interviewBy Ofeibea Quist-Arcton
Nairobi — Professor Wangari Maathai is a popular and respected Kenyan and a world renowned environmentalist, who rose to fame for her spirited campaigns against government-backed forest clearance. Maathai is also one of a new crop of MPs in Kenya, elected to parliament on the opposition National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) ticket.
Narc swept to victory last Friday, humbling outgoing President Daniel arap Moi's former governing Kenya National African Union (Kanu). Kanu had been in power in Kenya since independence from Britain 39 years ago.
Maathai, a zoology professor and coordinator of Kenya's Green Belt Movement, easily won the Tetu parliamentary seat in Nyeri, the next-door constituency to the one retained by Kenya's new president and Narc leader, Mwai Kibaki.
Maathai is also one of eight women (seven belonging to Narc) who, as one newspaper put it, "powered their way into Kenya's male dominated politics," by securing seats in what will become the country's new parliament.
The others are Alicen Chelaitte, Martha Karua, Christine Mango, Nyiva Mwendwa, Beth Mugo and Charity Ngilu for Narc, as well as Naomi Shabaan for Kanu, now in opposition. This is the highest number of women ever elected to parliament in Kenya's history. A total of 32 women were seeking seats as MPs in last week's historic election.
Noted for her dynamism and determination, long-time opposition activist Wangari Maathai is likely to continue championing causes that most politicians often shy away from. But will being part of Kenya's new government change her priorities?
To find out, allAfrica.com's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton interviewed Maathai, with additional questions from Evelyn Kahungu of the Kenyan documentary programme makers, Development Through Media.
Everything looks like sweetness and light today, now that the National Rainbow Coalition has won the election. But concretely for you, Wangari Maathai - being the environmental and conservation activist that you are - what are your priorities for Narc now that you're an elected MP with, we assume, some power in parliament.
The first thing I am looking forward to is a change in the way in which we have been managing the ways of our state and good governance, which Kibaki has represented and the fact that we are in a coalition which is broadly created by people who have been struggling for a very long time to create a better government in this country.
We hope that we will immediately make changes that will transform the lives or our people and especially resuscitate our economy and reintroduce a sense of security among our people and give people a sense of belonging to this country, so that people do not feel so marginalised and so terrorised by the state.
The National Rainbow Coalition was, in many ways, an opposition alliance of necessity and desperation to push Moi's governing party, Kanu, out. Can you stay united when you're facing tricky issues such as the allocation of ministerial, cabinet and other senior posts? Will Narc remain united or are we going to witness politicians bickering and jockeying for position?
I have a lot of faith in Narc as a coalition, partly because this is the culmination of efforts of uniting the opposition that has been going on since 1992. I was actually in the forefront, through another organisation called Middle Ground Group, which had tried to make the opposition unite both in 1992 and 1997. They failed. So now, as you say, they have come together as a necessity.
Therefore, I know that it has been a painful birth of an opposition unit, so I am confident that it will stay united. And also, not only are the leaders united because they needed to be, but because the people required them to. So it is a national consensus that the opposition stays united.
And yet Narc critics say Kanu hemorrhaged senior leaders and Moi's cabinet ministers to Narc, who claimed they were all opposed to President Moi, only when the ship was sinking. Why did they not leave earlier, why only in the final months of Moi's 24-year rule?
I think it had a lot to do with the fact that part of the opposition actually joined Kanu. That is the opposition that was led by Raila Odinga (one of Narc's leaders). He joined Kanu because the opposition had failed to unite. He thought that, by joining Kanu, maybe he could bring out the change that was needed. He found out that it was very difficult to change Kanu, even from within.
But doesn't that make Kenya's opposition leaders seem somewhat opportunist?
Yah, it does bring out that issue of opportunism, but it is also possible to look at it as an on-going struggle that sometimes makes you turn the way that people do not expect. I do believe that Raila Odinga is truly an opposition person. He has gone to jail, he has been detained. He has actually been more in the opposition and struggling for change in this country, much more and much longer, than even President Kibaki himself.
The implication there is that Raila Odinga is Narc, is that what you're saying? What about Professor George Saitoti? He was, after all, until very recently, Moi's vice president. And what about all the people who defected to the opposition Narc right at the last minute? Surely you understand the sceptics who said those people were in it just to be on the winning side during the election?
I think to a certain extent they were registering a statement to Kanu, that they had served Kanu and had stayed with Kanu but, at the end, Kanu betrayed them. Obviously they should have seen much earlier that Kanu is led by people who don't have any principles to hold onto. But I don't think we should not condemn them for seeing late in the evening that this is a party they should never have served.
We hope that now that they are in Narc, they will cherish the values on the basis of which the opposition in this country has been created. We hope that they will not be a source of disunity. I don't believe so. I believe they are committed and they will not want to be accused by Kenyans of having come into Narc as opportunists.
Madam Maathai, personally, what are you going to bring to Kenyan politics? What are you bringing to parliament as a freshly elected MP?
I will bring to parliament the values that I have been practising in the opposition, especially within the environmental movement. I hope to bring to parliament a sense of transparency, a sense of accountability that we have demonstrated in our work in the Green Belt Movement and a sense of service, a desire to serve the public for the common good.
And I am sure that this is why my constituency supported me so overwhelmingly, though I didn't have the money which is needed in Kenyan politics. So I am very happy to be there, to see whether I can introduce into our legislative system the values that I believe are very, very important - what I would call the 'green' values. In fact, I joined Narc as a leader of the Green Party in this country.
I will definitely not abandon my campaign for human rights and better governance, but now I think I can do a better job within the government. Now that I'm there, it's much easier for me to push laws and policies that will support some of the campaigns that I have been championing within the Green Belt Movement.
Finally, the opposition is united and I felt that the energy to bring about the change was there. I felt everything click. Kibaki was in place, the opposition was in place and this looked like the package to win. And so when I went to my constituency for the first time with the united opposition, I said I am ready now.
Do you think President Kibaki will be good for the environment in Kenya?
Yes, I am sure that Kibaki will be very good for the environment. He is very committed to the environment. He has been very supportive and he has been in the struggle for change over the last ten years. And I am sure that, in those ten years, he has really learnt - as a person who was no longer in the Kanu government - how destroyed our environment was and how destroyed our country was. So, he is very committed to making changes in the shortest time.
What is Mwai Kibaki like?
He is a humble man, he is a very committed man. He is not corrupt, he is very honest and he is very stable, a very stable and hardworking person. He is a family man and has good values. And I think that, especially in a country where we have been destroyed by corruption, it is good to have a person who has been in the leadership for as long as he has been, but he has not been caught being corrupt or mismanaging or taking advantage of the natural resources or the people he represented.
But can Kibaki and Narc deliver on the ambitious campaign pledges to pull Kenya out of economic recession, tackle unemployment, zero tolerance for corruption, an end to cronyism and all the things that opposition leaders all over Africa promise all the time, yet often fail to fulfil?
We are encouraging the civil society in this country to monitor the Narc government and to hold it accountable for the promises it made. We all understand that we were on a political platform and manifestos are sometimes written so as to impress the voters. But we are also committed. Some of us have come from a very committed public service in the civil society, so we will hold our government accountable and we will definitely stand to be counted in trying to ensure that many of the promises that were made are honoured.
And we have said to the public that if we become zero tolerant on corruption, we are a very rich country and we have many friends, therefore we can meet many of these commitments. We also have a very hard working citizenry. And if they encouraged and they are paid their due, we expect to see a lot of energised communities and energised Kenyans producing, rather than reaping and raping the country.
You must be very pleased to have been elected to parliament. But you didn't do that much campaigning for yourself because you were busy on the national campaign for the president.
I knew that my constituents really wanted me. They had wanted me to represent them for a very long time. And when I was campaigning, I knew I would be needed to campaign for the president. Even if he hadn't had an accident, we needed to take him around. But after the accident, it was extremely important for some of us to really go out and campaign for him.
But I kept in touch with my people through my agents and I let them know what I was doing and they approved of it. After all, you know, the president comes from Nyeri (Province) and his constituency borders mine, so I was kind of a good neighbour to him.
What was it about you, why do you think you won?
I think the people of this country wanted to see me win. It was very interesting. My Tetu seat was almost like a national seat. There were so many people, especially the constituency of the Green Belt Movement, which is a national constituency, and the constituency internationally - which had been monitoring activities and activism in Kenya - were all wondering how I would eventually score in the government. So there was a lot of energy helping me and encouraging me and pushing me. I think it was at the right time and I was in the right party, with the right candidate, Kibaki. And they were ready for Wangari!
And what about the role of women within the National Rainbow Coalition? You are one of seven elected women MPs in the party, who could possibly be part of the government. Do you think women are going to feature prominently, but not as tokens in the new Narc administration?
As you know, several of us women were elected, all of them powerful women in their own right. Narc had promised that at least one third of all positions would be taken up by women, therefore promising affirmative action for women. And certainly we will push for this; it is a matter of holding Narc accountable, especially those of us women who will be in the government.
And certainly those of us who come from a very strong academic background and quality leadership, we do not expect that women will be nominated to positions just to fill positions. I would be the last person to advocate that any woman should be given a position, because that would undermine the capacity of the women to make headway in the government.
It is very important that the government appoints capable women, so that we can really perform and demonstrate that we women can do a good job. There is not a shortage of such women in this country. You cannot have mediocre women being appointed and then use that to prove that women are not capable.
We have emphasised in our campaign that we will respect meritocracy, which was completely ignored in our previous administration. Therefore we expect that we will get good, quality women who will be appointed to good positions, so that we can be an inspiration to other women, especially the new generation of women, but do so by truly performing and demonstrating that women can give good leadership.
More than 30 women stood for parliament, but only eight were elected, why?
The usual things that afflict women afflicted women this time. Women came out very strongly during the nomination period, but many didn't make it to parliament, for the same reasons that women don't make it. One of them is the financial contribution that is required. Many women really don't have those kind of resources.
Other women didn't make it because we still live in a society where people look at a man before they look at a woman. And being a woman, you have to be so much better and so much more exposed to be able to make an impact on the general voter than men do.
I have also met several women, young women, who were just ignored because they were young, unmarried women and yet very, very capable. Yet, we have young unmarried men who get elected into parliament. So we met the same biases that women often confront at election time. But as you can see we did slightly better this time than the last time. So it's a very slow process.
But it goes to confirm that women still need affirmative action to be able to come into the mainstream and provide a critical mass of women in positions of influence.
What's your message to the women of Kenya?
I am extremely grateful to them. They have been so supportive for so many years and they have encouraged me even in some very trying moments. Women have identified with me and with the struggle that I was representing. And when I won, I can't tell you how many women stopped me in the street. In this hotel, women in the sauna were calling me through the window. They were yelling and shouting, and I went in there and hugged them. They were wet all over!
And I must say that it's not just the women. It's the men, it's the old, it is young women. I think that because I have been on the scene for so many years, for more than two and a half decades. I have worked in public, but without an elected post. So many people have watched me as I have worked. And they were so happy to see me in the government of Narc at a time when we are making wonderful change, for which they believe I have been working.
So I want to thank the women in particular and the people of Tetu for giving me this privilege and I promise, I shall do my best.
So should we expect to see Wangari Maathai as Kenya's new environment or agriculture minister, or why not, foreign minister?
It has been very interesting during my campaign, and especially now that I have won my seat, to hear people saying we hope that you will be the new minister of the environment so that our forests and our environment will be safe. In fact, my constituents said we want Wangari, because we know that she will be the new minister of the environment.
Now, we hope that the president is listening to this advice and, if he does make me minister for the environment, I can assure him that I will do a good job. And I can assure Kenyans -and Africans in general - that we shall set an example of how we can manage our enormous resources in this region, so that we are not seen as a people who have been so endowed by God with so many natural resources and yet are ranked some of the poorest in the world.