Mary Wambui’s defeat in Jubilee Party primaries to little-known Gichuki Mugambi ahead of the 2017 election battle for the Othaya parliamentary seat was viewed by many as the end of the road for a controversial politician once viewed as the most powerful woman during the Mwai Kibaki’s presidency.
The loss was supposed to send her to political oblivion, never to be seen or heard from again.
That has been the script until a few days ago, when President Uhuru Kenyatta resurrected her public career by appointing her the chairperson of the National Employment Authority, an agency responsible for, among others, helping young people to find paid internships in government institutions and other sectors, as they seek employment individually or through the authority.
At 69, her nomination has led to a national outcry among the country’s youth, a majority of whom are jobless and who view her as too old to be appointed to a public office.
“Mary Wambui was working at [the] Kanu office before I [began] school. That she is old, didn’t go to school and isn’t known for any business employing people are self-evident truths. To make her Chair of [the] National Employment Authority in [the] digital age, Jubilee must be trying Dark Humour!” a tweet by outspoken lawyer Donald Kipkorir summed up her CV.
By the time she got her first job as an office cleaner, messenger and secretary at the Nyeri Kanu branch offices in 1974 at the age of 21, over 80 per cent of Kenya’s population had not been born.
After her election in 2013, city lawyer Peter King’ara challenged the poll results in court, questioning her academic qualifications.
The lawyer brought to the attention of the court an application filed challenging Ms Wambui’s candidacy on the basis of her education and integrity.
“She (Wambui) went to Munyange Primary School, where she scored poorly and later repeated in a Nanyuki school, where she also performed more poorly. No more education is known about her to my knowledge,” he told the court.
Mr King’ara cited issues touching on her integrity, including two reports in which Ms Wambui was alleged to have been adversely mentioned.
One of the reports, "On the brink of precipice: A human rights account of Kenya’s post 2007 election violence", was authored by the Kenya Human Rights and Equality Commission, previously called the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights.
The report cited Ms Wambui as a person who organised the financing and importation of arms to Kenya during the 2007/2008 post-election violence.
Ms Wambui, then described as a “PNU activist”, was said to have funded the supply of arms through Ethiopia for retaliatory attacks on non-Kikuyu communities at the height of the violence.
The second report was by the Joint Session of the Departmental Committees on Administration, National Security and Local Authorities, and Administration of Justice and Legal Affairs of the Ninth Parliament touching on investigations into the conduct of the “Artur Brothers” and their associates.
The petitioner claimed that Ms Wambui was an associate of the two mercenaries. The report recommended that the allegations be investigated.
But on all occasions, Ms Wambui vehemently disputed the allegations, saying they were unfounded.
From humble roots in Othaya, Ms Wambui rose from being a Kanu branch office caretaker to “Narc/PNU activist” before becoming MP.
Before becoming among the most influential women in Kenya in her heyday, she once lived in a simple rented house behind Green Hills Hotel in Nyeri Town in the 1970s.
She later bought herself a house in the middle-class Mumbi Estate on the outskirts of the town before moving to the posh Ring Road Estate.
She would attend events characterised by the customary heave posse of bodyguards in chase cars.
Those who know her describe her as an industrious, ambitious and brilliant grassroots mobiliser.
As a result, she became acquainted with Kanu party officials, among them Mwai Kibaki, who joined the Nyeri Kanu branch in 1974 after shifting his base from Bahati in Nairobi. Officials say that soon after she became an aide to Mr Kibaki.
In 1978, Mr Kibaki appointed her as manager of his Rware Farm in Naromoru. It’s from this point that her fortunes are said to have changed for the better.
It’s said that after she became manager of Rware Farm, people in Nyeri dropped the name “Wambui wa Kanu”, as they used to call her, and adopted her new moniker “Wambui wa Mwai”, as she called herself during meetings.
She came to the spotlight in 2002 during a pre-election press conference called by the Rainbow leaders, where she conspicuously interacted with the politicians, who appeared to accord her lots of respect.
In her heyday, her list of friends included the who’s who in public life, and they used to refer to her as “Her Excellency”.
Her red-tiled house on Mzima Springs Road in Lavington was a favourite stopover for those seeking high-level political access during the Kibaki presidency.
Ms Wambui hit the headlines in March 2009 when President Kibaki, flanked by his immediate family, called a press conference to declare that he had only one “dear” wife, Lucy, a briefing viewed as an attempt to disassociate himself from Ms Wambui, who had claimed to be his wife.