Kenyan Women Reduced to Flower Girls in the Presidential Sweepstakes

Female politicians in Kenya are playing servile to their male counterparts by avoiding to run for the country’s top seat as they are presently rooting for putative candidates, who exclusively happen to be male, eroding a momentum of empowerment for women that began 30 years ago.

With elections scheduled for 2022, when current President Uhuru Kenyatta is expected to exit after serving a maximum constitutionally mandated two-five year terms, the emerging political realignment points to an all-male contest for the top seat, for now.

Martha Karua, 62, who contested for the presidential sweepstakes in 2013, emerged sixth in a field of eight candidates, after attracting 0.36% of the popular vote understandably throwing shade at the stance taken by the local women politicos.

As the current leader of the National Rainbow Coalition-Kenya (NARC-K) party which has three out of 349 members in parliament, Karua thinks the current crop of women politicians are stiffing Kenya’s women folks.

“The most unfortunate thing happening now in the Kenyan political space is that women parliamentarians are agreeing to become praise choirs for male politicians angling to succeed the current president,” says Karua, one of the few female politicians with an illustrious career that has also seen her work as the Cabinet Secretary in charge of Justice.

Beginning early this year, two disparate groups drawing in female politicians from across the country were unveiled, all beholden to two political camps. One coalesces around Deputy President William Ruto, going by the moniker name of Inua Mama – Kiswahili term meaning ‘uplift the livelihood of women’ – while the other calls itself ‘Team Embrace’ and is batting for a former Prime Minister and the country’s de facto leader of the opposition, Raila Odinga.

Despite the presidential elections being three years away from taking place, the country is oddly in a campaign mood.

This is after President Kenyatta and Odinga, 74, formerly bitter foes in the most recent elections held in October 2017, that almost pushed East Africa’s biggest economy down the precipice, publicly shook hands on March 2018. This historical gesture signalled a rapprochement between bitter political protagonists but it left the Deputy President’s political base feeling jittery.

“Everything was going well for him, and it was just a matter of counting the years. His chances at a shot at the top job were 100 per cent, now it has been reduced to 50-50,” says Dr Herman Manyora a political science lecturer at the University of Nairobi, the premier public institution of higher learning, referring to the Deputy President.

When Kenyatta ran for the presidency in 2013, he tapped Ruto as his running mate, publicly stating he would support his deputy in elections scheduled for 2022 after serving two terms. But after the 2017 elections, the president has been sending mixed signals.

“On his own Odinga is not a threat to Ruto. But backed by Kenyatta, who has the real power to thwart his chances, Ruto has a real reason to worry. Kenyatta and Odinga have become joined at the hip after the handshake, and together, they are a real threat, “says Dr.Manyora.

Currently, out of the 349 seats in parliament, only 76 members are female representing one-fifth of the total number.

According to Kenya’s 2010 constitution, women must have at least a third of seats in parliament and a third of appointed positions.

The constitution states that no more than two-thirds of an elected or appointed body can be of one gender, but does not set out a mechanism for attaining that goal.

Court rulings since 2012 have directed parliament to pass legislation to enforce the gender rule or risk dissolution – but previous attempts have failed, largely due to quorum hitches.

There are 76 female MPs in the current parliament, equivalent to just over a fifth of the 349 seats.

This underlines gender inequality in Kenya’s political system compared to neighbouring states.

Rwanda leads with 61%, followed by Tanzania at 36%, Burundi at 36%, Uganda and 34% and South Sudan at 28.5%.  Except Rwanda, none of these countries have attained the African Union standard of 50/50 representation of women in all leadership positions including political leadership.

In the absences of affirmative action, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf would not have become the first woman in Africa to become president when in 2016 she ascended to the top seat in the West African state of Sierra Leone. Journalist Monique Ohsan Bellepeau, later on, pulled off a similar stunt in the southeastern state of Mauritius in 2012. While in the South African republic of Malawi, Joyce Hilda Banda became president in 2012.

In Uganda, two women have vied for president; first was Miria Obote, wife of former president Milton Obote, who ran in the 2006 election, but only managed to garner 0.08% of the vote.

In elections held in 2011, Beti Kamya gave it a go, but only managed 0.06% of the vote.

In Rwanda, two women have tried to vie for the presidency including Alvera Mukabaramba, who made a stab in 2003 but withdrew from the race on the eve of the election, handing President Paul Kagame a landslide victory. She tried again in 2010, but only got 0.04% of the vote

This is a telling indication that despite the patriarchal nature of African politics, woman are increasingly daring to run for the top seat.

When in 1997, a woman sensationally ran for presidency for the first time in Kenya’s 34-year-old history since gaining independence from British rule in 1963, this nation of 47 million people was under the heel of an intransigent regime that brooked no challenges to its hold on power.

And understandably the autocratic President Daniel Arap Moi, pulled out all the stops, cruising to victory with 40.4 % of the vote in elections held in that year.

Two women were on the presidential ballot that year. They included Charity Ngilu, 67, now one among five female governors in a landscape with 47 governors and Prof. Wangari Maathai who succumbed to cancer in September 2011 seven years after winning the Nobel Prize in 2004, verifiably, the icons who blazed the path for local women.

Fielding questions from the Los Angeles Times newspaper Ngilu had this to say:

“I cannot sit back and watch and wait and say, ‘Who can do this?’ I must do this. I am qualified because I am what Kenyans are looking for – a committed, dedicated, honest person who can lead them through the problems they have.”

In the elections, 15 candidates sought to dislodge Moi but floundered.

Ngilu emerged fifth with 7.8% of the vote while Prof. Maathai with 0.07% vote managed 13 position after the president exploited existing ethnic fissures that remain a feature in Kenya’s politics to his advantage.

The next time a woman ran for the top seat would be in 2007 when 40-year-old Nazlin Omar emerged sixth in a field of nine candidates after attracting 0.09% of the vote.

According to Nanjala Nyabola, a Kenyan writer, humanitarian advocate and political analyst, Kenyan politics, she says “will hold up women as emblems but denies them full participation in the highest levels of government, instead publicly referring to female politicians as “flower girls” and creating a political ghetto in the women’s representative positions that effectively writes women out of mainstream politics.