Karua, the only 'man' in Kibaki's inner circle

Monday April 6 2009

By MACHARIA GAITHO

She has regularly been described as the only man in President Kibaki’s inner circle, and hence the impact of Ms Martha Karua’s resignation as minister for Justice, National Cohesion and Constitutional Affairs.

She had signalled her intentions to quit in the last few days, but even then her resignation on Monday is still bound to send some shock waves.

In Kenya, ministers do not ordinarily relinquish office merely on principle or because they are disgruntled; they wait to be kicked out, or they jump ship in the wave of defections that characterise the approach to any General Election.

Political picture

As Ms Karua joins the select group of Kenyan ministers who have resigned in such circumstances, however, the bigger issue is what next for her and how the decision impacts on the political picture.

During the protracted battle with ODM over the presidential election outcome early 2008, Ms Karua easily emerged as leader of President Kibaki’s PNU troops, taking charge when others were ducking for cover.

In the chaotic scenes in the tallying centre at Nairobi's KICC, at media press conferences and on to the draw out negotiations mediated by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Ms Karua was the unrelenting voice of the Kibaki forces.

From the moment she declared her intention to run for president, something seemed to have snapped in her relations with the presidential entourage.

And when she then sought to seize the reform agenda and become a critic of what she dismissed as anti-reformist cliques in the government, it became clear she was set to strike out on her own.

Resigning, rather than fighting from within government, is however a risky option laden with potential pitfalls. Whether she will be able to, almost from scratch, build or takeover a significant constituency is one big question mark.

Despite its independence Parliament is hardly the institution that will rally to her side, especially with the large number of MPs she has rubbed the wrong way.

Outside Parliament, civil society groups struggling to reclaim their old status as the drivers for the reform agenda are unlikely to embrace Ms Karua as the person they need to carry their flag.

With citizen discontent against the Grand Coalition Government reaching new heights, Ms Karua might well want to tap into that to build a political base. But, again, that may be difficult weighed against the nature of Kenyan politics where ethnic affiliations are often more important than loyalties to any causes, programmes or ideologies.

In central Kenya political establishment, Ms Karua has burnt her political bridges. Her rivals for the Kibaki succession at the PNU coalition and regional level, Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka (ODM Kenya), Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta (Kanu) and Internal Security minister George Saitoti (PNU), will be glad to see the back of her.

Informal alliance

Chances are that Ms Karua will enter into some informal alliance with Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s wing. Kenya’s political dynamics dictate that it will be a tall order for any candidate from central Kenya seeking to succeed President Kibaki.

The community has already had two (Kenyatta and Kibaki) out of Kenya’s three presidents (the other was Moi from Rift Valley) in a quarter century of independence.

In that scenario it makes sense for any one from the community angling for 2012 not to aim for the topmost job, but to ally with a strong candidate from another community in return for a significant appointment. That might be Ms Karua’s best game plan.