|When many were afraid to come out and challenge the KANU regime, Karua was on the forefront fighting for change [Reuters]
Martha Karua fears nothing and no one, and when her adversaries look back at her long track record in politics, they must get nervous. This previously staunch supporter of Mwai Kibaki resigned as justice minister in 2009, and will challenge all comers for the presidency at the head of her own party next year.
The veteran politician has been around since the heyday of Daniel Arap Moi, who ruled Kenya from 1978 until 2002, and was an active part of the National Rainbow Coalition that forced the establishment of multi-party democracy and ultimately defeated the Kenya African National Union (KANU) that had utterly - and coercively - dominated politics since independence.
From a tender age, Karua worked hard to overcome her disadvantages growing up as a girl in Kenya's Central Province in the 1960s. She did well in school, trained as a lawyer at the University of Nairobi, graduating in 1980, and after a year of postgraduate study became an advocate of the High Court of Kenya. She joined the judiciary and worked as a magistrate from 1981 to 1987, when she left to set up a private practise.
"I realised I would be able to champion women’s ideas and democratic ideals only if I was not working for the government. I joined other opposition politicians to force Moi to allow multi-party democracy after repealing Section 2A of the constitution, which made the Kenya African National Union the only political party in Kenya", Karua says.
Few friends, many enemies
Her unflinching style in politics made her a constant thorn during Moi's rule. In 1997, Karua walked out on Moi’s government citing disrespect for women when she was not allowed to address a political rally.
"Karua is a strong-willed democratic fighter", says Koigi wa Wamwere, a former legislator who was jailed by Moi from 1990-1993 and again from 1995-1996.
"She fears no one. She is the only lawyer who took up my case during the repression of Moi’s years. Karua led our mothers and other women to Uhuru Gardens and threatened to strip naked if we were not released."
John Omulo of rights group Release Political Prisoners Trust also admires Karua as a politician.
"When men were afraid to come out and challenge the excesses of the KANU regime, Karua was on the forefront fighting for change. She has been consistent in her quest for a better life for all and were it not for her, Kenya wouldn't be where it is now."
Outspoken and feisty
Karua helped form the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) that won the 2003 general election, and ended nearly four decades of rule by KANU. When she entered parliament, there were six female MPs. Now there are 22 out a total of 222.
Karua strongly supported the current president, Mwai Kibaki, during his days as the Democratic Party (DP) leader and during the violent conflict that followed the disputed 2007 elections which gave birth to the current coalition government with the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) led by Prime Minister Raila Odinga.
"I supported the president at that time because that is what the electoral commission said", she says. She was appointed Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs in January 2008.
But she resigned her ministerial position in frustration in mid-2009.
"I realised all they wanted was Moi to be out so that those who assume office continued with the same vices that were rampant during Moi's era. Impunity and corruption are still the order of the day. So I quit because I did not want to be part of a government that does not listen to the cries of the governed", Karua says.
One woman, one vote
And not being shy of any challenges, Karua joined the National Rainbow Coalition Kenya party, of which she is now leader.
"I have been on the frontline fighting for women's issues and their participation in the running of this country. Women make up the majority of voters and I hope they will be able to vote for me, not because I am one of them but because of what I can do as a person and they should also look at my track record."
She caused panic in the political establishment when two of her party members won two parliamentary seats in by-elections occasioned by nullification of previous results by the court.
Observers say she might spring a surprise come the general elections. "Given that no-one knows what awaits Uhuru Kenyatta (a potentially powerful candidate in 2012 who faces an international Criminal Court indictment for his at his Hague trial), many people in Central Province might back Karua.
Dr Adams Oloo, a political scientist at the University of Nairobi says given the International Criminal Court indictment of on one of the leading candidates for the presidency in 2012 - Uhuru Kenyatta has been indicted for his alleged role in the 2008 political violence - Karua could pull lots of votes in Central Province.
"If she gets enough MPs, she might even be the opposition leader in parliament", Oloo says.
"Kenyans are now brighter and will look at a leader who is ready to work for the people, whether or not that leader is a female or male. Karua's take on many national issues has endeared her to the majority of Kenyans and other political leaders should watch out".
She will be the third woman to run for the presidency in Kenya, and surely the most spirited.
"I have fought so much for democracy in Kenya", says Karua, "and I believe I can change Kenya for the better".
The article was first published by IPS.