The Kenyan media are calling it the “Karua wave”, as the woman hoping to be the country’s first female deputy president energises a jaded political race. A win in Kenya’s 9 August elections would make Martha Karua the highest-ranking woman in the country’s history.
Karua has had a long career on the edges of political power before being nominated in May as a running mate by her former longtime opposition leader, Raila Odinga. She was a key figure in the push for multiparty democracy through the 1980s and 1990s, and defended human rights activists during the dictatorial regime of the former president Daniel Arap Moi, known for its brutal crackdowns on dissent.
The 64-year-old resigned from her role as justice minister in 2009, citing frustrations in her efforts to bring about judicial reform after the government appointed judges without her knowledge.
Analysts say her nomination breathed new life into the campaign of Odinga’s Azimio la Umoja political alliance, sparking new enthusiasm among Kenyans looking for change. “There was a very ambivalent middle class looking at all the candidates, feeling like there was no one they could identify with. That base was definitely stirred up when Martha joined the race,” says Joy Masinde, a political analyst. “It energised a group of urban women that were not very invested in the political process.”
It gives me hope that when she’s in government, I wouldn’t have to live in exile or be afraid of getting shot. - Boniface Mwangi, campaigner
Masinde says Karua’s candidacy has pulled in some votes for Odinga, who is ahead of his main rival, William Ruto, in the polls, and believes the nomination heralds a trend.
“People are now seeing the benefit of bringing a different gender on to a ticket,” says Masinde. “You can hear the nostalgia when people say Mama na Baba [mother and father] – it’s like a nuclear family, it feels safe.
“Even in the campaign rhetoric, now you hear the references that ‘when a woman is there, the youth issues are taken care of, the gender issues are taken care of’,” she adds.
But such narratives do not always work when female politicians go it alone. Karua ran for the presidency nine years ago but won less than 1% of the vote. She took a break from politics shortly after.
Her new allies are unexpected: Odinga, whom she accused of ethnic cleansing after Kenya’s 2007 post-election violence, and the outgoing president Uhuru Kenyatta, whom she accused of failing to tackle corruption.
Some consider such partnerships to be a necessary evil. “When she tried to stand on her values and track record in 2013, she didn’t gain much traction,” says Catherine Amayi, a Kenyan feminist. “With the state backing and visibility she has now, she’s gained a lot more ground with voters.”
While Karua has strong support from urban and educated Kenyans, analysts say that her opponent, Rigathi Gachagua, may have more support in the Mount Kenya region, a highly influential voter base where they both come from.