Wangari Maathai: But will the voters hear her?
I imagine that Lantern author Wangari Maathai
, 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and veteran campaigner for human rights and democracy, must look out on the current parliamentary and presidential campaign in Kenya
and feel a disturbing sense of deja vu. As she writes in her autobiography, Unbowed
, efforts through the 1990s to defeat at the ballot box strongman Daniel arap Moi
, and his party KANU
, were stymied by a fractious opposition. In 2002, this opposition gathered together under the acronym NARC
, pooled their candidates, and won. Wangari Maathai herself was elected to Parliament for her home constituency of Tetu
in Kenya's Central Highlands, and made Assistant Minister for the Environment.
That was five years ago. The NARC coalition, always fragile, barely survived a ruckus over constitutional reform
that descended into ethnic rivalry. When President Kibaki
sacked his cabinet in the winter of 2005, Wangari Maathai was twice looked over for the job of Minister of the Environment—something that must have stung deeply for someone honored for her commitment to her country's environment.
In the alphabet soup of Kenya, the new NARC is PNU
, the Party of National Unity. In the ballots for its constituency members, Wangari Maathai was defeated for the direct PNU candidacy, leaving her to seek re-election under the Mazingira
or Green Party ticket, which is allied with the PNU. Because so many of Kenya's electorate continue to vote along ethnic lines, and because Maathai is sometimes seen as not sufficiently supportive of President Kibaki, also a Kikuyu
, and whose constituency abuts hers, it is very hard to know exactly who will carry the day in Tetu.
As Maathai would no doubt attest, democracy can be cruel and hard. Margaret Thatcher
and Tony Blair
both found out how ungrateful the party you've led to three consecutive victories can be when they feel that you're an electoral liability. Maathai herself was present on the dais when the voters picked Dr. Francis Nyamu
for the Tetu PNU ticket. I can imagine she gritted her teeth, retained her immense dignity, and ruefully acknowledged to herself that, well, the people had spoken.
What must rankle more, however, are more disturbing elements of the return to the bad old days of the 1990s. Once more, politically motivated violence has come to the Rift Valley
. Once again, politicians have been handing out wads of cash
to buy votes. And once again, voters are being intimidated.
Most of us would walk away, aware that, as Jesus himself lamented, a prophet is often scorned in his own homeland. And, goodness knows, there are many opportunities and huge tasks that await her beyond Kenya's borders. But if there's anything that Unbowed
teaches us, it's that Wangari Maathai doesn't know the meaning of defeat. Whether the voters of Tetu choose her to speak for them or not on December 27, you can be sure that her voice will still be heard.