• Last week’s state visit by Kenya’s president reflects its role as a central U.S. partner in Africa.
  • U.S. designation of Kenya as a “major non-NATO ally” bolsters an already close relationship.
  • As a valued partner, including in Haiti, Kenya needs continued support on climate issues and heavy debt.

The state visit to Washington last week by Kenya’s President William Ruto provides a moment in which to assess not simply a major U.S. bilateral partnership in Africa, but the progress of the United States’ declared intent to build a strategic partnership with the continent overall. The U.S. government in 2022 declared that partnership vital to U.S. interests — a recognition of Africa’s rising economic potential and its inevitably central role in all efforts to build global stability and prosperity in this century. Former assistant secretary of state for Africa Johnnie Carson, now a senior advisor at USIP, assessed the visit and the progress in building that new, transatlantic partnership.

President Joe Biden greets Kenya’s President William Ruto at a press conference during Ruto’s state visit to Washington. The visit comes 17 months into implementation of the U.S.-declared ‘partnership with Africa.’ (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)
President Joe Biden greets Kenya’s President William Ruto at a press conference during Ruto’s state visit to Washington. The visit comes 17 months into implementation of the U.S.-declared ‘partnership with Africa.’ (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)

President Ruto’s state visit came 17 months after Washington hosted a summit conference that promised a new U.S.-Africa partnership. How does this visit mesh with the process of concretely implementing that partnership — and how far has that process advanced?

The Biden administration has used President Ruto’s successful three-day state visit to Washington, the first for an African president in 15 years, to underscore the administration’s continuing focus on Africa; to promote key themes and successes of the 2022 U.S.-African Leaders’ Summit; and to showcase Washington’s close partnership with Kenya. During that 2022 summit, President Biden proclaimed that the United States is “all in on Africa” and that Africa would be a priority. He committed $55 billion in funding to Africa and rolled out dozens of new initiatives, including programs on digital inclusion, infrastructure, climate resilience and green energy. President Biden also promised to travel to Africa in 2023. Since the summit, the administration’s focus on Africa has been eclipsed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing conflict in Gaza. President Biden also postponed his Africa trip.

President Ruto’s state visit has refocused attention on Africa, and on the successful implementation of several key initiatives of the planned “21st-century partnership with Africa.” These include the designation of the African Union as a permanent member of the Group of 20 nations; the creation of a presidential advisory council from across America’s African diaspora to strengthen our nation’s engagement with Africa; the launch of the $800 million Africa Digital Transformation initiative; and the establishment of the Lobito Corridor rail project [across Angola], the first U.S.-funded infrastructure project in Africa for over three decades. The administration also announced several new initiatives for Kenya, including the formation of a bilateral Semiconductor and Technology Partnership that will link Kenya into the U.S. semiconductor supply chain and provide Nairobi an opportunity to access funding from the CHIPS Act, the first African country to do so.

Kenya is a close U.S. partner in working to contain violent conflicts from Ethiopia to the Democratic Republic of Congo — to even Haiti, where Kenya has agreed to a U.S. proposal to deploy police in a stabilization mission. Do you sense that this visit advanced U.S.-Kenyan joint efforts in any of these areas?

U.S.-Kenyan security relations have been significantly elevated by President Ruto’s visit and the decision by President Biden to designate Kenya as a “major non-NATO ally” — one of only 19 such countries globally and the only one in sub-Saharan Africa. The designation builds on the longstanding security cooperation between Washington and Nairobi. In the wake of the 1998 terrorist bombing of the American embassy in Nairobi, the United States and Kenya have worked closely to successfully destroy the al-Qaida terrorist network in East Africa and to combat the spread of al-Shabab in Somalia. To bolster its collaboration, the United States has trained Kenyan air force pilots, supplied military equipment to Kenya’s army and provided refurbished boats to its navy. The U.S. also maintains a small military facility at Manda Bay in northern Kenya. Although the major non-NATO ally status is mostly symbolic and is not a mutual defense agreement, it will enhance military-to-military collaboration and provide Kenya’s armed forces some military and financial advantages that NATO members enjoy.

Did the United States invite President Ruto to Washington to in effect thank Kenya for agreeing to lead the multilateral U.N. mission to help stabilize Haiti?

It would be a mistake to suggest that President Ruto’s visit was simply about Haiti.

Washington has applauded, endorsed and strongly encouraged Kenya’s decision to lead a new U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti and has pledged $300 million to support the deployment of 1,000 Kenyan policemen. The Department of Defense has agreed to provide communications, intelligence and emergency medical services to the Kenya force when it is deployed.

But President Ruto’s visit is about much more. Kenya is a vibrant democracy and America’s strongest partner in East Africa.

Since Kenya’s independence in 1963, the United States and Kenya have enjoyed 60 years of excellent, uninterrupted diplomatic relations. Reflecting Kenya’s regional political and economic importance, Kenya is home to the largest U.S. embassy in Africa and the second-largest American business community in sub-Saharan Africa. Kenya also has been a major beneficiary of U.S. development assistance and a significant participant in the African Growth and Opportunity Act. Working with Kenya, the United States has been able to respond to regional humanitarian crises in Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Kenya faces immense domestic challenges. Climate change is widening impoverishment, refugees arrive from neighboring wars, the country struggles with a heavy debt load, and it desperately needs investment to meet people’s basic needs. Do you sense that this visit advanced partnership on these issues? For Kenya, how well is the United States stepping up as a partner?

President Ruto advanced his agenda on two of the most serious issues confronting his country: climate change and debt distress. Over the past decade Kenya has been ravaged by cycles of prolonged drought followed by intense rains and flooding. Economically, major indebtedness has also left the country on the edge of default in recent years. Both issues received considerable attention. To address climate change in Africa, the White House announced establishment of the U.S.-Kenya Climate and Clean Energy Partnership to elevate and prioritize climate mitigation strategies and green industrialization.

Focusing on economic and debt issues, President Biden and President Ruto released a wide-ranging strategy document entitled “The Nairobi-Washington Vision,” outlining their commitment to work together to accelerate debt relief for Kenya and other African nations. The vision statement called for creditor nations to relieve the pressure on “high ambition” developing countries by pledging to restructure debts and to maintain financial flows needed to promote economic growth and development. The document also called for the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to develop new tools to assist Kenya and other developing counties to address their debt issues and for development banks to provide greater incentives for private sector investors to finance projects in Africa. To further the initiative, President Biden pledged $250 million to a new World Bank economic crisis response fund and an additional $21 billion in new lending capacity for the IMF. President Biden said that countries like Kenya should not be forced to choose “between development and debt … or between investing in their people and paying back their creditors.”

PHOTO: President Joe Biden greets Kenya’s President William Ruto at a press conference during Ruto’s state visit to Washington. The visit comes 17 months into implementation of the U.S.-declared ‘partnership with Africa.’ (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)

The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s).

PUBLICATION TYPE: Question and Answer