Martha Karua, a former Justice and Constitutional Affairs minister and current vice presidential candidate in the 2022 Kenyan election

Elite Capture: Martha Karua and the Politics of Representation

Kenya’s former Prime Minister Raila Odinga and a front-runner in the upcoming August 9th presidential election announced that Martha Karua, a former Justice and Constitutional Affairs minister (and an erstwhile fierce opponent), would be his running mate. This historic nomination made her the first woman in Kenya to run on a dominant political party’s presidential ticket.

The news was met with varying degrees of enthusiasm and concern.

In her acceptance speech, Karua, who vied for the presidency in 2013 and came in sixth said “This is a moment for the women of Kenya. It is a moment that my grandmother would have been proud of but she would not have been surprised because generations of women have fought for change”. 

Over the years, Karua has fashioned herself as a staunch anti-corruption crusader as well as reformist.  During this election period, amid national calls for stronger anti-corruption laws,at least two lines on Karua’s resume should invite closer scrutiny.

First, her record as minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs which saw her reject the Anglo Leasing dossier released by former Ethics permanent secretary John Githongo. “Mr Githongo is not and never was an investigator, but a permanent secretary and his initial inquiries cannot be expected to be acted upon as though they are irrefutable and unquestionable evidence. Said Karua at a press conference

Githongo would later resign and  flee into exile after claims of “death threats”. In his report, he alleged that president Kibaki and Karua had been repeatedly briefed on the dubious contracts, but had taken no action.

Second, in December 2015, UK’s Independent news site alleged that Karua was bribed £50,000  by British America Tobacco (BAT) in a bid to block a rival tobacco firm from being awarded a multimillion-pound contract.

The site claimed the bribe was termed as a ‘political donation’ and was issued to Karua during her presidential campaign in 2013. In return, Karua would lobby for BAT to win the contract for supplying technology to combat cigarette smuggling. 

Karua admitted to only receiving Ksh 2,000,000 as a  “donation” to her presidential campaign. Investigations continue and no culpability is yet to be proven by British sleuths. 

Politicians lobbying for corrupt companies is a symptom of a larger capitalist problem which encourages primitive accumulation. Karua’s link to BAT is part of a larger imperialist network. What does this portend for the nature of the administration she will be working for if she becomes the deputy president with access to much more power and influence? The working class/peasant class might be forced to pay the steep price as seen in the last decade under a plutocracy 

During this election period, if discerning voters perceive a disconnect between Karua’s anti-corruption rhetoric and the details of her own record as Justice minister, it could hurt her reputation. Thus the operative question will be how she will defend herself against her record of upholding the corrupt status quo she claims to be against. 

Martha Karua’s contradictions may be perceived as negligible —even acceptable in the eyes of many of her supporters because unlike her biggest rivals in this election, she has a track record of progressive politics.

A peer of Odinga in the Second Liberation struggle, Karua, who is a lawyer by profession, cut her teeth as a critic of the autocratic Moi regime. At the height of the clamour for multi-party democracy in Kenya in the early 1990s, Karua endeared herself to the public as a tenacious defender of civil rights.

As an elected Law Society of Kenya council member, Karua called for a tribunal to probe then-Chief Justice Allen Hancox and Justice Dugdale who were consistently making pro-state rulings that upheld the legality of the one-party state. This was an unprecedented move of judicial defiance at the time.

Many Kenyan liberal feminists are willing to overlook some questionable things because she is a woman who has achieved significant political success in a sexist system. This success however, has come at a cost. By aligning herself with, and protecting the status quo, Karua has had to suppress her former radical politics to further her own interests. This is a feature — not a bug of the current political system in Kenya. It is how bourgeois democracy works. 

For socialist feminists, we should not, and cannot afford to settle for symbolism and representation for representation sake in a vicious capitalist state.

Can Karua really realize radical political change from within the space of hegemonic power if she ascends to the second-highest seat in the land through this bourgeois election? As socialists, we must acknowledge that her allegiance, first and foremost, is to the ruling class. The tenacity with which she defended Mwai Kibaki’s successful yet contested reelection refers. We shouldn’t hold any romantic illusions about her positioning in the state. 

It may seem like a huge victory when more women succeed in the political sphere here in Kenya (as they account for just 22 per cent of the National Assembly and Senate—a figure including the seats reserved exclusively for women county representatives) but whose class interests they represent is much more crucial than how they got there. 

This representation, thus far, has done little to nothing to improve the material conditions of the working class women in Kenya. Because placing a woman (or anyone at all) in a position of power means nothing for the working class if they don’t have anti-capitalist praxis or principles.

In Tanzania, Samia Suluhu’s ascension to power as the country’s first female president was lauded worldwide as a ‘progressive’ change in the country’s political landscape. Barely two years in office, she has demonstrated how women serving the interests of capital are capable of perpetuating violence against marginalized groups, many of which women are a part of.  

Under the leadership of Suluhu, the Tanzanian government launched plans of ‘conserving’ Ngorongoro conservation area, which is designated as a world heritage site by Unesco, by evicting about 70,000 Maasai communities!  Suluhu’s  government also wants to make room for trophy hunting and elite tourism after eviction. This exercise has been widely condemned. The ‘female representation’ Suluhu is celebrated for is indistinguishable from the aggressions of imperialism and capitalism.

The hijacking of Martha Karua’s identity as a woman and the co-optation of feminist politics by the ruling class is what author Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò describes as Elite Capture. Táíwò identifies the process by which a radical concept can be stripped of its political substance and liberatory potential by becoming the victim of elite capture—deployed by political, social, and economic elites in the service of their own interests.

As the Kenyan ruling class across the board continue with their onslaught of election propaganda, it behooves us as socialists to avoid being fodder for the voting machinery that  legitimizes this reactionary electoral contest. We must elude selective amnesia of the past actions of leading contenders and observe their words and actions through the looking glass. 

This article first appeared on Ukombozi Review