Profile: Martha Karua

The former magistrate has been dubbed ‘The Iron Lady’ for her toughness and resilience.

Martha Karua, candidate for Kenya''s presidency
Martha Karua is a former justice minister of Kenya, and has won awards for her defence of women's rights [Reuters]

A member of parliament since 1992, former magistrate Martha Karua is the only woman standing for the Kenyan presidency.

Dubbed “The Iron Lady” in local media for her robust defence of her views, she has also been referred to by one prominent columnist as “the only man in Kibaki’s government”. Tough and resilient, she has gained a reputation for her contributions to the development of constitutional, administrative and family law, and served as minister for justice until her resignation in 2009.

The 55-year-old was also a key legislative power behind Kenya’s Water Act of 2002, which has led to expanded access to clean water across the country.

Leading the League of Women Voters, Karua has won several awards praising her work in both parliament and the high court, to advance and protect women’s rights. She has consistently been one of the leading voices in calling for the expansion of democratic space and gender issues.

While Kenya was still under single-party rule, Karua acted as legal counsel for human rights activists and pro-democracy agitators – despite the potential threat to her life and liberty invited by such work in such a system. Her website says that, “fearing for her life, [she] sat down her two young children and explained to them how her work could lead to her disappearance: ‘It was a difficult thing to do, but I wanted them to be prepared in case one day, I did not come back home.'”

Elected to parliament in 1992, she became more prominent after the National Rainbow Coalition came to power in 2003.

‘Ethnic cleansing’

Serving in President Mwai Kibaki’s cabinet for four years, analysts have said she would have been in line for a very senior position if the 2007 election had gone according to their plan. Following the violence which marred that poll, however, she was seemingly snubbed in favour of Raila Odinga – who was made prime minister in a power-sharing deal agreed to end the largely tribal fighting which saw 1,400 people killed and some 600,000 more displaced.

In January 2008, she blamed Odinga for the violence, saying Odinga’s ODM party had planned “mayhem” if they lost. She went further, accusing Odinga of “ethnic cleansing” – a charge dismissed by Odinga as “outrageous”.

As chair of the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC), she made headlines in mid-February after walking out of a trade union-sponsored debate between presidential candidates, in apparent protest at the inclusion of Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s running mate who appeared in his place.

“We hope the Kenyan people will choose a leader they can trust,” Mark Bichachi, a senior strategist for the Karua campaign, told Al Jazeera. “Martha Karua has always stood for what is right, for social justice, for the Kenyan people, for the past 20 years.”

Her manifesto, perhaps reflecting her legal background, emphasises “a new spirit of constitutionalism”, prioritising the fight against corruption and respect for national diversity. In terms of developing infrastructure, she has pledged to increase home internet access from the current 12 percent to 50 percent within five years.

She has also committed to pursuing a “cradle-to-grave” universal healthcare system, but has yet to publish exact budgetary plans for many of her ideas. This, of course, is not unique to Karua – or Kenya, for that matter.

Karua has slammed pre-election opinion polls, many of which put her with single-digit support, and lashed out at the TNA’s Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, formerly of the ODM, who both stand accused of having a hand in the massacres of 2007-8.

“My brothers Uhuru and Ruto should first clear their names over accusations of genocide before urging anyone to vote for them,” she told reporters. “How do you seek votes, yet grave accusations of causing death, arson and mass displacements are on your head?”

“If your cow’s leg is broken, do you strap a plough on it and head to the farm – or do you first get it treated and allow it time to heal?”

Source: Al Jazeera