Return of the 'Iron lady' sets off Mt Kenya’s quiet revolution

Martha Karua

Narc Kenya leader Martha Karua addresses wananchi at Karatina town in Nyeri County on May 20, 2022.

Photo credit: Joseph Kanyi | Nation Media Group

 Mt Kenya is on the cusp of a ‘Quiet revolution’. On May 16, Raila Odinga, one of the frontrunners in Kenya's August 9 presidential election, picked Ms Martha Wangari Karua as his running mate on the Azimio la Umoja alliance ticket. Ms Karua has been on the fringe of power since 2009, when she resigned as Justice minister in the Grand Coalition Government.

The return of the ‘iron lady’ of Kenyan politics onto the national stage has set off rapid changes on several fronts.

First, the return of the veteran female politician marks a significant attempt by the Azimio power elite to deal with the ‘Ruto Syndrome’ – a trend of disloyalty and rebellion during critical transitions now associated with the office of the Deputy President. Ms Karua has no loyalty deficit. She was a loyal and staunch supporter of former President Mwai Kibaki.

“As DP, I will not seek to outshine the President”, Karua said in an interview on May 17.

Martha is “someone who would not compete with the president," Mr Odinga noted.

However, she is no pushover. She has earned a reputation as a straight-talker when it comes to matters of human rights, democracy and integrity.

Against all odds, she backed the move by the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate the 2008 post-election violence. She seemed politically inclined toward Odinga’s CORD. More recently, she publicly opposed the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI). She has decried Kenyan politics as a “rich boys' club” that kept her on the margins of politics. Her return will restore principled leadership and energise the war against corruption and poverty.

Second, the Odinga-Karua ticket has seen the forceful return of the Kibaki-era politics of principles and ideological commitment, revolving around the idea of knowledge and power.

Ms Karua, 64, is one of the heroes of the Second liberation. Her alliance with Odinga signifies the re-union of progresive forces that ushered democracy into power in 2002. 

Ms Karua is no charlatan. She has bankable experience as a lawyer, human rights activist, principled leader, former long-standing MP and Cabinet minister who also ran for president in 2013.

Four, although belatedly, Ms Karua’s re-entry into politics has forced a long-overdue change of guard in Mt Kenya leadership. With Kenyatta retiring in less than three months, Ms Karua is at the apex of a new architecture of Mt Kenya leadership.

 In picking Ms Karua, the former Prime Minister is seeking to win hearts, minds and votes in Kikuyuland.

The Odinga-Karua ticket fundamentally tilts the balance of power from the United Democratic Party (UDA) to Azimio in Mt Kenya. Ms Karua has hit the ground running, leading Azimio’s onslaught in Mt Kenya.

Power vacuum

Obviously, lack of a clear line of political succession was hurting Azimio’s fortunes in Mt Kenya. The absence of a prominent Kikuyu candidate had created a power vacuum that UDA exploited to entrench itself.

Fifth, the Karua-Odinga ticket is rapidly tilting the axis of the presidential contest in 2022 from ethnicity to gender. Again, in picking Karua, Mr Odinga is seeking to win over the female voters for Azimio. Kenya has one of the lowest proportions of female parliamentarians in East Africa – at just 23 per cent.

 “History is calling us”, said Mr Odinga, “to close the gender gap in our country.”

In almost every sense, Ms Karua is Kenya’s Kamala Harris, Joe Biden’s Vice-President. Her nomination signifies a genuine progress in gender equality.

Six, the Raila-Karua ticket has forced a rematch between DP Ruto and Ms Karua, two of Kenya’s most influential figures in the 21st Century. In his memoir, My Life, My Purpose: A Tanzanian President Remembers (Dar-es-Salaam, 2019), former Tanzanian President Benjamin William Mkapa singles out Mr Ruto and Ms Karua as the most influential politicians during the mediation of the crisis arising from the 2008 post-election violence. Locking out the two rival politicians from the mediation team helped break the deadlock in the talks and secure a power-sharing agreement between President Kibaki and Mr Odinga.

In the Mt Kenya context, the August 2022 election is a rematch between DP Ruto and Ms Karua. On May 15, Ruto announced Mr Rigathi Gachagua as his running mate, a choice calibrated to woo Mt Kenya voters.

However, the growing popularity of the Raila-Karua ticket over the Ruto-Rigathi ticket is likely to tilt the balance of power in Mt Kenya.

The DP’s genius in Mt Kenya region was to shift the axis of competition from ethnicity to class, inventing a hustler-dynasty divide that has been effectively deployed against Uhuru Kenyatta and his allies.

Ms Karua is not ‘a dynasty’. She is well-positioned to blunt the hustler narrative and “bottom-up” economic argument, replacing class with gender and refocusing the campaign to corruption, leadership with integrity and regional interests.

Seven, naming of Ms Karua as running mate and sidestepping Jubilee nominees –  Ms Sabina Chege or Mr Peter Kenneth – has eventually pushed President Kenyatta deeper into the lame-duck phase of his presidency.

An ODM-Narc-Kenya détente prevents Jubilee mandarins from playing the politics of marionettes and becoming the power behind the throne.

President Kenyatta is also under pressure to pull out of presidential campaigns, play neutral and steer the presidency clear of divisive succession politics that is likely to undermine its integrity.

As Odinga’s loyal deputy, Ms Karua’s rendezvous with the presidency looms.

 Prof Kagwanja is a former Government Adviser and currently the Chief Executive of Africa Policy Institute.