What is at stake in President Ruto’s three-day State visit to the US?

President William delivers a speech at the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum.

Photo credit: PCS

Kenyan President William Ruto is the first African leader invited for a State visit to the US in 15 years. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Meron Elias examines what both sides hope to gain from a trip that comes amid sharpening geopolitical competition in Africa.

What is happening?

President William Ruto is in the US for a State visit. The trip is closely watched in East Africa and beyond. It unfolds at a time the US has grown increasingly reliant on Kenya as its main security, diplomatic and economic partner in the Horn of Africa, if not (at least in some respects) on the whole continent. Dr Ruto will seek to use the visit to consolidate Kenya’s position as a privileged regional counterpart on these issues and to look for badly needed US investment. The Kenyan economy, sagging under a large load of debt, could use any help it can get.

The US hopes to draw benefits from the visit, too. President Ruto will be only the sixth head of state — after the leaders of South Korea, France, India, Australia and Japan — to be accorded a state visit during the Biden presidency.

President Joe Biden will hope the engagement sends the message that the US remains invested in Africa in a period of growing competition with its key geopolitical rivals, China and Russia. Beijing and Moscow have aggressively courted allies on the continent over the past two decades.

The Biden administration will roll out many of the flourishes associated with such visits: Ruto and First Lady Rachel Ruto will join a welcome ceremony on the south lawn of the White House, attend a state dinner and be feted at a luncheon hosted by the vice president and secretary of state. A stop at the Pentagon and a wreath-laying ceremony at Joint Base Andrews are also planned.

What is likely to be on the agenda?

Kenyan and US officials will have plenty to cover over the course of the three-day visit. On the security front, Kenya has committed to send a 1,000-person paramilitary police force to battle the gangs that have taken over swathes of the Haitian capital and triggered a devastating humanitarian crisis.

Reports suggest that US contractors are already on the ground building bases from which the Kenyan forces will operate. The two sides remain apart on a number of issues, however, with Nairobi demanding the US do more to rally financial support for the UN basket fund that will cover the mission’s costs.

Kenya also wants the US to commit greater backing to stemming the flow of arms into Haiti, including from US ports in Florida. The two sides will doubtless also discuss counter-terrorism collaboration. Kenya hosts a US air base in its northern Lamu county and cooperates with US troops in security operations in part aimed at blunting the threat of Al-Shabaab’s lethal insurgency in neighbouring Somalia.

A protest against insecurity in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on March 1, 2024.

Photo credit: Reuters

Regional diplomacy is likely to feature, too. Kenya pulled its troops out of the Democratic Republic of Congo in December 2023, and, partly at Washington’s urging, continues trying to play a role in brokering a settlement among the numerous armed groups in that country’s conflict-riven east.

Former President Uhuru Kenyatta is a monitor designated under the tenuous November 2022 agreement that ended the civil war in Ethiopia’s northernmost region Tigray. More recently, Kenya has been hosting talks among factions from South Sudan. It has also, with US backing, been engaged in back-channel diplomacy designed to ease tensions following the Ethiopia-Somaliland agreement reached on New Year’s Day, which allowed Addis Ababa to establish a naval base in Somaliland. That deal drew the ire of Somalia, which does not recognise Somaliland’s 1991 declaration of independence.

For Dr Ruto, trade and investment issues will be at the top of the agenda. Nairobi badly needs more external investment. One of Ruto’s key campaign pledges was to turn around the country’s struggling economy and improve the lot of those at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid. He has struggled to fulfil that promise, instead imposing an ever-increasing number of taxes aimed at raising funds to pay off the country’s substantial sovereign debt.

In December 2021, Biden tapped billionaire, former business executive, Meg Whitman to be US ambassador to Kenya. Whitman has in the last two years been a strong advocate for greater US investment in Kenya, citing its diversified economy and young, well-educated population.

Dr Ruto hopes to take that message to investors on stops outside Washington, including in Atlanta, a commercial hub in the southern US state of Georgia. There, meetings have been planned with the leaders of Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines, which has been negotiating for months to get a stake in Kenya’s flagship carrier Kenya Airways.

President William Ruto, First Lady Rachel Ruto and former American Professional Basketball player Shaquille Rashaun O'Neal, known commonly as Shaq, pose for a photo during a tour at the King Center Historic site in Georgia, Atlanta. 

Photo credit: PCS

The Kenyan President will further seek a long extension of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) – a trade agreement allowing African states to have duty-free access to the US market. He hopes an extension lasting as long as fifteen years will encourage US businesses to make long-run bets on Kenya.

Finally, US and Kenyan officials will surely discuss global issues of mutual interest. Since his investiture in 2022, President Ruto has been particularly vocal about the need to mitigate the effects of climate change. That will doubtless be a topic of conversation during his trip. Over the past few weeks, at least 267 people have died amid some of the worst flooding Kenya has seen in decades.

What is the state of US-Kenya relations?

Washington and Nairobi are celebrating 60 years of diplomatic ties in 2024. Though quite strong now, relations between the historical allies have not always been smooth.

Perhaps the nadir in the bilateral relationship came in the period following post-electoral violence that left more than 1,000 dead in late 2007 and early 2008. Kenyatta and Ruto – rivals at the time – were charged at the International Criminal Court with atrocity crimes related to the violence.

The US strongly supported the cases in The Hague, seeing them as an opportunity to end a culture of impunity among Kenya’s political class. In a surprise development, Kenyatta and Ruto then struck an alliance and contested the 2013 election on a joint ticket, with Kenyatta as the presidential candidate and Ruto as his running mate. Their opponent was then-Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

The US vocally opposed the Kenyatta-Ruto ticket. In an admonition that has gone down in Kenyan political lore, US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Johnnie Carson warned the electorate not to vote for the indicted pair. “Choices have consequences”, he said, implying that relations with the US would suffer if Kenyatta and Ruto won. In the event, Kenyatta and Ruto won, riding a wave of nationalist sentiment propelled by animus toward perceived meddling by both Washington and the Court.

That led to a period of tensions, with the new government courting Beijing and Moscow. The collapse of the cases between 2014 and 2016 amid allegations of witness interference and tampering presaged a thaw in relations that both Washington and Nairobi clearly perceived to be of mutual interest.

Today, ties are strong, but the undertow of negative sentiment lingers. Influential Africa watchers in Washington still view Ruto with suspicion, according to US officials. Although fears that he would roll back media freedom and crack down on civil society if he won the election in 2022 have proven overblown, the US will press Ruto on the question of consolidating Kenya’s democracy. It is perhaps no coincidence that organisers planned that one of his first stops would be at the Carter Center, an NGO in Atlanta that counts democracy promotion among its core missions.

Dr Ruto will also visit the Carter Presidential Museum, where he will face an audience of civil society actors in a question-and-answer session. Perhaps in anticipation, Ruto on May 11 announced that his government would operationalise legislation passed 15 years ago designed to offer Kenyan civil society a predictable regulatory environment. This law, the Public Benefits Organisation Act, was endorsed by Parliament in 2013, but authorities in Nairobi, who tend to view civil society with suspicion, declined to implement it.

President William Ruto and the US Ambassador to Kenya Meg Whitman witness as Prime Cabinet Secretary Musalia Mudavadi and Clinton White, Counselor for USAID, sign a pact that will enhance student and faculty exchange, joint research and innovation to accelerate the country’s Silicon Savannah ambition.

Photo credit: PCS

What might the two sides draw from the visit?

The US no doubt hopes that the trip will signal its continued commitment to investing in and partnering with African counterparts. It will be the first state visit by an African leader since President George W. Bush invited Ghana’s John Kufuor to the White House in 2008. It also comes at a time when the US has seemed to be on the back foot in Africa.

In March, Niger’s new military authorities declared the presence of US forces on its soil “illegal”. Washington is now negotiating the terms of the withdrawal of the 1,000 troops stationed there. In another blow, on April 4, the head of Chad’s air force asked US troops who have been working with French and Chadian forces to tackle jihadists to halt their activities, saying they had not submitted the right paperwork.

US forces left the Chadian capital shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, it is not lost on US officials that its big-power rivals continue to jockey for position on the continent. China, despite a recent slowdown in investment, has been the leading trade partner of African countries for each of the last fifteen years.

Since 2014, Russia has pursued security partnerships with a number of African leaders, primarily through the Wagner Group, a private military company with close ties to the Kremlin. The Russian army has taken over direct management of those collaborations since the August 2023 death of Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin.

For its part, Kenya will be looking to secure, in addition to economic support, consolidation of its security partnerships with the US and affirmation of its growing stature as a continental diplomatic heavyweight.

To a degree, Washington has little choice but to deepen ties with Nairobi during a period of ferment in the Horn of Africa. Relations with Addis Ababa, previously the preferred regional security counterpart for the US, are strained following the country’s brutal two-year civil war. Ethiopia also faces several internal challenges, including insurgencies in its two largest regions.

Other erstwhile allies such as Uganda are not an attractive option as President Yoweri Museveni’s long rule has turned increasingly autocratic. A US diplomat, asked why the administration had invited the Kenyan leader to Washington, replied: “If not Ruto, who? Kenya, for all its faults, is still a democracy, has a relatively free press, a relatively free civil society and a good constitution. We want to show that we will throw our weight behind countries that pursue this model as we believe it offers the most sustainable path to growth for countries on the continent”.

Judiciary, IEBC

Despite the evident amity between the parties, both should persist in demanding more from each other. The US should continue to insist that the Ruto administration abide by Kenya’s 2010 constitution, which guarantees space for civil society. It can fairly argue that doing so is in Kenya’s best interest. The country’s hard-won democratic gains and relatively strong institutions are crucial to guaranteeing domestic stability in the long run.

US officials should urge Dr Ruto to abandon his occasional public broadsides directed at the judiciary, which has issued a succession of decisions against the government in recent months, particularly declaring some tax hikes illegal.

The US should in particular lean on Ruto to speedily fulfil an agreement with opposition leader Odinga and his allies designed to ensure that retired commissioners of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission are replaced in a transparent, consensual manner.

Kenya, for its part, should continue to press the Biden administration to do more to increase the chances that the closely watched deployment of elite police to Haiti unfolds successfully, including by offering more substantial logistical and financial support.

More broadly, it should urge the Biden administration to match with deeds its rhetorical commitment to issues African leaders have campaigned for in recent years. These include far-reaching reform of international financial institutions to give developing countries a greater say in their management.

This visit affords Ruto a platform to directly make the point he has outlined on public forums that, at a time of sharpening geopolitical competition, the US stands to benefit by more vigorously championing changes on the global stage that Africans perceive as essential.

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