Can Kenya’s ‘Iron Lady’ Martha Karua push Raila over the top?

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Kenya 2022: Who will win the great race?

By Son Gatitu
Posted on Wednesday, 1 June 2022 11:59, updated on Wednesday, 29 June 2022 11:56

Martha Karua (twitter: @MarthaKarua)
Martha Karua (twitter: @MarthaKarua)

Presidential candidate Raila Odinga made Kenyan history this month when he chose as his running mate the first woman to ever join a major party ticket. But will she be able to push the Azimio la Umoja One Kenya Alliance leader to the top?

With the former justice minister in his corner, Raila is hoping to appeal to several key constituencies that could put him over the top in the razor-tight August race against Deputy President William Ruto.

In addition to women and champions of gender equality, Karua also appeals to the central Mt. Kenya region – which is widely seen as a key battleground in this year’s election – thanks to her two decades in parliament as the representative for Kirinyaga County. An advocate of the High Court of Kenya, Karua, 64, is also known for her tough stance against corruption.

Raila’s presidential campaign has gained momentum following the unveiling of Karua and it is now polling ahead of Ruto’s. However, will Karua’s star power be enough for Raila to finally seize the prize that has eluded the 77-year-old former prime minister for a record four times?

The Martha wave

From the moment Raila announced his running mate on 16 May after weeks of consultations within the Azimio la Umoja One Kenya Alliance, he made it clear that he was banking on Karua’s appeal to women.

“History is calling us to close the gender gap in our country,” Raila told the crowd. “History is calling us to reciprocate the struggles and fidelity of our women. History is calling on us to produce our first woman deputy president.”

Karua has heartily embraced the role. “My being named running mate […] makes the realisation of this dream of having women right at the presidency closer to reality,” she said.

I have come to plant the seeds, I will come again to water the crops, then I will come to tend the land and we shall harvest when the time comes

Describing Raila as the “captain of the ship”, she has vowed to be “loyal” and “steadfast in pursuit of the shared ideals”, cementing her transformation from former critic to frontline defender. “In utmost humility, I stand before you today to say […] that I am ready to walk as your deputy and to support you in our shared ideals.”

News of the nomination has excited the electorate, notably those in Karua’s Mt. Kenya backyard. That same week, she hit the ground running, attending more than 30 political meetings and popularising the new ticket. Buoyed by the rising tide, Karua has been on the campaign trail accompanied by several political leaders from the Azimio coalition.

“I have come to plant the seeds, I will come again to water the crops, then I will come to tend the land and we shall harvest when the time comes,” she said during a recent tour of Meru County.

Thika Town MP Patrick Wainaina says the Karua factor cannot be ignored. “This is the kind of leadership we need in Kenya,” he says. “People who stand with integrity no matter what.” Wainaina was previously allied to Ruto’s UDA party, but withdrew in January this year to run for the Kiambu governor seat as an independent candidate.

Still, analysts remain divided on whether the excitement surrounding Karua’s nomination will translate into enough votes.

“While the gender card is exciting, you may realize the Raila-Martha ticket is a […] perfect ticket in a wrong election,” says Javas Bigambo, a lawyer in Nairobi. “If they want to focus on their reform credentials, the reform issues are not going to be central in this election, it is about the economy.”

During some of her meetings in Mt. Kenya region, Karua was heckled by purported UDA supporters.

Nevertheless, Karua was unfazed. “I know people are hungry and there is no money, but don’t accept to be hired for KSh100 ($1) to come and do a childish job,” she said. “Tell whoever sent you to come and pick my microphone away.”

Woman in charge

The feisty comments were par for the course for Karua. Her mother, Josephine Wanjiru, says she has always been a stickler for what she believes in. “You shouldn’t see her as tough, it is her stand,” says Wanjiru. “[She has been this way] since her childhood.”

Karua’s no-nonsense approach to public affairs was forged when she was growing up as the second born of eight children. “She was tough even when we were children,” says Jefta Karua, Martha’s younger brother. “She was a leader showing us the way, and there were no two ways, just one.”

A forceful character who sometimes clashed with her school teachers, Karua attended three secondary schools over a period of four years. In 1980, she graduated with a law degree from the University of Nairobi and was admitted to the bar a year later after completing her law diploma from the Kenya School of Law.

For close to seven years, Karua worked as a magistrate in various courts in Nairobi and Nakuru counties before founding her own firm, Martha Karua & Co. Advocates, which she ran until 2002. During that time, she campaigned for multi-party democracy under then President Daniel arap Moi. She first interacted with Raila in 1990 when she represented him following his arrest over political advocacy.

“At that time, very few lawyers were prepared to represent me,” Raila said. “But this woman, then a young lawyer, led a team of 27 lawyers to defend my illegal detention.”

Full circle

The Raila-Karua ticket marks the reunion of two politicians who have been fighting together in the trenches for the past 30 years but have often viscerally disagreed.

Karua was first elected to parliament in 1992, the same year as Raila. She represented Gichugu Constituency until 2013, when both of them ran for president.

After serving as President Mwai Kibaki’s minister for water resources management and development and later minister of justice and constitutional affairs starting in 2003, Karua backed Kibaki as he faced off with Raila for a second term in 2007.

After electoral violence claimed 1,500 lives, Karua accused Raila’s Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) of “ethnic cleansing”, but ended up serving alongside him in the government of national unity that was formed to quell the nation. She left the government in April 2009 after clashing with Kibaki over judicial appointments.

I have been calling upon him to go home together with President Kibaki. Both of them have been totally unable to uproot corruption from within their ranks

In the 2013 presidential race, when asked if she would agree to be Raila’s running mate if approached, Karua publicly disowned him. “I do not share any values with […] Raila Odinga, nor do I admire his politics,” she said at the time. “I have been calling upon him to go home together with President Kibaki. Both of them have been totally unable to uproot corruption from within their ranks.”

Raila and Karua lost that election to Uhuru Kenyatta as her decades in politics culminated in a sixth-place finish, after she drew fewer than 44,000 votes.

In 2015, she found herself back in Raila’s camp as their Okoa Kenya coalition fought a losing battle to revise the 2010 Kenyan constitution.

Two years after that, Karua reconciled with President Kenyatta and backed his 2017 reelection bid against Raila, hoping that the former would support quest to become governor of her home county of Kirinyaga. Kenyatta’s Jubilee party however ended up endorsing someone else, leaving Karua to challenge her defeat in court.

Last year, her litigious nature was back on display when she joined several civil society groups in challenging a constitutional amendment initiative pushed by the new Kenyatta-Raila alliance.

In a February 2021 interview, Karua denounced the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) as a “totally useless & unnecessary document” that would only allow “state power and state resources (to) be used to the benefit of those in power, where the elite will be prioritised over Kenyans”.

Nine years removed from their 2013 showdown, the Karua-Raila relationship has now come full circle. On 16 May, Raila introduced her as someone who would deliver on the intentions of the BBI. “I want her to finalise the unfinished business of making our constitution,” he said. Karua in turn praised Raila as someone who “has fought all his life for the rights of Kenyans and for social justice”.

Principal assistant

Already, Raila and Karua are looking to the day after the election. Raila is particularly keen to avoid a repeat of the quarrelsome relationship that Kenyatta has had with his deputy over the past few years.

“Like Joshua in the Bible, a principal assistant [deputy president] is meant to be a problem solver to the president and not a problem to the president,” Raila said when he unveiled Karua as his running mate. “This office is meant to lighten the burden of the president and to ease the yoke he carries.”

There’s something wrong with behaviour when we get to that office.

Karua has also consistently called out the Kenyatta-Ruto feud. “If the president feels he can no longer work with the deputy, the government can resign and we will elect another president with his deputy,” she said in 2020.

Ruto also unveiled a running mate from Mt. Kenya native, Mathira Constituency MP Rigathi Gachagua, thus handing voters from central Kenya outsized influence in the country’s politics.

The Kenya Kwanza leader has proposed to empower the deputy president’s office through executive order if he wins the election, while Raila has said he will task Karua with steering the justice department.

Karua however feels the real problem is with the personality of the office holders. “There’s nothing wrong with our constitution the way it defines that role,” she said. “There’s something wrong with behaviour when we get to that office.”

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