stadium vacated. That day, I knew that even a president has worries,” she says.

Following the drama, Moi’s subsequent visits to other regions recognised opposition leaders at events in their home areas. Karua’s walk-out had bought the opposition some space.

After the 2002 elections that ended Moi’s 24-year rule, the dynamic political landscape underwent massive transformation. According to Karua, the events preceding the National Rainbow Coalition’s (NARC) leadership made it impossible for her and likeminded politicians to drive their agenda. She also shares that during the 2005 Referendum for a new constitution, the country was polarised, leading to political realignments.

“Kibaki sacked cabinet ministers, including Raila Odinga, who had led the ‘No’ campaign. It became difficult for NARC members to access their party.” This led Karua and other members to form NARC-Kenya, which was registered in 2006. “The split in NARC came during the 2007 elections when they brought in a new entity, Party of National Unity (PNU), and asked us to join. We said we would not.”

The second milestone that solidified Karua’s political identity was her resignation from her cabinet position. As Kibaki’s Justice and Constitutional Affairs minister, she found herself frequently disagreeing with her boss.

“The practice is to agree with the government one serves and with the principle appointer, that is, the president. My mandate, however, was to work, not be a flower in the office.” She felt that the honourable thing for her to do was resign. “That is what I did, and I’ve no regrets.”

In the 2013 elections, the first under the 2010 Constitution, Karua was the only woman among eight presidential aspirants. Her motivation was a natural progression after serving as MP and minister for 20 years. She says she wanted to effect reforms from the helm and see a transformed Kenya hence her decision to run for president.

In the 2017 General Elections, Martha vied for the governorship of Kirinyaga County under a NARC-Kenya ticket, throwing her support for the presidential race behind incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta. She lost the contest to Anne Waiguru, who vied for the seat on a Jubilee Party ticket.

Although she lost both times, Karua has stayed strong in politics. “I have a feeling that I have something to offer – which motivates me – and that is to move Kenyans to a higher place. I still hold that vision.”

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