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William Ruto wins in Washington – but does Kenya?

Not all Kenyans are enchanted by the prospect of being America’s main partner in sub-Saharan Africa.

Kenyan President William Ruto last week made the first state visit to the United States (US) by an African leader in 16 years, and only the sixth state visit President Joe Biden has hosted since he took office.

Kenya has clearly emerged as America’s leading strategic partner – if not in Africa as a whole, then at least in sub-Saharan Africa. At a time when Africa and other parts of the world are polarising, with Russia-leaning juntas evicting Western militaries from Sahel states and South Africa and others tilting towards Russia and China, Kenya is becoming increasingly significant.

In geopolitical terms, the most important outcome of the visit was that Biden designated Kenya as a ‘Major Non-NATO Ally’ – the only one in sub-Saharan Africa. This status doesn’t include the mutual defence obligations of NATO membership but provides countries with preferential access to US military training, surplus equipment, joint research, etc. The designation confirmed Kenya as one of the US’ most important strategic military partners.

For Ruto, the US visit is also critical, probably more economically than geopolitically. Kenya is struggling with debt and balance of payments problems, and needs US help with debt relief.

A notable geopolitical outcome of the visit was that Biden designated Kenya as a ‘Major Non-NATO Ally’

The US and Kenya have been security partners for a while, helping Somalia’s government fight the persistent al-Shabaab extremists. The two leaders said they discussed options for a multilateral mission to follow the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia, which is due to leave by year-end.

Ruto has agreed to deploy 1 000 paramilitary police officers to help calm ongoing gang-fuelled mayhem in Haiti, which the US regards as its responsibility to address. But that perilous mission, largely funded by the US, has run into several difficulties, including court challenges in Kenya where it’s unpopular. Last week the deployment was delayed by three weeks due to logistical problems.

Economically, Kenya and the US have many common interests. Green energy is paramount, with Kenya already deriving over 90% of its energy from renewables. They also agreed to cooperate in building semi-conductors to diversify supply sources as part of a broader agreement to bolster collaboration between Silicon Valley and Kenya’s flourishing Silicon Savannah.

Ruto and Biden vowed to accelerate negotiations for their Strategic Trade and Investment Partnership (STIP) by the end of the year. The countries have been unable to conclude a free trade agreement, and this STIP – under negotiation since mid-2022 – is the next best thing, providing a comprehensive trade and investment facilitation deal.

Perhaps the most important outcome for Ruto was securing Biden’s support for debt relief measures

The presidents said they would welcome the timely reauthorisation of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which grants exports from eligible sub-Saharan countries duty-free access to the lucrative US market. They noted that Kenyan apparel exports to the US under AGOA were worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Also, more USAID and Kenyan private sector investments were expected to generate an extra US$250 million in apparel exports to the US and create over 20 000 jobs.

Perhaps the most important outcome for Ruto – who faces the challenge of repaying over US$76 billion in debt – was securing Biden’s support for debt relief measures. The two launched the Nairobi-Washington Vision, which called for greater debt relief for developing countries that invested more in their people’s development. They also announced several measures to increase lending to developing countries from the multilateral development banks.

Ruto has effected quite a remarkable turnaround in his relations with the US. Before Kenya’s 2013 elections, then US Ambassador Johnnie Carson famously told voters that ‘choices have consequences.’ This was a warning to not vote for Uhuru Kenyatta as president and Ruto as his running mate, as the International Criminal Court had indicted both for orchestrating violence against their opponents after the 2007 elections. They were elected anyway – and the cases closed as witnesses mysteriously disappeared.

However, Ruto’s successful Washington visit underlined to some African critics that he’s too pro-Western. He has tried to balance that by finalising negotiations for a trade deal with the United Arab Emirates in February. And he has irked the West by visiting China – probably wise since Kenya owes it around US$6 billion – and by hosting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Iran’s late president Ebrahim Raisi.

But unlike South Africa, which abstained from the United Nations General Assembly resolutions condemning Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, Kenya supported them all, except one. That was the resolution demanding Russia’s suspension from the Human Rights Council. Kenya abstained – thereby maintaining a more principled balance between non-alignment and support for national sovereignty and territorial integrity. The US and the West have also appreciated Kenya’s posture on the Gaza war, which they see as more balanced than South Africa's.

The evolving relationship should be monitored to clearly distinguish between Ruto’s and Kenya’s interests

Chatham House’s Fergus Kell noted last week that the US and others hoped Kenya could ‘fill a leadership vacuum created by Ethiopia’s internal struggles, the fall from grace of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, and Rwanda’s entanglement in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.’

Kell said that ‘For Kenya, this visit offers a chance to reinforce its status as a key strategic interlocutor.’ That Ruto appears to have done. Indeed, many observers believe Ruto is trying to displace Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame as the self-proclaimed leader of Africa. Ruto is pushing for Raila Odinga to become the AU Commission’s next chairperson, which would boost Ruto’s wider ambitions. Some AU sources say however that Ruto’s pro-Western reputation may count against Odinga.

Ruto’s Washington excursion was not unanimously popular back home, perhaps not surprisingly, since he’s ‘a politically divisive figure in Kenya,’ as one anonymous observer says. His supporters are delighted at the prestige his visit brought Kenya, and the promise of greater US investment and debt relief. His critics argue that he’s overpromising again, and ‘while preaching about austerity, he hired an expensive private jet from Dubai to take him to the US,’ this observer says.

According to Institute for Security Studies Senior Researcher in Nairobi, Willis Okumu, ‘The visit could be seen as a win for Ruto, but is it for Kenyans? To me, it looks more like Ruto is being used to spearhead a neo-colonialist agenda, given the recent changes in Africa where heads of state including Museveni have rebuffed Western-backed policies.

He said it could be argued that: ‘Ruto is desperate for the Western embrace, for political and economic reasons, while America, as its power wanes globally due to loss of geopolitical influence to China, [needs] a head of state who can champion its ideals. Where does this leave the people of Kenya?

Foreign relations are not necessarily a zero-sum game, and the fact that an enhanced alliance suits the US doesn’t mean it won’t help Kenya. But, as Okumu cautions, the evolving relationship should be closely monitored to clearly distinguish between Ruto’s and Kenya’s interests.

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