Martha Karua: What I bring to the table is resolve, determination

Martha Karua acknowledges greeting in one of her stopovers in Kiambu during Azimio tour of Kiambu. [George Njunge, Standard]

Immediately after being named as Raila Odinga’s running mate, Martha Karua embarked on whistle-stop campaigns in Mt Kenya backyard, a move that has forced UDA’s William Ruto into overdrive mode, and even though she refuses to take credit for gains Azimio has witnessed in recent weeks, Karua told The Sunday Standard in an interview she will continue with vigorous campaigns to convince the people they are the safest pair of hands, writes BRIAN OTIENO

On her first assignment as Raila Odinga’s running mate, Martha Karua returned home to Kirinyaga County, a tour that was more of a campaign for Raila’s fifth presidential bid than it was a celebration of her nomination to deputise the former prime minister

And in the weeks that followed, the Azimio la Umoja One Kenya deputy presidential candidate would camp in her Mt Kenya backyard, taking the fight to Deputy President William Ruto who is perceived to have a head start in the region.

“We shall keep going and going and going (to Mt Kenya),” Karua, wearing a determined look, says, walking towards her car after an interview at her residence in Nairobi.  “At the end of the day, the people will decide who has their best interest at heart. I plan to campaign as vigorously as I can and persuade the voters to elect us.”

The Narc Kenya leader returned to the region yesterday, campaigning in Murang’a and Nyeri counties. The frequency of her campaigns in the vote-rich region suggests that Azimio’s strategy in swaying Mt Kenya into their corner is anchored on Karua.

When he selected the Narc Kenya leader, Raila described the office of the deputy president as the president’s workshop.

“It is meant to be the principal assistant’s office, meaning that all the heavy lifting is expected to occur here,” Raila told a multitude at the Kenyatta International Convention Centre, shortly before he enumerated his running mate’s illustrious achievements.

In Mt Kenya, Karua has virtually done all the heavy lifting, leading other allies from the region, who are seemingly rallying around her, in campaigning for the Azimio leader. And as a result, many have credited her with energising Raila’s campaign. Karua laughs off such talk.

“When I joined Azimio, I found the foundation already set… my job is to complement my captain,” she says, rather modestly, given that her entry into Azimio has virtually forced the DP to ramp up their campaigns in the region.

Ruto’s Mt Kenya backers are yet to craft an appropriate counter to Karua, perhaps because of the surprise gender card that Raila pulled. Though other candidates, current and previous, have picked female running mates, Karua has the most realistic chance of ascending to the second-highest office.

Raila’s move was hailed as a positive step towards gender equity, and Karua seems to agree.

“It shows that you have internalised the Constitution – the will of the people… It is not enough to be told – lip service – that we will include you. It is important to be included right at the beginning.”

Ruto’s running mate Rigathi Gachagua recently suggested that they would handle Karua with kid gloves. But the former Gichugu lawmaker is hardly the person anyone would handle with any softness on the campaign trail.

Not with her reputation of being firm and the fact that she brings to the table much more than just her Mt Kenya roots or the fact that she is a woman.

“I am bringing resolve. I am bringing determination, to do the things we have committed to do. If I bring nothing else, I bring that to the table,” Karua says. She has an assertive way of speaking.

Experience in governance

Karua also brings experience in governance, having served as minister in the Water and Justice and Constitutional Affairs dockets in the Kibaki regime. More critically, observers have said that she matches the figure that Raila has tried to project of himself – a reformist.

“The woman we offer as the proposed deputy president is also known to have incredible credentials in the fight for our second liberation,” Raila described Karua.

The Narc-K leader has made sure to take that message – that the Azimio ticket is one of the reformists – to the masses.

She talks more of Raila’s years in the trenches, in government and in the opposition than of hers in activism, terming their ticket the safest pair of hands. She has repeated the same on campaign daises, where she has described herself as an incorruptible hard worker.

Bred in the civil society, Karua has led a life of civil and political activism, one that has defined her brand of politics and which would shape her view of leadership to be almost sacred, almost making her quit politics when she thought it had become toxic in the1990s.

“Towards the end of my first term as an MP, I felt that we, as a Parliament, had not achieved as much as I expected and I started feeling that it wasn’t useful to be in Parliament at that time,” she goes on. “There were clear lines between the government and the opposition. We weren’t even on talking terms. We were booing each other, obstructing each other in Parliament and that is what was frustrating.”

But there have been concerns that the younger generation may not be familiar with the Raila and Karua of the 1980s and 1990s, the reformists who played a part in the ‘second liberation struggle’.

And therein comes the Azimio economic liberation plan of “creating opportunities for the youth”. Karua says that the youth have perennially suffered as a result of barriers that prevent them from growing economically.

Besides the seven-year loan-repayment holiday to the youth and spurring industrialisation, the Azimio running mate adds that their government will fight corruption – another key strand of their campaign strategy.

“We already have a youth fund, but there are so many barriers that block our youth from accessing the funds. There is a policy that demands 30 per cent of jobs go to the youth and women – there is no access, not even for the differently-abled to access their quotas. Good governance removes those barriers,” she states.

“You don’t want a barrier when seeking health or when you are seeking a license or when you are just going about life, someone is trying to create a non-existent offence to get you to give something.”

Ending corruption

Karua says she and Raila have shown they were committed to ending corruption, just as she believes that they will change the lives of Kenyans if elected, by prioritising initiatives that aim at improving lives.

“It is heartbreaking to have any child not having shelter, not having enough or something on their plate, not being catered for… bringing human dignity meaning - that is something already catered for in the manifesto we launched.”

Also catered for is a plan to spur the country’s textile industry, one that includes a plan to phase out secondhand clothing, more famous as mitumba.

For the past week, Raila has faced criticism over the radical plan. And just as she defends Raila, to whom she refers as “my captain”, Karua clarifies that Azimio would not ban mitumba, but would grow an industry that would give Kenyans options on what to wear, while also creating jobs for many that would be absorbed into the value chain of the textile industry.

“That cotton doesn’t grow in one day… mitumba business will not be stopped but there is a way you transit… Second-hand clothing will never completely go. But people will not wear mitumba because they have no alternatives but because they choose to – It is about giving people alternatives,” Karua says, recounting when the textile industry was vibrant.

She equates Azimio’s vision to the transformation that she says every person desires, saying it is akin to the phasing out of grass-thatched houses. “We did not put those who made grass-thatched houses out of business.”

She is wearing a kitenge dress, which she says was made in Kenya. All her clothes, even those she wears in court, Karua says, are made in Kenya. “Except the shirts, which come already made.”

“I love myself as an African,” she says of her choice to wear kitenge dresses. “I am proud of who I am and I want to scream from far that as you come to meet me, you have already known that it is an African on the way.

Over the years, Karua has earned a reputation as Kenya’s iron lady owing to her unwavering stances. Before she was picked for running mate, many did not fancy her chances, terming her “too abrasive”.

 “The public has always responded by voting me in,” she responds to questions on whether her strong-willed nature has been a barrier in her political life.

Amend the Constitution

When she accepted her nomination as Raila’s running mate, Karua said that changes to the Constitution would be guided by the rule of law. Many wondered what she meant, with some concerned that she would thwart attempts to amend the Constitution.

“I am echoing what my brother has been saying. He has been saying that we will be governed by the rule of law. I only emphasised what we have committed to as Azimio,” she clarifies.

Karua has an assertive way of talking that also passes off as effortlessly measured. On the campaign trail, she has seemed immune to tongue-slips, never having to take back her words.

She refuses to point out the weaknesses of the rival Kenya Kwanza Alliance, choosing to focus on the strengths of Azimio, saying that she hopes politicians would adopt a more civil brand of politics.

For now, she says, the priority is working hard on the campaign trail “to get to the finish line strong.”

“Not just strong, to get an overwhelming win.”

In between her campaigns, Karua says she makes time for herself, her children and her grandchildren.

Karua is writing a book that she says will be out soon. If she holds off releasing it long enough, it could potentially include chapters of her as Kenya’s first female deputy president.