I recall a fiery and courageous Martha Karua who was deep in the trenches of Kenya’s second liberation. In the dark, depressing and dangerous days of Daniel arap Moi’s dictatorship, Martha unfailingly stood, not with might and minority, but with what was right and with a largely silent and cowed majority, for very few then had an ounce of her courage and gumption. That she took the destiny of her name into her own hands, transiting from Martha Njoka to Martha Karua was also reason to cheer.
Uncowed and unbowed, our Martha took head-on that terrible system that had crippled, maimed, and even killed so many innocents. Starting with her days as Martha Njoka, she, along with fellow lawyers Beatrice Nduta (what ever happened to her?), Martha Koome, Betty Murungi, James Orengo, Paul Muite, Gitobu Imanyara, John Khaminwa, Gibson Kamau Kuria, and others, were the voices of the voiceless. They represented not only clients who couldn’t pay, but clients who were extremely ‘expensive currency’, in that lawyers that dared represent them were automatically enemies of the dictatorial Moi State. It was not uncommon for lawyers of politically incorrect clients to be dragged off into detention alongside their ‘State-unsavoury’ clients, as Gitobu and Khaminwa can testify, or to be hounded and harassed in other ways by the police-state that Moi had created.
Do you remember Martha regally striding out under the full glare of the cameras in protest of a Moi-behaving-badly when he visited her constituency and did not have the decency or common courtesy to acknowledge her presence by letting her address the gathering since she was (proudly, all puns intended!) wearing opposition colours and was therefore in the wrong team? Never one to sidle quietly away, she stood and walked out as Kenya’s then ‘Most High’ rose to speak, and let it be known in no uncertain terms exactly why she walked out on Moi, and what she thought of his crude behaviour. Hear, hear! That was our vintage Martha at full throttle! Truly the people’s champion! We cheered when she put that playground bully from our past in his place!
From what I’ve heard of those who had the privilege of knowing her in her younger days, combatting injustice and anti-people systems is not something that Martha learnt in adulthood, nor adopted for political gain: she was born that way, and knew no other way. She scathingly and rightly tongue-lashed the opposition members of parliament that walked out of the 1997 Inter-Parties Parliamentary Group (IPPG) talks that led to the minimal constitutional reforms which broke off a chink on the armour Moi had crafted to cocoon his unpopular presidency from a hostile popular vote: these reforms were the route by which the much-needed regime change finally came to Kenya (the expected revolution was however largely stillborn, but a story for another day).
For all these reasons, and so many others space does not allow, Martha would have had my vote for President. She was 100 percent ‘us’ — we millions of ordinary Kenyans who are not born into money, privilege or political dynasties. The ultimate self-made ‘Power’ Wanjiku well-versed in law, exceedingly articulate to boot, and totally fearless in taking on the powers that be, not some of the time, but ALL of the time when there was need, while others now enjoying the trappings of power and privileges that the likes of Martha fought for grovelled at Moi’s feet and outdid themselves singing praises to their unpopular kingmaker. Bravo Martha!
Why ‘would have had’ and not ‘has’ my vote? Because after the 2002 elections, Martha metamorphosed. In the early years of the new regime, as Minister for Water Development, she defended budgetary allocations to Central Kenya, retorting that Central Kenya residents too paid taxes. I was just a little alarmed , but I cheered then since she had a point there: in retrospect, I should have been greatly alarmed. Later in 2006 when Mwai Kibaki stuffed the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) with his appointees in flagrant disregard of the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ that was the IPPG that had ironically secured him the presidency, an agreement which even Moi had respected, Martha stridently defended him, on a point of law, pouring withering scorn on, and trashing, the agreement. She held that there was nothing to discuss or negotiate: the Daily Nation on January 26 2006 reported: ‘Kibaki’s decision over ECK final, says Karua’. True that. But this was definitely not ‘my’ Martha. ‘My’ Martha could never say “The President exercised his mandate with caution and care and the nominations are therefore final,” as reported, but this ‘new’ Martha did. ‘My’ Martha could never have been reported to have said “The President is allowed by law to name commissioners without consulting any political party” but this ‘new’ Martha did.
In mid-2006, Martha continued cruising on her new trajectory, and was reported in the media thus ‘Justice minister rules out minimum reforms ahead of 2007 polls.’ On this uneven ground (anyone recall the phrase ‘level playing field’ that made such big play in the 80s and 90s when everything was tilted to favour the incumbent President and party?) was the poll played out in December 2007, and the whole world now knows the tragic consequences of the election presided over by that lopsided commission, paid in blood and tears, people’s lives, livelihoods and dignity. And as if that was not all, the media reported Martha as one of those that had adopted an extremist and uncompromising hardline position during the peace talks presided by Kofi Annan, even as this was literally at the cost of the most precious things on earth — people’s lives and livelihoods. One does not come into peace talks with clenched fists, bared teeth and closed positions when the country is burning.
In early 2008, the Martha metamorphosis from standing with right to standing with might was finally complete. Sadly, Martha was no longer one of us but one of them — the class of oppressors of the people and suppressors of the rule of law, determined to hang on to power, and the privileges they derive from it, at any and all costs. She now totally served, and was apparently blindly beholden to, ‘the system’ she had elected to become a part of, no matter its grievous ills and harm to the people and national fabric and institutions.
As fate would have it, the very system she served chewed her and spat her out, treating her with disregard and disdain, resulting in her resignation from government in April 2009 during Kibaki’s disputed second term that she had worked so very hard to secure, barely a year into the coalition government midwifed by the National Accord of February 2008. Neither could she be said to have left with head high: by then, Martha had sullied and heavily compromised her hitherto impeccable pro-people credentials: from media reports, it appears that she resigned for being personally spited, for purely Martha not pro-people reasons, whatever spin may be put on it thereafter. She herself is reported to have said at the time of resigning as Kibaki’s Minister for Justice that her position was no longer tenable and her reform agenda was being undermined, “Judges are being appointed without my knowledge and a lot more.” What was this ‘a lot more’? We heard no mention from her at the time of the corruption, sleazy deals and anti-people positions and conspiracies during the watch of the government she had served so faithfully as a deep insider, and so vociferously defended.
We are not looking for angels to lead Kenya, and we are no angels ourselves, myself included. But for me, I lost ‘my’ Martha when she crossed the Rubicon stridently defending a political position for personal political gain (mediated by her master of the time, Kibaki) at the expense of people’s lives.
I will not buy into the school of thought that Kenyans of integrity don’t exist. Our new ‘people-chosen’ Chief Justice, Willy Mutunga, is living proof. Note, he was not the hand-picked Chosen One of the President, but thank heavens the people, and not the President, had their way. Yes, I know there were still those opposed to him, and those who think that his earstud, his faith, his marital status, you name it, are not right, but all these matters are truly personal and private and have nothing whatsoever to do with the question of the integrity we require of our public servants. And still on Kenyans of integrity, what of John Githongo?
Kenya is heading into an election, and it’s time for us to scrutinise and interrogate those presenting themselves as candidates for this position, especially given that we have lost a precious decade of reforms since 2002. Martha is a candidate seeking our hire as President. A Twitter interaction earlier this month (May 2012, and prior to the widely reported Twitter debate) makes for interesting — and very illuminating — reading, and I leave you to make your own judgement on this interaction (link below). To her credit, Martha responded to the original inquiry from another Tweep, which is more than some candidates did. Presidential candidates must be prepared to face up to public scrutiny and answer for both present and past deeds and misdeeds, and not just wow us with their plans for the future. Martha dismisses the Tweep that questions her purely on a matter of principle as not counting for her credibility test since she has countless others that support her, saying “An individual do [sic] not determine my credibility and not on a false premise Kenyans collectively will do fairly!” This shows utter contempt and incredible arrogance unworthy of one vying to lead a nation. By this haughty dismissal, is Martha advocating for blind and unquestioning docile sheep and praise-singing sycophants as her ‘followers’ and the people she wants to lead and purport to serve? Sorry Lady. I will not sign up for that. ‘My’ Martha taught me much much better than that and I cherish her teachings dearly.
Martin Tairo’s legitimate and courteous questions were about her as an individual and her own role — not that of her party, nor her President nor her side of government, but she and she alone. She totally sidestepped the key questions on ECK commissioner appointments, and instead wanted to know what Martin’s agenda was (subtext Kenyan parlance: whose agent are you? You’ve been ‘sent’ by my detractors), and why he was repeating questions raised earlier. Well, what if the questions were not answered?…
I dearly miss ‘my’ Martha. I really do. She was self-made and nobody’s handmaiden, a master of herself, and puppet of no one. She who stood with right and not with might. She who put her own personal safety, and that of her loved ones and those close to or associated with her, in peril in those dark and dangerous Moi days, in her relentless quest for a better Kenya. That Martha is missing.
Questions I still ponder over:
- What made Martha change so drastically? Was it due to an expectation of a measure of quid pro quo from Kibaki and his clique as ‘the Anointed One’ when she would make her stab for the presidency in the future?
- She may have been born Wangari, but she was in and of herself a personification of our dear Wanjiku. How could she be a supporter of the infamous ‘Government/Wako Draft’ Constitution that Wanjiku rejected at the 2005 referendum, when Martha had been part and parcel of the struggle for a new Wanjiku Constitution for so long?
- How could she participate in, aid and abet, in the burning of the very bridge that was the main means by which Kanu’s back was finally broken in 2002 and Kenya had its first (and only) free and fair election since the reinstatement of plural politics in the early 199os?
- Where was Martha’s empathy as a mother and a woman for the suffering mothers and women in the heat and aftermath 2007–2008 post-election violence that would have softened any hardline position?
- I know they say politics makes for strange bedfellows, and the Kenyan ‘couples’, ‘triples’ and ‘multiples’ must be the oddest of all mixes, but still, why, oh why, did Martha not only take into her political party but also campaign for, the likes of Sonko and Kabogo?
- Can one seeking to be the Top Servant of the people dismiss one of the people she is aspiring to serve (emphasis on ‘serve’ not lording it over them) as merely an individual and therefore of no consequence in determining her credibility? Perhaps Martha needs to compare notes with suspended Deputy Chief Justice, Nancy Baraza, on the power of one, when Nancy was reported as having mistreated a security guard at Village Market — a matter leading to her suspension. And while Martha is at it, she could also learn a thing or two from Nancy on acknowledging, owning up to, and apologising for past mistakes and sliding to the wrong side of history, and not haughtily attempting to brush these mistakes aside, or wish them away. We now live in the Information Age where access and retrieval of past events is easy as pie, even if Kenyans are notorious for extremely short memories.
- An effective leader exercises temperance, not temper, especially in the public arena, and Twitter is one such podium. While in a Martha presidency we may be finally freed from a people−presidential space polluted by choice ‘power phrases’ such as Muthaiga siyo Korogocho, Nairobi siyo gishagi, and the more venal mavi ya kuku, bure kabisa and kumbafu, what new epithets might be added to our common lexicon, and transmitted directly into blogosphere via a verified presidential account?
Even as I ponder over these questions, in my history book, the role that Martha played in the struggle for the second liberation will always be written in glowing golden letters that will never fade, and it is a role that we must never forget. However, history is not for hiding and cannot and should not be selective. This golden chapter is not an automatic ticket to State House, skipping the slurry-and-no-silver ‘inconvenient’ chapters in between. All chapters count.
- My duel with Martha on Twitter by Martin Tairo, and Martha Karua loses temper on Twitter combat over her credentials
- Unwelcome evidence (PDF): A September 2008 report on the 2007 presidential election by Kenyans for Peace with Truth and Justice (KPTJ)
- Will merchants of impunity let Mutunga do his job? by Makau Mutua in Daily Nation