When she quit her job as Nairobi Senior Resident magistrate in September 1989, Martha Karua, then known as Martha Njoka, was little known.
But at the height of the clamour for multi-party democracy, Karua emerged as a tough and tenacious civil rights crusader and eventually became a household name in Kenya’s legal circles and activist groups.
In the courtrooms, she was the new symbol of defiance — often taking on judges who were frustrating the expansion of the democratic space.
By being named as Raila Odinga’s running mate, Karua will now be closer to the presidency than ever before — completing a desire she has harboured for some time.
Both Raila and Karua have been in the same political trenches and are birds of a feather, having risen to prominence by their singular opposition to Daniel Moi’s dictatorship.
Karua first came to national attention in March 1991 when radical lawyer Paul Muite won the Law Society of Kenya chairmanship with Dr Willy Mutunga as his deputy.
Karua was one of the elected LSK council members together with the likes of Japheth Shamalla, Charles Nyachae, Vitalis Juma and G.B. Akhaabi — a fiery team that had taken LSK at a time when President Moi was under pressure to repeal Section 2A of the Constitution and allow for multi-party democracy.
Soon, this team was taken to court by Aaron Ringera, Philip Kandie, Nesbitt Ojwang and Nancy Barasa, who asked Justice Joseph Mango to restrain them from engaging in politics under the banner of LSK.
The court not only stopped them but kept them busy, for the duration of their term. Undeterred, the group went ahead and issued pro-reform statements and High Court judge Norbury Dugdale allowed the four pro-government members of LSK to file contempt of court proceedings against the Muite group.
“The rate and speed at which the defendants are continuously making statements in contravention and breach of the court order warrants the court to take immediate remedial measures to arrest the situation,” Mr Maxwell Ombogo, on behalf of the pro-government lawyers, told the court.
It was this fight that endeared Ms Karua to the public as she called for judicial reforms and demanded the removal of British expatriate judges who had consistently made pro-government rulings.
Some of the decisions that upset her were the upholding of the legality of the one-party state and rejection of the justiciability of the human rights provisions of the Kenyan Constitution.
Ms Karua and her team issued a May 13, 1991 statement calling for a tribunal to probe Chief Justice Allan Hancox and Justice Dugdale.
Soon, they were taken before Justice John Mwera who found the seven LSK officers guilty of contempt of court and fined them Sh10,000 each. During the trial, Karua clashed with the judge and was ordered out after defying a directive to stop talking while another lawyer was addressing the court.
Another clash with pro-government lawyers took place in September 1991 after Kanu Secretary-General Joseph Kamotho called for the deregistration of LSK. This was after Moi asked “patriotic” lawyers to vote the team out. Karua and her group were hauled, yet again, to the courts to answer another contempt charge.
This time, Justice Effie Owuor stopped the group from holding their Annual General Meeting. One of the items on the agenda was the announcement of the results of a poll conducted on the repeal of the Preservation of Public Security Act.
And with that, Karua, then 34, was tossed into the deep end of Kenya’s politics.
But this was not her first time fighting for democratic space.
In 1990, following the detention of Kenneth Matiba, Charles Rubia and Raila Odinga, Karua was one of the lawyers who released a statement demanding their release.
She was also the lawyer who, in July 1990, filed a habeas corpus application on behalf of Gitobu Imanyara, then Editor of Nairobi Law Monthly, who had been arrested in a pro-reform crackdown. But this failed after Imanyara was detained in an order made on July 5, 1990.
Ten months later, while still pursuing the Imanyara case, Karua would storm out of the court after Justice Dugdale dismissed her application to have the case adjourned since her client was indisposed.
In her practice, Ms Karua stood out as a defender of human rights by representing many on pro bono basis, including Mirugi Kariuki in the treason trial of Koigi Wamwere.
She stood her ground in court when the state sought to end charges against some of those charged with Koigi but discriminated against Koigi and Mirugi.
“May we go on record, my Lord, that counsel for the remaining four accused wants to make some comments”, Ms Karua said.
But an angry Justice Mango shouted: “That is rubbish. I don’t entertain rubbish” Karua then told the judge that he was making a big blunder by using improper language.
During this period, she also immensely contributed to the development of family law, especially the distribution of matrimonial property, as well as constitutional and administrative law. In 1999, she received the Kenya Jurist of The Year Award from the International Commission of Jurists, Kenya Chapter.
Ms Karua entered mainstream politics as a Ford operative and when the party split, she allied herself with Kenneth Matiba’s Ford-Asili and went for nominations for the Gichugu seat. By then, Kirinyaga District politics was dominated by Nahashon Njuno and James Njiru.
During the nominations, Ms Karua lost and then defected to Mwai Kibaki’s DP and won the 1992 election to become the MP for Gichugu constituency. She was also appointed as DP’s legal affairs secretary between 1992 and 1997.
In between, she was still the chairperson of the League of Kenyan Women Voters and was behind a national civic education exercise targeting women voters.
This made her clash with President Moi who dismissed the civic education as “unnecessary” .
Karua called a press conference and said: “Most women in Kenya are still unaware of their rights and since women constitute 52 per cent of voters, we cannot ignore the importance of educating them on their rights and will continue enlightening them on how to vote.”
She was also pushing Parliament to reserve 50 seats for women “to enable women advocate gender issues more strongly.”
On April 16, 1998 Karua declined to be a member of Kibaki’s shadow Cabinet in the Home Affairs docket, arguing she was not consulted. She also resigned as the party’s secretary for legal and constitutional affairs.
“I am concerned that I was not informed of the appointment nor was my acceptance sought prior to the press release. I feel that the manner in which the appointment was made, with all the attendant lobbying and manipulations, makes it difficult for me to accept the appointment,” she said.
In April 1994, Karua filed notice of a motion seeking a vote of no confidence and the resignation of Attorney-General Amos Wako on grounds that he failed to prosecute perpetrators of ethnic violence and those involved in the Goldenberg scandal.
At this time, Ms Karua faced political harassment in her Gichugu constituency where police would disperse her rallies. Once in June 2001, she walked out of a rally addressed by President Moi after she was excluded from the list of speakers.
After the Narc victory in 2002, Karua was appointed Minister for Water. Here, she successfully rolled out water sector reforms and laid the foundation for the revival of irrigation projects across the country. She was also instrumental in setting up water boards that comprised members from both private and public sectors.
It was during her tenure that she stormed out of a meeting on the Nile Treaty declaring that Kenya does not recognise the colonial treaty of 1929 and that the country would use the waters of Lake Victoria as she deems fit. Although the Egyptian water minister declared Karua’s action an “act of war”, a new Nile Basin Initiative was later signed with Egypt on board.
After the formation of the Grand Coalition government following the post-election violence of 2007/8, Ms Karua was appointed minister for Justice, National Cohesion and Constitutional Affairs until she quit on April 6, 2009 citing frustrations while discharging her duties. While at the ministry, she was described in her official profile as “tough, principled, [and] bold” and as a person who “shoots straight from the hip.”
The resignation followed President Kibaki’s appointment of five new High Court judges on April 3, 2009 and promotion of two others to the Court of Appeal without consulting the ministry. She was the first minister to resign from the Grand Coalition government.
The second-born child of Mr and Mrs Jackson Karua from Kimunye village in Gichugu, Karua attended Kabare Girls Boarding School before joining Kiburia Girls Secondary School, and then had a stint at Ngiriambu Girls before settling at Karoti Girls where she sat for her East African School Certificate.
Karua was admitted to Nairobi Girls High School for her “A” Levels before joining the University of Nairobi in 1977 for a law degree, graduating in 1980. Between 1980 and 1981 she was at the Kenya School of Law. She then entered public service and worked as a magistrate from 1981.
She served at the Makadara Law Courts (1984-1985) and Kibera Law Courts (1986-1989) when she left to start her own law firm. In 2011, she graduated with a Master’s in Business Administration from USIU.
[email protected]; @johnkamau1