What’s at Stake in Kenyan President William Ruto’s State Visit to the U.S.?
What’s at Stake in Kenyan President William Ruto’s State Visit to the U.S.?
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (R) meets with Kenyan President William Ruto (L) in New York City on September 21, 2023, on the sidelines of the 78th United Nations General Assembly.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (R) meets with Kenyan President William Ruto (L) in New York City on September 21, 2023, on the sidelines of the 78th United Nations General Assembly. Jason DeCrow / POOL / AFP
Q&A / Africa 9 minutes

What’s at Stake in Kenyan President William Ruto’s State Visit to the U.S.?

The Kenyan president is the first African leader invited for a state visit to the U.S. in fifteen 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?

On 23 May, President William Ruto will begin a state visit to the U.S. The trip will be closely watched in East Africa and beyond. It unfolds at a time when the U.S. 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. 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 U.S. investment. The Kenyan economy, sagging under a large load of debt, could use any help it can get.

The U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 over the weekend suggested that U.S. 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 U.S. do more to rally financial support for the UN basket fund that will cover the mission’s costs. Kenya also wants the U.S. to commit greater backing to stemming the flow of arms into Haiti, including from U.S. ports in Florida. The two sides will doubtless also discuss counter-terrorism collaboration. Kenya hosts a U.S. air base in its northern Lamu county and cooperates with U.S. troops in security operations in part aimed at blunting the threat of Al-Shabaab’s lethal insurgency in neighbouring Somalia.

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 U.S. 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 Ruto, trade and investment issues will be at the top of the agenda.

For 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 U.S. ambassador to Kenya. Whitman has in the last two years been a strong advocate for greater U.S. investment in Kenya, citing its diversified economy and young, well-educated population. Ruto hopes to take that message to investors on stops outside Washington, including in Atlanta, a commercial hub in the southern U.S. 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. The Kenyan president will further seek a long extension of the African Growth and Opportunity Act – a trade agreement allowing African states to have duty-free access to the U.S. market. He hopes an extension lasting as long as fifteen years will encourage U.S. businesses to make long-run bets on Kenya.

Finally, U.S. 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 U.S.-Kenya relations?

Washington and Nairobi are celebrating 60 years of diplomatic ties in 2024. Though presently quite strong, 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 U.S. 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 U.S. vocally opposed the Kenyatta-Ruto ticket. In an admonition that has gone down in Kenyan political lore, U.S. 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 U.S. 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.

Influential Africa watchers in Washington still view Ruto with suspicion, according to U.S. officials.

Today, ties are strong, but the undertow of negative sentiment lingers. Influential Africa watchers in Washington still view Ruto with suspicion, according to U.S. officials. Although fears that he would roll back media freedom and crack down on civil society if he won election in 2022 have proven overblown, the U.S. will press Ruto on the question of consolidating Kenya’s democracy. It is perhaps no coincidence that organisers plan that one of his first stops will be at the Carter Center, an NGO in Atlanta that counts democracy promotion among its core missions. The Center was founded by Jimmy Carter, the 39th U.S. president, and his wife Rosalynn. 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 11 May announced that his government would operationalise legislation passed fifteen 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.

What might the two sides draw from the visit?

The U.S. no doubt hopes that the trip – and the red-carpet treatment that Ruto receives – 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 U.S. has seemed to be on the back foot in Africa. In March, Niger’s new military authorities declared the presence of U.S. 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 4 April, the head of Chad’s air force asked U.S. 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. U.S. forces left the Chadian capital shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, it is not lost on U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S., 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 U.S. 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”.

The U.S. should continue to insist that the Ruto administration abide by Kenya’s 2010 constitution, which guarantees space for civil society.

Despite the evident amity between the parties, both should persist in demanding more from each other. The U.S. 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. U.S. officials should urge 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 U.S. 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 and concrete action by advanced industrial countries to ease the climate stresses on poorer countries. 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 U.S. stands to benefit by more vigorously championing changes on the global stage that Africans perceive as essential.

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