Kenya’s former prime minister, Raila Odinga, a frontrunner in August’s presidential election, chose Martha Karua, a former justice and constitutional affairs minister, as his running mate.
It makes her the first woman in Kenya to run on a major political party’s presidential ticket.
Before this, she was a fierce opponent of Odinga. In her acceptance speech, Karua, who vied for the presidency in 2013 and came in sixth, said that her selection is “a moment for the women of Kenya”, and a change that “generations of women have fought for”.
A peer of Odinga in the second liberation struggle, where Kenyans struggled to create a multiparty democracy, Karua is a lawyer by training. She cut her teeth as a critic of the autocratic Daniel Arap Moi regime and is a defender of the Constitution. That regime had created a one-party state by amending the Constitution in 1982.
At the height of the struggle against this in the 1990s, Karua ended herself to the public as a tenacious defender of civil rights. As a member of the council that leads the Law Society of Kenya, she called for a tribunal to probe two top judges, including the chief justice at the time, for consistently deciding cases in a manner that cemented the legality of the one-party state .
It was an unprecedented move of judicial defiance at the time.
After Moi bowed to pressure and allowed the restoration of multiparty politics, Karua entered mainstream politics in the early 1990s, becoming a member of parliament. She was also legal secretary of the Democratic Party and chairperson of the League of Kenyan Women Voters.
She was instrumental in pushing for a countrywide civic education exercise targeting female voters and a vocal member of the opposition. She came to be known by the moniker “Iron Lady”.
Moi’s autocratic 24-year rule ended with the 2002 election that brought Mwai Kibaki to power. Kibaki appointed Karua as water minister, marking the start of contradictions in her public service record.
There, Karua was instrumental in streamlining water provision in Kenya and reviving essential irrigation projects. Later, as justice minister, she was applauded for resigning when she felt the rest of the executive was frustrating her efforts to carry out her duties.
Not a spotless record
But her own record is not spotless. As justice minister, even though she hard branded herself as an anti-corruption crusader, Karua called a press conference to reject a dossier from a former head of ethics in Kibaki’s state house. That dossier related to billions worth of corruption in a scandal that came to be known as Anglo Leasing.
In December 2015, The Independent newspaper in the United Kingdom alleged that Karua had been bribed with a £50,000 donation to her 2013 presidential campaign by British American Tobacco to block a rival tobacco firm from being awarded a multimillion-pound contract. Karua refuted the amount, not the donation itself, saying she only received Ksh2 000 000 ($17 000).
Her move onto the Odinga slate comes despite her accusing him of “ethnic cleansing” in the violence that followed the disputed 2007 election.
It also provides a quandary for Kenyan voters in August.
Karua comes with contradictions that some might overlook because of the symbolism of a woman being at the top. There have been times when her rhetoric and actions are disconnected. And her allegiance is to the ruling class first.
This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It is designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here