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President William Samoei Ruto’s state visit to the United States of America in May 2024 was a major diplomatic gain not only for Kenya, but for the African continent. Ruto’s arrival in Washington, D.C. on 22 May 2024 marked what one observer describes as an “end to a historic drought”, or more aptly, an end to about a 16-year period since an African leader was received in the White House on a state visit. 

While the end of this African diplomatic drought is being celebrated by observers, one wonders whether 16 years of no state visit by an African leader to the US makes sense when it comes to the importance of state visits in bilateral relations between two countries. This raises another crucial question of whether the US always takes its relations with Africa seriously, or if it only calls upon its so-called African partners when seeking quick-fix security solutions in pursuit of its globally strewn national interests. The highly controversial case of Kenya’s role in Haiti visa-à-vis US security and economic interests in the Western Hemisphere is instructive. 

Ruto’s delegation was greeted with great pomp and funfair on the world’s biggest stage, the White House. The zenith of his visit was marked by a star-studded state dinner fit for an “African King”. However, far from the glitzy and grand optics full of overawing displays of power and grandeur were important geopolitical issues, foreign investment, economic wheeler-dealing, global realpolitik matters, and respective national interest dynamics at play. Some obvious, and others not so much so in the public eye. Simply put, there are global, continental, and regional ramifications of President Ruto’s state visit to the US that warrant scrutiny.  

From the global viewpoint, the visit, as other observers have noted, is meant to improve US-Africa relations in promoting global security and democratic ideals, given the recent democratic decay in West Africa, with military coups in Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Guinea. As widely reported, the West is losing its footing in West Africa with Russia enjoying international resurgence and influence reminiscent of the post-1945 bipolar Cold War rivalry between the USSR and America. China is also increasingly gaining a strong foothold and the concomitant leverage and influence on the continent. As we have written elsewhere, in as far as US presence, business investment inflows, and relations with the continent are concerned, Washington is playing catch-up to China and has a lot of ground to cover in this regard.

Perhaps the single most important, and equally controversial issue of mutual interest – or what is, arguably, Ruto’s “diplomatic reward” for his state visit – is the Security Council-authorised MSS “multinational” mission under Chapter VII of the UN Charter to send 1,000 Kenyan policemen to Haiti, which is, however, not a UN-sanctioned peacekeeping operation to the Caribbean’s First African Republic and free Black nation. Since the United Nation’s Stabilization Mission in Haiti – dubbed MINUSTAH, its French acronym – from 2004 to 2017, the island nation has remained a serious law and order concern for the international community and the US especially. This, even more so, in the wake of the devastating January 2010 earthquake. 

Moreover, the heightened insecurity in the country following the 7 July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, and the subsequent displacement of people within and outside Haiti, has made the US wary of the illegal uptake of fleeing refugees. It’ll be recalled that this immigration situation led to ugly scenes that culminated in “a perfect storm of crises” memorably captured by haunting images of US Customs and Border Protection officers chasing down Haitian migrants as they attempted to cross the Rio Grande from Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, into Del Rio, Texas.

President Joe Biden’s announcement during President Ruto’s visit to designate Kenya as a non-NATO ally based on Kenya’s contributions to counterterrorism and its eager commitment to lead a multinational force in Haiti was one of the major diplomatic and political gains for Ruto and his government. For the other three African nations to which this status has been conferred (Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco), this designation makes geostrategic and historical sense considering the proximity of these north African Arabic nations to Europe, and the role they played in the North African Campaign of the Second World War, and their ongoing contribution to global security issues.  

Kenya’s designation as the first non-NATO ally in Sub-Saharan Africa can be attributed to the crucial role that it has played since the 7 August 1998 East African US Embassy bombings; and to the post-9/11 “coalition of the willing” anti-terrorism campaign. Not only has Kenya proven to be a useful ally against the al-Shabaab, a Sunni Islamic outfit with allegiance to al-Qa’ida, it has also been a pillar of relative geostrategic significance by promoting regional stability in the conflict-prone Eastern African region. Nairobi has also brokered peace talks such as the Naivasha Agreement in January 2005 between the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and Khartoum, which ultimately led to the independence of South Sudan in 2011. Kenya has been committed to the political stability of its neighbour to the east by playing various important roles, the latest one being part of the homegrown African Union initiative, Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS), which started on 1 April 2022. Kenya has also, more recently, overseen “a peace deal that ended Ethiopia’s two-year civil war in the northern Tigray region”.

It is such considerations that have, no doubt, earned Kenya this newly conferred status; but, more recently and specifically, Kenya’s eagerness to be America’s security ally to help stabilise Haiti, backed by a pledge of US$200 million from Washington, has arguably earned the country the first non-NATO ally status in sub-Saharan Africa. We should note, however, that this emerging “Washington-Nairobi partnership” with respect to Haiti and the US$200m pledge from Washington to support Kenya’s efforts in the country, has not been greeted with great enthusiasm in Haiti or by the Haitian Diaspora in the US and elsewhere. 

Without a doubt, this mission is ominous, to say the least. There exist loose ends, grey areas of great concern, and contradictions abound. For instance, while Kenya is expected to have “privileged access to sophisticated military equipment, training and loans… to augment defence spending”, the US is under no obligation to provide any direct military assistance to Ruto’s government. At the same time, while Kenya will not be mandated to send troops for NATO operations, this elevated regional and global security status cements its engagement as “part of the Ukraine Defence Contact Group coalition” that has been meeting to determine and coordinate “how to arm Kyiv against Moscow”. So, what’s next? Kenyan boots in Eastern Ukraine?

While we await the results of Kenya’s ambitious but far-stretched commitment in the Caribbean – ironically as regional conflicts continue to smoulder in its North Rift backyard as hawk-eyed observers have pointed out – Ruto’s US delegation walked away with a US$3.6 billion mega-infrastructure agreement with United States’ Everstrong Capital LLC to build a long-overdue expressway linking Nairobi with Mombasa, the country’s second-largest city, and Indian Ocean gateway to the rest of the world.

In all certainty, this investment is bound to stimulate economic growth in Eastern Africa. What is of great interest in as far as this deal is concerned, however, is whether Ruto, and his lieutenants in government, will heed constant admonitions to limit or altogether end runaway corruption that continues to undermine the country’s socio-economic development. It has been known to be the case that US firms have lost out on contracts due to demands for bribes from top government officials
While the gains (diplomatic, political, and economic) from Ruto’s state visit to the US can hardly be disputed, some critics are not convinced of the reasoning behind the exorbitant cost associated with his trip. It was widely reported that Ruto’s state visit to the US cost the Kenyan taxpayer about US$1.5 million for the jet he hired from Dubai for the trip. Ruto’s government spokesman defended the use of the luxury aircraft, saying, “The benefits of Ruto’s US visit cannot be compared to transport costs for him and his entourage, which comprises politicians, business peopleand artists.” The critics have a valid point in raising these pertinent issues that are crucial to transparency and accountability in the government. For others, Ruto’s state visit would have been a “complete” success had he addressed the joint session of the US Congress. This is another valid observation, but his inability to address Congress, as we argue, had more to do with the current leadership and control of US Congress than with President Ruto. Regardless of these criticisms, it is undisputable that Ruto’s state visit to Washington, D.C. has global, continental, and regional ramifications for Kenya and the rest of Africa but, regarding the impact of the emerging “Washington-Nairobi partnership”, only time will tell.