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White House visit highlights the promise and perils of US-Kenya relationship

The first state visit from an African nation in more than 15 years comes amid instability in the region and growing political discontent.
Kenya's William Ruto sits with President Joe Biden at the White House
Posted at 5:00 AM, May 23, 2024

During Kenyan President William Ruto’s first public appearance at the White House on Wednesday — one day before his official state visit, the first such meeting by an African leader in more than 15 years — he was flanked by a friendly crowd of business and tech executives to discuss investment opportunities in the region.

“From Silicon Valley to Silicon Savannah, our people have brought us forward and they pioneer new technologies that are transforming millions of lives,” President Joe Biden said, welcoming the officials to Washington and recognizing the 60th anniversary of U.S.-Kenya bilateral relations.

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Yet back at home, Ruto faces burgeoning political discontent that threatens to mar the otherwise rosy optics of the White House trip. Surging consumer prices, fallout from recent deadly flooding and a double-digit debt crisis have put Ruto on the defensive, as Washington works to project strength amid growing violence in the region.

“There's a great deal of frustration and unhappiness in Kenya that life, for many people, feels like it’s just getting harder,” said Michelle Gavin, who served as the National Security Council’s senior director for Africa during the Obama administration and now serves as a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations.

For President Biden, Ruto’s visit offers an opportunity to deepen relationships across the African continent and collaborate on key goals, among them trade, climate resilience and counterterrorism operations. The visit will produce a number of concrete deliverables, a senior administration previewed to reporters Wednesday, including a “significant, groundbreaking” climate partnership.

President Biden is also expected to designate Kenya as a major non-NATO ally, conferring a variety of military and financial advantages that are otherwise unobtainable by non-NATO countries.

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On the economic front, many business leaders see Kenya as an untapped market for global investment, especially in the technology sector, and much of Ruto’s focus in the U.S. this week has been devoted to luring businesses there.

“Kenya ultimately has a lot of fundamentals that are attractive to business,” Kendra Gaither, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s U.S.-Africa Business Center, told Scripps News, describing the nation as an “engine of growth for the world.”

Yet whether such investments will turn into real gains for the Kenyan people remains to be seen. The nation is still struggling under a double-digit debt crisis — a topic sure to be addressed at the White House this week — and Ruto’s proposed response of steep tax hikes has sparked anger and protests.

Before Ruto’s departure for the U.S., he faced significant blowback over his government’s decision to charter a luxury private jet for the trip, one estimated to cost $1.5 million, according to Kenya’s private KTN TV station. Kenyan officials have since defended the decision, arguing the benefits of the visit far outweigh any costs.

The debt issue “is something that could limit the aspirations of what the country would like to achieve,” Gaither said, though she noted Kenyan officials “have been intentional about addressing that which could create uncertainty for companies.”

However, the two leaders are also expected to share a joint vision on how they believe the international community can help alleviate the debt burden of countries and contribute to sustainable, climate-friendly growth.

According to White House officials, meanwhile, President Biden and Ruto’s conversations are mostly expected to focus on areas of collaboration: climate change, where Kenya remains a leader in renewable energy utilization, technology, health and security.

Of particular concern is the situation in Haiti, where gang violence is rampant and humanitarian concerns worsening. At the U.S.’s urging, Kenyan police forces are preparing to lead an international security and peacekeeping mission there, and Washington has offered around $300 million in financial support with deployment “imminent,” according to a U.S. official.

Still, the effort carries lots of risks for Kenyan officials and few upsides, experts say.

“There are a lot of concerns that this could go very badly,” Gavin told Scripps News. “The U.S.-Kenya relationship could really suffer here if this turns out to be a debacle, and the widespread belief is that the U.S. sort of cajoled Kenya into doing something that didn't make a lot of sense.”

Asked about such concerns, a senior administration official told Scripps News on a call Wednesday evening that the White House is “focused right now on getting it right.”

There are also concerns on the American side about what some observers see as growing authoritarian tendencies by Kenyan leaders, epitomized by Ruto’s threats to remove judges whose opinions he disliked. White House officials on Wednesday trod a thin line, praising Kenyan democracy while highlighting the importance of an independent judiciary.

“We've seen robust and vigorous democracy in Kenya in recent years,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters. “But of course, we will continue to express our view about the ongoing need to nurture Democratic institutions across the board.”

President Biden is expected to address such concerns with Ruto, Sullivan added, but won’t “lecture” him on the topic. Another administration official told Scripps News that President Biden will speak to a number of human rights and good governance concerns with the Kenyan president, and won’t shy away from addressing Kenya’s record on LGBTQ+ rights should it come up.

Officials on both sides seem intent not to let the political backdrop overshadow the pomp and circumstance of the visit. On Thursday, the leaders will participate in an official arrival ceremony at the White House followed by a bilateral meeting, joint press conference and lavish state dinner. Later in the week, Ruto and Vice President Kamala Harris will head to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for a series of deal signings commemorating business expansions to the region.

President Biden had pledged to travel to Africa in 2023 following the African Leaders summit he hosted in Washington, but instead sent senior-level cabinet officials and participated in only a single phone call with an African leader, Ruto, on Haiti.

Asked Wednesday whether he intended to fulfill his promise to visit, he joked, “I plan to go in February, after I am reelected.”