Sunday, May 01, 2011

A word of caution for the supporters of Martha Karua

Martha Karua launched her presidential bid this past week at the National Museums of Kenya. Notably, other than Danson Mungatana, NARC-Kenya's secretary-general, other politicians from her party gave the even a wide berth. Indeed, even the most recent MPs from her party, William Kabogo and Gidion Mbuvi, have thrown their weight behind Uhuru Kenyatta, the Deputy Prime Minister. The Member for Gichugu has done a creditable job of representing her constituents in the Tenth Parliament, and as a Cabinet Minister, ensuring that their issues are well articulated and their interests protected. He pledges during the launch resonated with a cross-section of Kenyan society: resettlement of IDPs, better healthcare and living conditions for Kenyans, and upholding the rule of law. Until her manifesto is published, we will not know whether she has a plan or is just full of promises, something that Kenyan politicians have perfected over the past forty-seven odd years.

If Ms Karua were to become Kenya's fourth president in 2012, she will inherit a country in transition and a government in crisis. The ethnically-divided and divisive politics of the past two decades is a challenge that she will have to address within days of her confirmation. She will have to deal with an economy that benefits a few fatcats at the expense of millions of the working classes. She will have to ensure that the process of constitutional implementation remains on track and that the government is cohesive, reflects the face of Kenya and works for the interests of the people, not the politicians. Her record, alas, is not encouraging.

In today's Sunday Nation, Ahmednassir Abdullahi (Karua deserves to be Kenya's next president) glosses over some of the issues that defined Ms Karua's record in and out of government. Until the day she was named a Cabinet Minister in Kibaki's two administrations, she remained true to the ideals that propelled the Second Liberation Movement forward. However, her role as Justice Minister, and previously as Water Minister, raise questions about her objectivity and competence. As Minister for Water she oversaw the implementation of the reforms in the water sector. The effects of those reforms are being felt today. Water services are still inefficient and riddled with corruption. They are so expensive that millions of Kenyans who live in urban areas cannot afford to access them at reasonable fees. While allegations of favouritism in allocation of resources never received the same scrutiny Charity Ngilu's did, questions still linger over the manner in which she used her position as minister to ensure that Gichugu, and Kirinyaga South generally, benefitted when it came to allocation of finances and other resources by her ministry.

But it was her robust defense of the Kibaki regime in the aftermath of the 2007 General Elections and her actions as Minister for Justice that will come in for especial scrutiny. She defended the indefensible and must take her share of the blame for the bloodshed that ensued after that ill-fated election. As Minister for Justice she demonstrated caprice when she publicly disagreed with the manner in which the president sought to appoint three new judges of the High Court, using the apparent presidential snub as one of her reasons for resigning from the Cabinet. She has never publicly explained why she objected to those three appointments, appointments that came to pass anyway, and why it was so important for the Minister for Justice to be consulted when she had no role to play in the nomination process or appointment of the judges. That is a role, under the former constitution, that was reserved for the formerly constituted Judicial Service Commission and the President. The Minister, suffice to say, is neither a member of the JSC nor the president. 

Under the new Constitution, the president is only the nominee and appointing authority of judicial officers, the primary role of vetting and assessment being played by the newly created JSC. Will she use her power as president to attempt to circumvent the place of independent offices in the process of appointing new judicial officers?

What Mr Abdullahi sees as a strong personality may be interpreted by others as high-handedness and an inability to countenance dissension, charges that have been laid at the feet of the Prime Minister and leader of the Orange Democratic Movement Party. Indeed, the internal democracy of her party is doubtful, as seeing that internal elections have never been held to choose party officers. Indeed her pledge to live by the rule of law would seem to be belied by the fact that her party has not complied with some of the provisions of the Constitution or the Political Parties Act that separate members of the legislature from the leadership of political parties. Perhaps it is her pragmatic acknowledgment that while Kenya is in transition it would be foolhardy for a party leader to give up her position while other political parties do not make the same changes. This may in turn raise doubts about her leadership; will she claim pragmatism when she is called upon to make unpopular political choices when she is president?

No one doubts that in the cut and thrust of Kenya politics, Ms Karua has acquitted herself admirably. But the presidency is not just about the flash of political gamesmanship but also about the substance of leadership. Therefore, before we entrust the leadership of this nation to her untried hands, we must be sure that she will play the game with honour and that she will defend the national interests. This she can do by beginning the process of reforming her party, ensuring that not only does it abide by the letter and spirit of the law, but that it also reflects the wishes of its membership. For this, it must have members and until she attracts members to her party, I am loath to endorse her candidacy. After all, if she cannot get people to join (and pay for) the party, how can we be sure that the 'usual business' of party politics are not the reasons why she garnered the nomination to run for the presidency. Ms Karua faces great challenges; she can only surmount them if she demonstrates that she is willing to play by the rules she herself endorsed when she campaigned for the new Constitution.

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