‘‘We are moving into authoritarian rule where the people’s voices no longer count.’’

Martha Karua’s thoughts on the state of politics and the economy in Kenya today 

Known as the “Iron Lady” of Kenyan politics, MARTHA KARUA has had an outstanding career as a politician and legislator, having served as both minister for water management and minister for justice and constitutional affairs in the Mwai Kibaki administration. In the 1990s, she was a prominent member of opposition political movements that successfully agitated for multipartyism that led to the ouster of the Kanu regime in 2002. In 2008, after the disputed 2007 election that resulted in widespread violence across the country, she led a team that negotiated a power-sharing agreement with opposition leader Raila Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement. Fourteen years later, Raila would go on to pick Karua as his running mate in the 2022 elections. Had he been declared the winner of that election, she would have been Kenya’s first woman deputy president. RASNA WARAH spoke to the outspoken politician about the vision the Azimio La Umoja One Kenya coalition party has for Kenya and why she believes the country might be sliding towards dictatorship.

Q. Your coalition party, Azimio la Umoja One Kenya, called for nationwide demonstrations – what your leader Raila Odinga calls “civil disobedience” – to protest against the high cost of living and punitive taxes by the Kenya Kwanza administration. Yet Azimio has not made it very clear to Kenyans what alternative economic plans or budgets you have in mind to alleviate Kenyans’ suffering. What is Azimio’s economic strategy and how is it different from Kenya Kwanza’s?

Azimio’s economic strategy is well documented in our 2022 campaign manifesto. It sought to cushion the vulnerable in society through monthly cash payments of KSh.6,000 for households without any means of generating income. Secondly, Azimio would have ensured that basic needs, including food, are accessible to the people. Article 43 of our constitution makes it the government’s responsibility to ensure that all Kenyans have adequate food, water, health services, education and shelter. The party was and still is committed to free education from early childhood to primary, secondary, up to university; to making universal healthcare accessible and to expanding affordable housing. 

During times of economic hardship, it is the duty of a responsible government – through policy interventions and, where necessary, subsidies – to ensure that basic needs are accessible to the people. One remarkable difference between Azimio and the Kenya Kwanza regime is that whereas the Kenya Kwanza subsidises goods and services for the wealthy in society by exempting them from taxes, such as tax exemptions for helicopter owners in the current Finance Act, we in Azimio believe in cushioning the vulnerable in society, as demanded by our constitution. Rather than burden the people with punitive taxes, Azimio would have prioritised people’s needs, and eliminated wastage of public resources through non-priority spending, corruption and outright theft. In a nutshell, Azimio would have instilled fiscal discipline and rigorously enforcement of the law. 

Q. The protests have now halted and the government has agreed to talks with your party. However, there is a perception that the talks will be more about electoral justice (reforming the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission) rather than the issue that is most urgent to Kenyans – the rising cost of living. There is also a feeling that the talks will just end up creating positions within government for leading members of your party, as proposed in the Building Bridges Initiative, which you vehemently opposed, and which was eventually halted by the courts. Is there any truth to this? And wouldn’t it have been better, and for the sake of transparency, if the talks included public participation of some kind?  

Azimio’s priority in the talks remains bringing down the skyrocketing cost of living, electoral justice and adherence to the rule of law. There cannot be meaningful talks that are not people-centred. We did not go to the streets to create offices for leaders or entrench such offices in the constitution. It was the pain of the masses that drove us to the streets. It would be a betrayal of the people if the cost of living was displaced as the number one priority in the talks. Our representatives in the talks have assured us of their steadfastness in this. 

On electoral justice, it is imperative that a thorough audit of the 2022 presidential elections be conducted in line with Article 88 of the constitution, to enable us resolve the question of what really happened. The truth is key and, as the Bible says, it will set us free. If the audit shows William Ruto won, we in Azimio will recognise this government. If, on the other hand, the audit validates Azimio’s position that we won, then the Ruto regime would have to vacate office. More importantly, the truth of what happened with the presidential election will enable us as a country to fix whatever ails our electoral system. 

The issue of contested results has threatened the country’s peace since the 2007 disputed presidential election results, which plunged the country into a bloodbath, chaos and mayhem. In 2013 and 2017, the results were disputed. The common denominator in all these elections is that we have rushed to change commissioners of the electoral agency without caring to find out the real problem with our electoral system. In order to resolve this recurring problem, it is in our interest as a country to conduct a thorough audit to identify where the electoral boat is leaking and then seal the leakage once and for all. Any suggestion of amendments to the constitution should and must be subjected to meaningful public participation, bearing in mind the courts’ observations in the BBI case. 

In my view, our main problem is disobedience of the law with impunity and refusal to implement the constitution fully. Amendments to the constitution have been a Kenya Kwanza legislative agenda not an Azimio one. Public participation is a requirement of the constitution and is not dependent on the whims of leaders.

Q. Despite widespread public opposition to the Finance Bill 2023, Parliament went ahead and passed the Bill, without meaningful public participation (according to litigants opposing the Bill in court) or regard for the tough economic times the majority of Kenyans are facing (according to widespread views of mwananchi as expressed in the mass media and online). Now it has emerged that a new health bill is being proposed, with severe penalties for non-payment of another mandatory tax, including denial of public services. Instead of fixing the National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF), a mandatory new Social Insurance Health Fund is being proposed. When these new laws are challenged in court, as is the Finance Bill, court decisions are occasionally ignored (as was the case with the Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority, which is being subjected to contempt of court proceedings for ignoring earlier court decisions on the Finance Bill). When people protest on the streets, they are killed, maimed or arrested. These, among other developments, are creating a growing sentiment among Kenyans that we may be rapidly moving towards authoritarianism. What is your view on this?

We are, sadly, moving into authoritarian rule where the people’s voices no longer count, where the constitution and the laws of Kenya are ignored and where court orders are not worth the paper they are written on. Over ninety per cent of Kenyans opposed the Finance Bill, but the National Assembly, which is now largely controlled by the Executive, nevertheless passed it. Parliament has morphed from a people’s watchdog to an extension or mouthpiece of the Executive. As such, people do not have much hope that, moving forward, Parliament will fight to stop further punitive taxes on health or reject the creation of new multiple health funds. Without fighting mismanagement and corruption that ail NIHF, any new fund will be a continuation of the same old rot. 

The wanton murder of unarmed demonstrators by the police, with people being pulled out of their homes during the day and at night by special police squads in low-income areas in Nairobi, Kisumu and other parts of the country was criminal and premeditated. These are worrying signs of authoritarianism and the making of a genocidal regime. Kenyans must not be cowed into abandoning their hard-won rights to assemble and protest. We must remain steadfast in our quest for a free democratic society where leaders can be held to account without the quest for accountability becoming a death trap for citizens. 

Q. There is also the sentiment among a section of Kenyans that it is not William Ruto and his party that are determining economic policies, including tax laws, for Kenya, but the International Monetary Fund, which has forced other countries, including Pakistan, to impose punitive taxes on the people and remove subsidies for things like fuel. This has caused immense hardship in the said countries and led to rising poverty levels – and has also forced investors to flee these countries. In that sense, do you feel that there is nothing the current government can do to reduce the cost of living because it is beholden to the IMF, and that talks between Azimio and Kenya Kwanza about reducing the cost of living will not yield anything because Kenya has already gotten itself into a bind? 

Leaders choose whether to lead independently or to become puppets of others. The Kenya Kwanza regime is dancing to the IMF/World Bank tune due to the regime’s failure to manage the country’s resources in a prudent and accountable manner. We do not have a revenue problem but a fiscal indiscipline problem, which keeps getting worse by the day. Without changing direction, the Kenya Kwanza regime’s appetite for money is insatiable. No amount of borrowing or increase in taxation can satisfy the greed exhibited by the regime. The unfortunate bit is that Kenyans are left with bills to pay without tangible benefits to them and with a worsened economy. 

When we [the Kibaki government] came into power in 2003, we found a battered economy. We did not impose punitive taxes, but managed to turn things around by aligning our priorities with people’s needs and instituting fiscal discipline. That is what needs to be done to free Kenya from economic bondage. We must learn to live within our means. 

Q. According to human rights organizations, the protests in July led to more than 20 deaths at the hands of police. We are seeing police violence like the type we saw during the Daniel arap Moi era. President William Ruto has not expressed any regret for these killings, but has rather threatened protesters with more clampdowns if they dare his government. There is a feeling that the country is being ruled by creating fear among citizens. The constitution has not served as a deterrent to these actions and utterances. Is the constitution in danger of being usurped or becoming irrelevant?  

The Republic as set up by the constitution is being rapidly dismantled by the Kenya Kwanza regime. The wanton killings of over I believe 40 or more demonstrators and people in residential areas where low-income people live, such as Mathare, Kibera, Mlolongo, and Nyalenda, were meant to and did create fear in the minds of citizens, many of whom now equate demonstrations with a death trap. And yet fear at this time is not an option. If we stop exercising our constitutional rights to assemble peacefully and to demonstrate, we shall be aiding and abetting a murderous regime, which can only get worse and more brutal. We must fight for our liberties and resist with all our might a return to the dark days when the culture of fear ruled. 

Q. You have a reputation of being fearless and incorruptible, a woman of principles. How have you been able to navigate the murky and treacherous world of Kenyan politics knowing that most Kenyan politicians lack principles or even an ideology?

We are called upon to be true to ourselves, to be who we are. I play by the rules that make me comfortable, by following my inner voice and doing what I must do. It is not difficult to be true to yourself, however lonely it may be at times. Life for me is not at whatever cost but at a cost acceptable to me. 

Q. It is also extremely difficult to survive Kenyan politics as a woman. Yet, you have held ministerial positions in previous governments and are even leader of the NARC-Kenya party. What advice would you give young Kenyan women aspiring to be politicians and leaders of tomorrow? 

My advice to women is be yourself in all your dealings. It is not easy and will never be easy but who said life is ever easy or for the faint-hearted? Nothing comes easy at the workplace whether self employed, employed in a regular job or in politics. Play by the same rules whichever space you occupy and keep your values. 

Q. Finally, do you think Kenya is or will in the near future be ready for a woman president? If not, why? 

I will answer by asking where and when Kenyans met to agree that they would rather have an incompetent and corrupt male leader than elect a woman? I believe an open and transparent electoral system will give Kenyans an opportunity to elect capable leaders of their choice, irrespective of gender. 


  • Rasna Warah

    Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist with over two decades of experience as an editor, writer and communications specialist. She wrote a weekly op-ed column for the Daily Nation, Kenya’s leading newspaper, for many years, and has contributed to various regional and international publications, including, the UK’s Guardian, Africa is a Country, The East African, The Mail and Guardian, The Elephant, and Kwani? She has worked as an editor and writer at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) and has published two books on Somalia: Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) and War Crimes (2016). Her first book, Triple Heritage (1998), explored the history of South Asians in East Africa. Her latest book, Lords of Impunity (2022), examines the failures and internal contradictions of the United Nations and what can be done to transform this global body. She holds a Master’s degree in Communication for Development from Malmö University in Sweden and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychology and Women’s Studies from Suffolk University in Boston, USA. She is based in Nairobi, Kenya.