Kenya: The Martha Karua euphoria that never was

By Jeff Otieno
Posted on Monday, 15 August 2022 14:22

Martha Karua, the running-mate to Kenya's Opposition leader and presidential candidate Raila Odinga of the Azimio La Umoja at the Kasarani Stadium in Nairobi, Kenya August 6, 2022. REUTERS/Monicah Mwangi

The naming of the no-nonsense former Justice Minister Martha Karua as the running mate of former Prime Minister Raila Odinga in this year’s general election elicited excitement. However, the euphoria did not translate into votes. What went wrong for the ‘Iron Lady’?

On 16 May when Raila, the Azimio La Umoja Coalition party flagbearer, named former Justice Minister Martha Karua as his running mate, celebrations erupted in different parts of the country.

From Mombasa island to Malaba town on the Kenya-Uganda border, men and women took to the streets to celebrate Karua’s nomination.

Her nomination elicited hope among voters who had earlier expressed disappointment in naming Mathira MP Rigathi Gachagua as Deputy President William Ruto’s running mate.

Gachagua is facing corruption charges in court and many wondered why Ruto would settle for a person who had such big baggage.

“I can foresee hope and a better future for our children. We do not need leaders with questionable character. At last, Kenya has a chance to elect a female deputy president,” said Milly Achieng, a resident of Kisumu’s Kondele slum. She took to the streets to celebrate minutes after Raila broke the news.

The Iron Lady

In naming Karua – nicknamed the  ‘iron lady’ – as his running mate, Raila had planned to kill two birds with one stone. First, attract the female voting bloc, which is crucial in any general election. Secondly, charm the Mt Kenya voters who have all along voted against him in his last four attempts to win the top seat. Karua is a daughter of Mt Kenya who would attract the much-needed votes, or so Raila thought.

Statistics show that more men vote for women…

Some political analysts, however, were not convinced and predicted that the Karua euphoria would soon fizzle out.

A day after her nomination, Dr Edward Kisiang’ani of Kenyatta University, said: “Statistics show that more men vote for women hence her nomination will not have much impact on the female vote. It will also have little effect in Mt Kenya region.”

Kisang’ani’s prediction came to fruition two days after the 9 August general election: Ruto’s United Democratic Alliance (UDA) party had swept all the parliamentary seats in Kirinyaga, Karua’s home county.

The four constituencies that rejected Karua’s Azimio coalition party and voted for UDA are Kirinyaga Central, Gichugu, Ndia and Mwea. In fact, celebrations rocked the county following UDA’s landslide victory.

To add salt to injury, Ruto pulled an upset in Karua’s own polling station garnering more than half of the votes cast.

“You got to give it to the deputy president. When he captures all the seats in your constituency and even garners more votes in your polling station then you have to say ‘wait a minute there is something wrong here,” says Jubilee party  Secretary General  Jeremiah Kioni referring to Karua’s humiliation in Kirinyaga county. Jubilee party is one of the founding members of the Azimio La Umoja Coalition party.

The strong UDA wave

So strong was the UDA wave in the region that Kioni and other MPs and governors who supported Raila’s presidency lost their seats.

Karua’s nomination was supposed to turn Mt Kenya blue (Azimio coalition party colour) by bringing on board the women’s vote, but instead, it was the yellow wave (United Democratic Alliance party colour) that swept through the region’s 10 counties like wildfire.

It was not so much about Karua, but about President Kenyatta who many voters in the region felt had betrayed his deputy…

Why was the Karua effect minimal not only in the Mt Kenya region but in other parts of the country?

According to John Charo, a political analyst, the rejection of Karua by both male and female voters in the Mt Kenya region was to a large extent a protest vote against President Uhuru Kenyatta.

“It was not so much about Karua but about President Kenyatta who many voters in the region felt had betrayed his deputy and instead opted to support his fierce rival Odinga,” says Charo.

He says Raila’s running mate was only caught up in the middle of it all and “when two bulls fight it is the grass that suffers”.

Kioni echoes this sentiment saying the Mt Kenya voters believed they had a debt to repay since Ruto supported Kenyatta’s presidential bid in 2013 and 2017.

“The debt message, which was repeated numerous times by Mt Kenya politicians allied to the deputy president, stuck in their [voters] minds and it was difficult to convince them otherwise,” he says.

Socio-economic problems

Ruto and his allies also heaped all the socio-economic problems facing Mt Kenya residents on President Kenyatta, who is also the Azimio coalition party council chairman, making it difficult for Karua to make any inroads in the region.

“Uhuru is to blame for all the economic problems facing the dairy, tea and coffee farmers in the region hence I did not want anybody associated with him. That is why I rejected Karua and her Azimio party,” says Tabitha Wangare who hails from Karua’s Gichugu constituency.

Margaret Njoki, also a resident of Gichugu, agrees that Karua is a politician of high integrity “and it would have been good to have a deputy president from my area, but I rejected her because of Uhuru Kenyatta. Mine was a protest vote”.

Of the two million plus votes cast in the region, the deputy president took home 80%, leaving a paltry 20% for Raila.

The misogyny factor

However, Charo says there were other underlying reasons, one of them being misogyny.

The political analyst refers to a comment made by the deputy president at an economic forum meeting in Embu, five days after the nomination of Karua, where he chided the decision as one done out of confusion.

“When they [Azimio] heard we were planning to aid small-scale businesswomen and all those struggling to eke out a living Raila went ahead and chose a woman running mate out of confusion,” Ruto said.

I do not think Kenya is ready for a woman president

Actually, some voters – both men and women – supported the deputy president’s comments arguing that the time was not ripe for a woman to occupy such a powerful seat.

Opinion polls, done a few days before the general election, showed that almost an equal number of female voters supported the two coalitions. In other words, the naming of Karua did not have much effect on female voters as was initially expected.

“A deputy president is just one step away from being president. I do not think Kenya is ready for a woman president,” says Daniel Njoka, a resident from Tharaka Nithi county who voted for Ruto and his running mate, Gachagua.

The evangelicals effect

The evangelicals, who have a strong bond with the deputy president, also made it even more difficult for Karua, portraying her and Raila as non-believers who would wreck the country if elected.

Gachagua also amplified this message, warning Mt Kenya residents – the majority of whom profess the Christian faith – that Raila and Karua would close indigenous churches and promote atheism if they take over power.

As a divorcee, Karua’s rivals in the Ruto-led Kenya Kwanza alliance further portrayed her as ‘a wrong role model to young women’.

According to Charo, single women vying for elective seats face difficulties in getting the electorate to accept them, due to negative cultural perceptions of unmarried women.

The negative portrayal of Karua as a divorcee and somebody who is not worthy to be a deputy president was not only propagated in the Mt Kenya region, but also on social media

He cites Kirinyaga Governor Anne Waiguru and the incoming Nakuru Governor Susan Kihika who were initially single but opted to get married first before vying for the governorship in order to be accepted by voters mainly in rural areas.

“The negative portrayal of Karua as a divorcee and somebody who is not worthy to be a deputy president was not only propagated in the Mt Kenya region, but also on social media by the Kenya Kwanza Alliance supporters,” he says.

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