Wangari Maathai, Charity Ngilu, Martha Karua: Political Moments and the Legacies of ‘Mama’

“Leadership is not simply a matter of filling the top positions in a government. Nor is it a quality restricted to the ambitious, the elite, the politically gifted, or the highly educated. Indeed, not every person in a leadership position is truly a leader” – Wangari Maathai, ‘The Challenge For Africa’ (2009).

A good place to start would be the 1997 General Elections. Charity Ngilu, who was already a household name after capturing the Kitui central in Kenya’s first ever multiparty elections held in 1992, announced that she would be running for the presidency on a Social Democratic Party (SDP) ticket. “Ma saa na Ngilu”, for those who remember. We all cheered for this gallant politician who arrested our imagination when she stormed out of Mwai Kibaki’s Democratic Party (DP) and boldly struck out for the country’s top job despite a relatively short career in politics. And then, several months to the election, Wangari Maathai, too, announced that she was vying for the top job. The results? Moi won, of course. Kibaki came second, Raila, third and Ngilu managed a respectable 5th place, one notch higher than the late Martin Shikuku. As for Maathai, she came third from last in those elections with 0.07% of total votes cast.

With today’s news that Charity Ngilu will be seeking the presidency in the 2013 General Elections, one cannot help but feel that history is somewhat repeating itself. Martha Karua, the proverbial long-distance runner, launched her presidential bid a couple of years ago, and has been on the campaign trail ever since. Now Karua has company in the form of ‘Mama Rainbow’. It may be political naivete to ask, but would anyone serious about campaigning for the presidency launch a bid with only five months to the polls? Prior to her campaign announcement, wasn’t she on record that she would support Raila’s presidential ambitions? These questions may seem to you, rhetoric or a display of my ignorance, but allow me to continue.

Those of us who argue for a greater presence of women in public decision-making (Parliament, Judiciary or Executive) and other power structures have done so on the premise that men and women handle power and authority differently – one to command and control and the other to nurture and build. In the latter context, we have affectionately ascribed the word “Mama”, swahili for ‘mother’, not only to the women who gave life to us and the continent we call home, but also to our great female leaders. Looking across the Equator to Monrovia, Liberia, we find one such ‘Mama’. Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson was the first African woman president and to this day, we join Liberians in calling her ‘Mum’. Here at home, the late Nobel Laureate Prof. Wangari Maathai will always be fondly remembered as ‘Mama Miti’, not only for her role as an exemplary environmentalist but also as a fearless human rights crusader.

As for ‘Mama Rainbow’, that legacy I fear, is dead and gone. The motherly hope we once had in her, Charity Ngilu, was lost when she decided to play the bad politics of sycophancy only to settle for being a junior minister in the 2007-2008 government. From about 2005, things started going terribly wrong for Charity who was serving as Minister in the powerful Health docket. Claims of grand corruption marred the face of the Health Ministry and reached epic proportions as Ngilu herself was prominently featured in the news over her ugly row with government officials in her Ministry and the then Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission (KACC). The scandal behind Ngilu’s suspension of Kenyatta National Hospital Director Dr. Florence Musau, her public falling out with David Mwiraria (Finance), Amb. Francis Muthaura (Head of Civil Service) and her Health Permanent Secretaary PS Patrick Khaemba begun raising eyebrows because this was certainly not the ‘Mama Rainbow’ who we knew all along. In the end, Kibaki relieved Ngilu of her duties at which point she openly declared that her NARC party would be supporting Raila’s ODM Party in the 2007 race to State House. The rest, as they say, is history.

Ngilu, who was since elevated to the ‘ODM Pentagon’ and appointed by Raila’s ODM as Water and Irrigation Minister in the 2008 Coalition Government, has been in the news recently for all the wrong reasons. Most notably, there was the matter of widespread corruption allegations in her Ministry with her previous Assistant Minister Mwangi Kiunjuri presenting a dossier to the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission that alleged billions of shillings had been lost through a dam construction project in Kitui.

Harriet Rubin in her book “The Princessa” writes: “History proves, that women have failed by fighting men’s wars”. This statement rings true in certain indelible political moments of many a “Iron Lady” of generations past like Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto. Martha Karua, on her part, stepped out from the choppy waters of male-dominated coalition politics and has sought to reinvent herself as ‘Mama Taifa’ with innovative new ways of connecting with her electorate such as “Simama na Mama na Mia”. As for Charity, this writer has more questions than answers. Perhaps, the most relevant question that I have now is: Has Charity Ngilu read section 22 of the Elections Act 2011? It goes a little something like this:

“22. (1) A person may be nominated as a candidate for an election under this Act only if that person—
(a) is qualified to be elected to that office under the Constitution and this Act; and
(b) holds a post secondary school qualification recognised in Kenya.”

[Here comes the fun bit…]

“(2) Notwithstanding subsection (1)(b), a person may be nominated as a candidate for election as President, Deputy President, county Governor or deputy county Governor only if the person is a holder of a degree from a university recognised in Kenya.” (Emphasis mine)

According to the good folks at, Charity Ngilu doesn’t appear to meet this very minimum threshold.

In the final analysis, it is indeed saddening that long ago an announcement of Charity Ngilu’s presidential bid was greeted with jubilation and now, a click of the tongue. Although she may have failed to live up to her “Mama Rainbow” name, all anyone can do now is say: ‘Bonne Chance’ as she goes about ‘selling herself’ to the Kenyan voter.

6 thoughts on “Wangari Maathai, Charity Ngilu, Martha Karua: Political Moments and the Legacies of ‘Mama’

  1. You know things are bad when such a presidential lauch is looked at from what will happen in Ukambani…..not even nationally!! Things are bad for Ngilu…..and they are bound to get worse….

    The most surprising thing is, so many want to become Kenya’s next president yet, the powers are so hugely reduced. This portrays 2 things: Either these candidates have no idea what being president under new katiba means or we have a huge;y ignorant class of presidential candidates…..and I suspect it is both choices.

  2. It’s an incisive article. I support mmnjug in the assertion that none of the current crop of presidential contestants has an idea about how Useless the presidency is.

    Kibaki is “shouting” about the virtually ceremonial presidency by making unilateral appointments which are later quashed by the judiciary or the legislature, but it seems no one’s listening.

  3. I’m one of those who clicked. I didn’t vote Ngilu the first time, because even though I respected her chutzpah, I didn’t like her politics. I don’t know how much of a following she has now. As for me, I’m on #TeamMartha because I like HER politics, and it’ll be interesting to see how many votes she can garner.

  4. I may not be aware but have you also analysed the political histories and clicked when the rest the male presidential contenders announced they were going to vie for the seat? 😉

    Anyway, by the time the IEBC calls for elections and party lists and and nominees, you can be sure that Ngilu and the rest of the field will have legally and seemingly qualified for that seat somehow thanks to the Integrity Act and other amendments to Elections and Political Parties Acts.

    Despite all the corruption allegations, she is miraculously yet to dragged before any corruption, criminal or any other court. I think that’s the biggest test she will pass. I was kind of impressed (shock) the first two or three days since she made the announcement and her grand talk of 5 issues in five years she would tackle, which she actually articulated well. I thought we might have a different candidate here. Until she asked Raila and Kibaki to support her cause.

    They’re all the same, aren’t they? I don’t know what it will take to get a really different person who really wants to serve Kenyans and improve their lot. Meanwhile, I’m enjoying following the US elections more. And my determination to vote for women only in the next elections keeps fading.

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