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The US and Kenya strengthen ties following Ruto’s visit to Washington

2 Jun 2024

What is happening in Kenya?

On 24 May 2024, Kenyan President William Ruto capped off a three-day visit to the United States. This marked the first state visit to the US by an African leader in over 16 years as Joe Biden welcomed the leader and ushered in a package of measures and pledges to strengthen the two countries’ cooperation efforts.

One of the most significant advancements is Joe Biden’s announcement that he would designate Kenya as the first major non-NATO US ally in sub-Saharan Africa. This designation notably gave non-NATO members privileged access to NATO financial and military advantages, without binding the country to the mutual defense agreement.

Other arrangements were made for Washington to start investing in various sectors in Kenya including health, green energy, and education. For example, the US voiced intent to provide $3.3 million for a U.S. Department of State program for 60 Kenyan undergraduate students to study for a semester in the United States, notably in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Another important point raised by Ruto was regarding debt burden for African nations. He stated during his visit that unless these were restructured, “the values of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law are in great jeopardy”. Addressing this, a joint statement by Biden and Ruto stated that “the international community must take bold action to address mounting debt burdens in developing countries”.

As a means to remedy this, the two nations announced the “Nairobi-Washington Vision”, a call for the international community to help countries with “high ambition concerning investments in their own development and addressing global challenges” with their debts so that they “do not have to choose between investing in their future and paying their debts”.

Finally, one of the major areas of cooperation discussed at the high-level meetings was security. Indeed, the two countries have collaborated vastly in counterterrorism operations in East Africa with Joe Biden notably addressing the joint operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Al Shabab as examples of the two countries’ past cooperation efforts.

This ties into one of the main talking points between the two which was the deployment of 1000 Kenyan security officers to Haiti, which is currently rife with conflict and gang violence. The Biden administration has praised the initiative from Kenya and has pledged $300 million in support to the operation.

What is in it for you? 

For readers in Kenya, this visit can be seen as good news for the country’s future. These events come only a few months after floods in the country in which over 200 have died, about 3100 households have been displaced and just under 2000 schools have been destroyed. This has notably led many locals in heavily-hit areas to criticise the government over negligence and call out the poor infrastructure within the country.

The prospect of increased cooperation with a longstanding ally such as the US, with an emphasis on the deepening of economic relations between the two countries, will likely be welcomed by much of the population looking for improvements in living conditions and the country’s economic situation. Some of the measures such as investments to sponsor Kenyan students’ semester studies in the US can help young individuals in Kenya access new opportunities. More broadly speaking, the increased investment can help boost job creation and spur the country’s economy.

For readers in the US, this important visit can be understood as a shift in Washington’s strategy by increasing its influence and presence in a region in which it had seemingly been losing it. Indeed, in the context of increased Russian and Chinese influence in Africa (either through military operations for the former or loans and infrastructure projects for the latter), analysts say the United States has lagged behind its competitors in the region. 

According to Fergus Kell, research analyst at the Africa Programme at Chatham House (a think tank in the UK), “the US must seize opportunities to advance partnership on shared values and interests with Kenya, providing a model for broader Africa relations”. During the visit, Biden announced plans to make an official visit to Africa next year following the presidential elections (presuming a win), showcasing Washington’s intent on deepening relations and a foothold in a region it had long been more distant from.

For readers in other sub-Saharan African countries, this meeting can also be understood as having regional implications. Notably, the emphasis placed upon debt relief is an articulation of a problem that many countries in the region face. Indeed, according to an IMF Regional Economic Outlook of Sub-Saharan Africa published in April 2023, Sub-Saharan Africa’s public debt ratio (at 56% of GDP in 2022) has reached levels last seen in the early 2000s. As such, calls for restructuring or alleviation such as the “Nairobi-Washington Vision” announced by the leaders are likely welcome by stakeholders in the region. 

For readers interested in climate change and the green transition, the visit also promoted key developments in green energy. Indeed, the two leaders announced the launch of a “U.S.-Kenya Climate and Clean Energy Industrial Partnership” asserting that climate action and green industrialisation were a “critical pillar” of the countries’ bilateral relationship. Under the framework, Washington and Nairobi seek to work with international financial institutions to mobilise investments for clean energy technology in East Africa.

What happens next?

In the short term, the U.S. has committed substantial financial investments in Kenya, including $31 million to enhance digital health infrastructure and $3.3 million for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education programs. These initiatives aim to improve healthcare delivery, create educational opportunities, and stimulate economic growth and job creation in Kenya.

Long-term implications include a deepened bilateral relationship that sets a precedent for U.S. engagement in sub-Saharan Africa, potentially increasing U.S. influence in the region amid competition from China and Russia. The ongoing defence cooperation is expected to enhance regional stability, while the U.S.-Kenya Climate and Clean Energy Industrial Partnership will support sustainable development and address climate challenges. 

The Polis Team in Barcelona

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