NAIROBI, June 21 (Reuters) – The alliance led by Kenyan presidential candidate Raila Odinga will come down hard on corruption if it wins in August, his running mate Martha Karua said, but dismissed her nickname “Iron Lady” as a sexist trope directed at tough women leaders.
“Strong leadership in women is seen as an exception and not the norm because I haven’t heard of an ‘iron man’,” the 64-year-old former justice minister told Reuters in an interview.
Karua and veteran opposition leader Odinga, who heads the Azimio La Umoja One Kenya Alliance coalition, are facing off with Deputy President William Ruto and first time lawmaker Rigathi Gachagua, in an election on Aug. 9.
The election is seen as a key test for stability for East Africa’s biggest economy. Two of its three last elections were marred by violence, amid disputes over alleged rigging.
Since Karua’s selection as his running mate, Odinga has overtaken Ruto in opinion polls. A Radio Africa poll, published on June 13, put Odinga ahead with 44.6% of voters favouring him against 38.9% for Ruto.
In his campaign Ruto has largely focused on economic inequality, pledging to lift up Kenya’s poorest whom he calls “hustlers”.
Karua, who would be Kenya’s first female deputy president if elected, said Azimio’s priority once in power would be to stamp out corruption, which is estimated to cost the government a third of its budget every year, about 800 billion shillings ($6.83 billion).
She said the funds lost each year would be enough to fund her coalition’s plan to offer direct monthly support to 2 million of Kenya’s poorest people.
“Corruption is strangling or choking the nation,” she said at her NARC-Kenya party office.
A former political prisoner, Odinga, 77, ran his previous four races as an anti-establishment candidate, but now he has teamed up with outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta whose ruling Jubilee Party is also part of his alliance.
Kenyatta, who must stand down after serving the maximum of two five-year terms, opted to back Odinga against his deputy Ruto, with whom he had a falling out.
In Odinga’s last three campaigns for office in 2007, 2013, and 2017, he challenged the outcomes, saying his victories were stolen. Deadly clashes followed the 2007 and 2017 votes.
Kenya is East Africa’s most well-off and stable nation and a close Western ally that hosts the regional headquarters of international firms like Alphabet Inc (GOOGL.O).
But public debt has more than tripled by 7 trillion shillings ($61.32 billion) since Kenyatta assumed office in 2013, pushing against the nation’s debt ceiling.
“Our intention is to renegotiate the debt and make them long term so that we are able to meet our obligations,” Karua said.
She said Azimio also wants closer scrutiny of private wealth of public sector workers and political leaders, adding that tackling corruption was the only way to fix the country.
“It is governance, stupid!” she said, adapting a well-known line from an advisor of former U.S. president Bill Clinton.
Odinga has already designated Karua as his justice minister if they win. Over the years she has earned the nickname Kenyan “Iron Lady” for her determination, starting with her victory over a powerful former civil service head during her first parliamentary election in 1992.
In 2001, she defiantly walked out of a rally by former authoritarian president Daniel arap Moi, after she was denied a chance to speak.
She also left the cabinet after six years in 2009 because of differences with the then government of President Mwai Kibaki on human rights, tackling corruption and judicial appointments.
Among her achievements Karua said she counted her role in helping to lay the ground for Kenya’s constitutional charter and fighting for multi-party democracy as a lawyer in the early 1990s.
Karua said she learnt early lessons on taking responsibility from her paternal grandmother in a rural county near Mt. Kenya where she grew up on a farm and took care of her younger siblings while also attending school.
“I’m grateful for that sort of upbringing. I’m not able not to give a 100 or 102%. Work is in me,” she said.
($1 = 117.1000 Kenyan shillings)
Reporting by Duncan Miriri Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky