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Martha Karua: The rise of the Iron Lady

By Ndung’u Gachane | May 17th 2022 | 5 min read
Narc-Kenya party leader Martha Karua speaking during the 70th anniversary of Maendeleo ya Wanawake in Kisumu on May 12, 2022. [Collins Oduor, Standard]

Reference to Narc Kenya leader Martha Wangari Karua as “Iron lady” came about when some people started comparing her to former powerful British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

It became popular after the 2007 disputed presidential election when she was the only ally of President Mwai Kibaki who arrived at the national tallying centre at the Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC), Nairobi, and took on ODM bigwigs who were contesting the results.

Ms Karua’s parents Jackson Karua, 90, and Josephine Wanjiru, 85, were elated after she was named running mate to Azimio la Umoja One Kenya presidential candidate Raila Odinga.

Speaking at Gathange village in Kimunye location, yesterday, they said the Narc Kenya leader always had a vision of ending up at State House.

They said their daughter attempted to actualise the vision in 2013 when she unsuccessfully vied for the presidency.

The parents said Ms Karua’s nomination as running mate has put her a step away from State House.

They were happy that their daughter emerged successful among the nine applicants for the Azimio running mate.

Ms Wanjiru described Ms Karua as decisive, firm but obedient and respectful.

“From childhood, Wangari has always been hardworking and extremely intelligent, we detected leadership in her while she was young,” she said.

She noted that the Narc Kenya leader used to be selected to lead from her days at Mugumo Primary School and at Kiburia and Karoti girls secondary schools.

“She was always picked to lead in prayers and even singing, while at times she could be given a chance to address crowds,” she said.

Her father who was a head teacher since 1951 to 1980 believes that her leadership skills are genetic.

“I mobilised this village and brought people together to apply for electricity and this saw me have endless trips to Nairobi,” he said.

Ms Wanjiru, has been a leader in women groups and in church and this has been the case with his eight children.

Jephitha Karua, Ms Karua’s brother, is optimistic that after her nomination as running mate, there will be a significant change in political direction in Mt Kenya region.

“We have been brought up with discipline and virtues of humility and good decision making,” he said.

“UDA started their campaigns rather too early, Azimio are a bit late but with Karua, expect a considerable change in momentum,” Ms Wanjiru 85 said.

While advising Mt Kenya region to make a sober decision in August, Ms Karua’s mother urged the electorate to heed God’s voice.

She made reference to Samuel 14:1-35 to advise the electorate. It is a story where Israelites demanded to be given a chance to have a leader. God fulfilled their wish and Saul became the king.

Through Samuel, Saul was instructed to destroy the Amalekites and kill everything and everyone but he spared the best sheep, cattle and fat calves and God destroyed him.

“Kenyans must go to the ballot after keenly listening to the voice of God so as not to bring catastrophe to this nation,” Ms Karua’s mother said and urged the election loser to accept the outcome.

Mr Karua urged Kenyans to evaluate the history of the presidential candidates and not vote on euphoria.

“Let us remember the history of Raila and Ruto. Raila’s father was not a self-seeker and refused power unless Jomo Kenyatta was released,” he noted.

Although the parents took pride in Ms Karua’s bravery and firm political stand, they onetime warned her against radicalism after she walked out of a function attended by former President Daniel arap Moi at Keruguoya Stadium on June 16, 2001.

“I warned her that the government had all the resources to hunt her, she had left Moi’s meetings twice and I felt she had gone too far,” he added.

They said although she calls her mother regularly to inform the family about her political moves, she is never moved by contrary opinion.

“Before she makes any move, she does her research and when she calls, she responds to all my worries and she convinces us to support her decision,” Ms Wanjiru said.

Born 65 years ago, the Narc Kenya leader is the second of eight children.

 Martha Karua's parents Jackson and Josephine Karua during an interview at their home in Kimunye village in Gichugu constituency, Kirinyaga county, May 16, 2022. [Mose Sammy, Standard]

After serving as opposition MP for 10 years, she went into government with Mwai Kibaki in 2003 following the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) win in the elections of December 2002. She was appointed Minister for Water Development and in the reshuffle after the loss of the 2005 referendum was moved to Ministry of Justice.

In the grand coalition government after the disputed 2007 polls, Ms Karua became the Minister of Justice but resigned in April 2009 citing frustrations in government, especially after a cluster of judges were appointed without her input.

She was not happy after President Kibaki overlooked her and appointed Uhuru Kenyatta, then of Kanu as Deputy Prime Minister, despite defending him after the 2007 disputed presidential election. 

Ms Karua had represented the president’s side alongside Mutula Kilonzo and Prof Sam Ongeri in the international mediation talks chaired by former United Nations Secretary General Koffi Annan.

Former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa who was part of the negotiations in his memoir “My Life, My Purpose. A Tanzanian President,” said Ms Karua and Deputy President William Ruto (on the opposition side)” were the most difficult people to deal with.”

Mkapa said the two politicians often exacerbated tensions during the talks and that the atmosphere only changed when they got Mr Kibaki and Mr Odinga together without Ms Karua and Mr Ruto present.

The Narc Kenya leader has consistently fought for women’s rights and democracy. In the dying days of the Kanu regime, she was among activists seeking the prosecution of powerful Internal Security Minister Julius ole Sunkuli over an alleged liaison with his cousin, a minor.

Powerful Jubilee voices say Ms Karua is seen by the departing Uhuru regime as the only Mt Kenya politician with guts to protect the region’s interests, and the reason they pushed for her nomination as running mate.

At the Water ministry, she is credited with pushing for the implementation of the Water Act 2002, which has since accelerated water reforms and service provision in Kenya.

Ms Karua contested the 2013 presidential election on Narc Kenya ticket and garnered 43,881 votes. The law bars presidential contenders from simultaneously seeking a parliamentary seat, so she had to give up the Gichugu seat and this left her in the political cold.

She made a come-back in 2017 when she sought to be Kirinyaga governor, but lost to Anne Waiguru in a heavily contested election. She garnered 122,091 votes against the winner’s 161,373.

Ms Karua contested the election citing election irregularities and filed a petition at the High Court which eventually went to the Supreme Court. She later filed a dispute at the East African Court of Justice, suing the government for failure of its Judicial arm to dispense justice to her.

On September 20, 2021, she was unanimously elected as the Interim Mount Kenya Unity Forum spokesperson by some leaders from Central Kenya.

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