Iconic Martha Karua is back

Martha Karua

Narc-Kenya chairperson Martha Karua.

Photo credit: Jeff Angote | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Unlike many of those who sit atop the state, she wasn’t born with a silver spoon in her mouth.
  • She’s largely lived a life of virtue and service for which she’s sacrificed to build a better Kenya.

SC Martha Karua – the chairperson of Narc-Kenya – isn’t a stranger to any Kenyan. She’s occupied the nation’s imagination for decades. No Kenyan politician struts their stuff more in your face than the indomitable Kirinyaga tigress. She breathes fire and takes no prisoners in the public – or private – square.

In the language of those who aren’t “woke”, she’s the only one who’s wearing the pants in the so-called Mountain, or Central Kenya. She walks with the guts of a general and the determination of a pit bull. In the rough and tumble of Kenyan politics, you cross her at your own peril. At a recent event, even rambunctious Gatundu South MP Moses Kuria calmly stood by meekly like a lamb.

Ms Karua is all grit. Unlike many of those who sit atop the state, she wasn’t born with a silver spoon in her mouth. I even doubt that growing up she had bootstraps by which to pull herself up. But unlike some, she doesn’t rub her humble origins in your face. 

You won’t hear her appealing to your sympathy by telling you a tear-jerking story of woe about selling chickens. No ma’am – she’s a self-made Kenyan who doesn’t want, or crave, your pity. 

She’s largely lived a life of virtue and service for which she’s sacrificed to build a better Kenya.

I know like all of us in public life she’s had her moments of letdown. Her political and moral nadir came in the wake of the stolen 2007 elections. Ironically, it was also during that imbroglio that she showed us her “never-say-die” character. As ex-President Mwai Kibaki can attest, Ms Karua is the person you want when in a foxhole. 

Humiliating the dictator

She doesn’t understand the words “retreat” or “surrender”, as Kirinyaga Governor Anne Waiguru has come to learn. I believe to this day Mr Kibaki would have lost the presidency and been driven from power had Ms Karua not stood in the breech. Unfortunately, the Kikuyu male elite under Mr Kibaki kicked her in the teeth and forced her to quit.

Ms Karua’s vociferous defence of the stolen election and subsequent justifications of state violations of human rights under Mr Kibaki’s government – in which she served as Justice minister – are hard to forget. 

Other than that, I think people of good faith can agree she’s a cut above most politicians. Who, for example, can forget her defining moment when, on June 16, 2001, she publicly walked out on President Danial arap Moi – a ruthless authoritarian – at Kerugoya Stadium. 

Then the Gichugu MP, Ms Karua risked everything by humiliating the dictator in broad daylight. These are the risks pro-establishment status-quo politicians like Governor Waiguru can never even dream of, or fathom, taking. Love, or hate her, she’s iconic. 

In Kenya’s political landscape, there are only two women with the oomph to duke it out in a very toxic patriarchal environment – Ms Karua and Kitui Governor Charity Ngilu. Neither suffers fools – and misogynists – kindly. Whatever one thinks, they are great role models for the female gender. If a man hits them, they hit back harder. 

That’s why I am not surprised to see her ascend to the pinnacle of Kikuyu-Central political leadership. With Jubilee’s Uhuru Kenyatta heading for the exit – and the traditionally patriarchal Kikuyu bereft of a worthy male successor – Ms Karua has wrested the podium from pretenders to the Kikuyu throne. She’s in the enviable position of dictating the tempo of the region’s politics. Ms Karua will have to humble herself and play her cards close to the vest, and with deftness because the “Mountain” is a snake pit. 

‘Flying snakes’

Where the Akamba might send “flying snakes” at you, or the famed kamuti, their Agikuyu cousins are more apt to resort to the old backstab, sometimes literally. Many a Gikuyu man will take on her drunk on nothing else but empty testosterone. 

I am sure she will lay waste to such loud weaklings, but she must be careful. The knives will be out because so much is at stake. Inheriting Mr Kenyatta is seen as the key to the “Mountain” and its hidden treasures. Never before has a Gikuyu woman – except Mumbi – come closer. 

There’s a more temporal and urgent reason for Ms Karua to be extra vigilant. 

It’s a foregone conclusion the leading presidential candidates will pick a Gikuyu person as their running mate. This is an attempt not so much to corral Agikuyu votes, but to deny the side opposite the opportunity to brag that only they have a Kikuyu running mate. 

Could Ms Karua be the running mate and, therefore, gain more street creds as a future numero uno? That will be the mantle automatically bestowed on the next DP. 

If not, can she pick, or influence, the Kikuyu to be chosen as running mate? Her power is inestimable.

Makau Mutua is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Margaret W. Wong Professor at Buffalo Law School. He’s Chair of KHRC. @makaumutua.


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