Martha Karua – The iron lady

Kibaki named Charity Kaluki Ngilu the Minister for Health, Martha Wangari Karua as Minister for Water Resources Management and Development, and Linah Jebii Kilimo as Minister of State in the Office of the Vice President. Also appointed were environmentalist Wangari Maathai as Assistant Minister for Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife, Beth Mugo as Assistant Minister for Tourism and Information, and Betty Tett, the Assistant Minister for Local Government.

Karua quickly became known as ‘Iron Lady’ due to her unflinching and unwavering defence of Kibaki’s administration, and when the going got really tough, she was referred to as “the only man in Kibaki’s Cabinet”.

In naming Karua and other women to his Cabinet, the new President sought to expand the space for participation of women in leadership and governance at national level. Secondly, he knew Karua well, having collaborated with her politically since the early days of his breakaway from the Kenya African National Union (KANU) to form the Democratic Party (DP). A notable voice in the 1990s agitation for political pluralism, Karua had been elected to Parliament in the 1992 General Election on a DP ticket. She was also the party’s legal affairs secretary between 1992 and 1997. Later, she became part of the team that formed NARC, the coalition that would sweep KANU out of power in 2002.

As Minister for Water Resources Management and Development, a position she held between 2003 and 2005, Karua is credited with the implementation of the Water Act 2002. It was reforms like this one that triggered the revival of many irrigation projects across the country.

Equally significant was her role in bringing Egypt to the negotiation table for talks on the waters of the River Nile, kick-starting the informal diplomatic process that eventually became the Nile Basin Initiative. Her efforts paid off in 2010, when seven upstream states signed a new agreement on the use of the Nile waters. To register their disagreement with the downstream countries, the seven states signed the agreement without Sudan and Egypt.

The bone of contention was the 56-year-old treaty that was negotiated between the downstream countries and the British colonialists in the 1950s. The treaty granted Egypt exclusive rights over the Nile. For instance, Egypt had the power to veto any projects initiated by upstream states that could divert the Nile waters.

Karua’s interest in the Nile waters was premised on the irony of Kenya experiencing water distress despite being one of the upstream states that fed the Nile. Kenya has four rivers that empty their waters into Lake Victoria, the source of the White Nile, which comprises the headwaters and primary tributary of the river.

Karua was uncomfortable that this fact notwithstanding, Kenya could neither build dams to power its regional economies nor build water reservoirs to help control floods in such places as Budalang’i Constituency in Busia District.

In 2005, Karua was named Minister for Justice, Constitutional Affairs and National Cohesion, replacing Kiraitu Murungi. In her new portfolio, she oversaw key legislations that put Kenya on the path to strengthening electoral and national reconciliation processes, and a constitutional review. It was during this time that Kenya put in place a clear framework and timeline that in the long run yielded the Constitution of Kenya 2010.

In the peace talks that followed the 2007-2008 post-election violence, Karua represented Kibaki’s Party of National Unity (PNU) team alongside Moses Wetang’ula, Sam Ongeri and Mutula Kilonzo. The Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) side, which was PNU’s main opponent in the elections, was led by party leader Raila Odinga and represented by Musalia Mudavadi, William Ruto, James Orengo and Sally Kosgei.

The negotiations, which came to be known as the Serena Talks, created space for Karua to secure a place in Kenya’s history books. In his memoir, My Life, My Purpose, former Tanzania President Benjamin Mkapa remembers Karua and Ruto as the strongest hardliners during the Kibaki-Raila peace negotiations. According to Mkapa’s account, locking Karua and Ruto out of the mediation team helped to secure a power-sharing deal between Kibaki and Raila.

In the end, when the two sides reached a power-sharing agreement through a coalition government, Karua retained her Justice, Constitutional Affairs and National Cohesion portfolio.

On 15 November 2008, Karua was unanimously endorsed as the chairperson of NARC-Kenya. Soon afterwards, she declared that she would gun for the presidency in the next General Election.

In a move that took many by surprise, Karua resigned from her Cabinet position on 6 April 2009, citing frustrations in discharging her duties. At the time of her resignation, President Kibaki was in Zambia attending a Heads of State and Government summit of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern African countries (COMESA). About a month before this, he had read the riot act to members of his Cabinet thought to be rocking the ship from within. In his stern message, the President asked any such minister to either quit or risk getting the sack. Odinga, who had become Prime Minister in the coalition government, and Kibaki were reportedly reading from the same page on this matter – collective responsibility and unity of purpose were important in the implementation of the coalition government’s manifesto.

Political analysts saw Karua as one of the ministers targeted by Kibaki’s message. At the time, she had taken vocal and independent stances on a number of issues. She had, for example, criticised Chief Justice Evan Gicheru whom she accused of blocking reforms in the Judiciary. It was against this backdrop that the Law Society of Kenya (LSK) wrote a letter to Kibaki asking him to form a tribunal to initiate Gicheru’s removal; this was construed as an act of ill-will. There was a strong feeling within the Cabinet then that LSK was acting at Karua’s behest. In his response to the LSK letter, Kibaki expressed confidence in Gicheru and declined the request to have him removed.

A week prior to her resignation, five judges had been sworn in reportedly without her knowledge. This did not sit well with Karua since legal matters were domiciled in the Ministry of Justice, Constitutional Affairs and National Cohesion.

When she announced her resignation, Karua said she could not remain in office any longer because she felt her hands “were tied”. She declined to elaborate and summed up her brief speech by seeking the understanding of her constituents, members of her party, family and friends.

A parade of top-level government and party leaders reportedly tried to convince her to rethink her decision, among them Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka and Cabinet colleague Beth Mugo, the Minister for Public Health. Even her own party, NARC-Kenya, was said to have convened an early morning meeting in a bid to have her rescind her decision. But no amount of persuasion could make her change her mind. She was replaced by Mutula Kilonzo.

Karua’s resignation could not have come at a worse time for the coalition partners, who were grappling with rising political animosity. At the time, Odinga’s ODM and Kibaki’s PNU were trading accusations over reforms – ODM accused PNU of sabotaging reforms while PNU, in response, said ODM was only obsessed with amassing power.

Many political analysts viewed Karua’s decision to leave the government as a misstep that would cost her dearly. Her support in her native Gichugu and the wider Kirinyaga District was to a large extent premised on her high position beside the President, who was immensely popular in the area. Breaking ranks with him dissipated that support. What is without doubt is that PNU lost a formidable foot soldier in its battles with ODM.

Come 2013, Karua made good her promise to run for the presidency on a NARC-Kenya ticket. The 2010 Constitution barred presidential contenders from running for parliamentary seats, so Karua gave up her Gichugu seat and braved the possibility of sliding into political oblivion in the event that she lost the election. She ended up sixth with just 43,881 votes.

In 2017, Karua’s attempt to make a political comeback as governor of Kirinyaga County fell flat on its face when she lost to Anne Waiguru. She contested the results in court but lost the petition.

During a television talk show in 2019, Karua reminisced about her time in government, recalling the spirited and valiant fight she put up for Kibaki following the disputed 2007 presidential election results. She argued that by mounting a historical defence for Kibaki’s election victory, she was defending her vote, and equated her defence of Kibaki with Orengo’s defence of Odinga during the Serena Talks.

Courtesy of her ability to speak her mind freely – which some see as audacity – Karua made many political enemies across the PNU-ODM divide, including Odinga’s deputy, Uhuru Kenyatta, and Cabinet colleagues Kiraitu Murungi and George Saitoti, who came out and publicly criticised her.

The feud between Karua and Kenyatta is believed to have stemmed from Kibaki’s appointment of the latter as Deputy Prime Minister – there are those who felt that her retention as the Minister for Justice, Constitutional Affairs and National Cohesion in the coalition government was not commensurate with the energy and time she had invested in defending Kibaki’s victory in the 2007 election.

In other quarters, she has been accused of changing her revolutionary tune once she was appointed to the Cabinet. In an article titled Succession Void in Mt. Kenya published in The Star newspaper of 2 September 2020, the writer painted her as a one-time thorn in the flesh of President Daniel arap Moi’s administration who changed tune once she was ensconced in the NARC government.

Karua was born on 22 September 1957 in Kirinyaga District of Central Province. She is the second of eight children and was raised in Kimunye Village in Gichugu Constituency. She attended Kabare Girls Boarding School before joining Kiburia Girls Secondary School. She moved to Ngiriambu Girls Secondary School before eventually settling at Karoti Girls Secondary School where she wrote her East African School Certificate examinations. Karua then went to Nairobi Girls for her A’ levels after which she joined the University of Nairobi for her law degree between 1977 and 1980.

From 1980 to 1981 she was at the Kenya School of Law for her statutory post-graduate law course and made her career debut in the Judiciary as a District Magistrate. At the time of her exit in 1987, she had risen to the level of Senior Resident Magistrate.

Through her law firm, Karua & Co. Advocates, she took up many pro bono cases that involved human rights activists. Notable among these cases was the treason trial of Koigi wa Wamwere. In addition, she contributed immensely to the development and growth of family law, more so with respect to family property.

In the 1990s, Karua threw her lot in with Opposition political movements in their agitation for the re-introduction of multi-party democracy in Kenya. In the run-up to the 1992 General Election, she joined Kenneth Matiba’s FORD-Asili party but lost in the primaries to wealthy and influential former Head of Public Service, Geoffrey Kariithi. She was in luck though, as DP offered her a ticket and she went on to clinch the Gichugu parliamentary seat.

Over the years Karua has won several awards in recognition of her work in Parliament and the High Court of Kenya, especially on matters to do with protecting and advancing women’s rights. She has also been a constant and audible voice in the call for expansion of the democratic space.

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