Ruto’s state visit to the US highlights strengthened Kenya-US partnership and shared commitment to democracy, climate, and trade.

  • 24 May 2024
  • 4 Mins Read
  • 〜 by James Ngunjiri


President Ruto is the first African leader to be invited for a state visit to the US in 15 years.

President William Ruto became the sixth head of state after US President Joe Biden accorded the leaders of South Korea, France, India, Australia, and Japan a state visit.

The engagement sent the message that the US remains invested in Africa in an era of growing competition with its key geopolitical rivals — China and Russia. The two (China and Russia) have been courting African states aggressively over the past two decades.  

Ahead of the state visit by President Ruto, the newly appointed Director for African Affairs at the National Security Council (NSC) – Frances Brown, said that the White House chose Kenya for its first state visit for an African leader for many reasons. 

In an interview with VOA White House correspondent Anita Powell, Brown said, “Number one, is the Kenya–US partnership has grown from a regionally focused one to a globally focused one. …and we see a lot of complementarities in terms of what we’re trying to do on climate. What we’re trying to do on debt for the developing world and on security issues.” 

The second reason why the US wanted to have this state visit with Kenya is because the two states are both democracies. “Our bond is very deep as democracies, and our bond is very deep on people-to-people ties,” the director for African affairs at the NSC said. 

Brown added that the third reason is that Kenya and the US work similarly in terms of bringing in the private sector to solve global challenges. “So, we’ll be talking a lot about those. The deliverables you’ll see are in the realms of technology, clean energy and climate transition, debt relief, democracy, people-to-people ties and health-related issues.” 

The Haiti mission

The Haiti mission is so important to President Biden’s administration, with Brown stating that they welcomed Kenya for raising its hand to help lead this multinational security support mission in Haiti.

“It’s kind of an example of what I just mentioned of Kenya raising its hands to solve problems even outside of its region. …As you may know, there’s been planning underway for a number of months. It has included policing experts from around the world working to develop a concept of operations. Kenya is not going it alone. The US has provided $300 million towards this, so it’s a big thing for us.”

The UN Security Council last year authorised the multinational support mission, which its backers say is needed to help restore security in Haiti amid years of widespread gang violence and instability. 

Of late, a wave of deadly attacks by Haitian armed groups, particularly in the capital, Port-au-Prince, led to the delay of the mission. Last week, Kenyan government officials said the deployment is imminent as a shaky political transition is underway in the Caribbean nation (Haiti), and the country’s main airport, in Port-au-Prince, recently reopened. 


When asked about President Biden’s administration’s feelings about the benefits of trade and barrier-free trade with the United States, Brown said. “President Biden has been really vocal that he sees the African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA) reauthorisation and AGOA modernisation as a huge priority. It has been huge, I think, from our perspective but also the perspective of the region. It’s something we hear a lot about from our Kenyan partners. We do look to Congress for that. But as you know, reauthorisation is due next year, and obviously, we hope that things can get in motion before then.” 

Presently, the US and Kenya are negotiating a strategic trade and investment partnership, which is not a free trade agreement as it does not include new market access arrangements. The main goal of the partnership is to increase investment and promote inclusive economic growth, benefit workers, consumers, and businesses (including SMEs), and support African regional economic integration. 

Regional powerhouse

On May 14, during a call-in press briefing by the Washington DC-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), experts from CSIS described the visit as the emergence of Kenya as a regional power. They also said Kenya has been involved in security and regional issues. 

“We know that Kenya was provoked to get involved in Somalia, that they were literally provoked by al-Shabaab, so they went to Somalia. We also saw President Uhuru Kenyatta then get involved with the conflict in Tigray (Ethiopia), where he used diplomatic might to try to help open a humanitarian corridor during the war in Tigray.” They added. “We also saw President Kenyatta literally single-handedly bring the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) into the East African Community (EAC) when he was the chairman of that community.” 

By joining the EAC, DRC brought in a portfolio of resources, something impressive and unmatched in the region.  With a population of 95 million people, DRC has been hailed as a game-changer in a region where intra-trade, infrastructure development, health and food security suffered shocks due to the 2020 pandemic (COVID-19). Now, EAC offers a combined market-driven economy of 266 million people and a GDP of $243 billion. The inclusion of the DRC, along with Rwanda and Burundi, brings significant French-speaking heritage to the EAC, contributing to a new identity that highlights its diverse linguistic and cultural composition.

However, Kenya inherited some of the DRC’s security problems when it sent a contingent of forces under the East African Community Regional Force (EACRF). That engagement did not go well; the mandate was problematic, and Kenya withdrew its forces. Kinshasa charged that the EACRF had failed to target the M23 rebel group, considered the biggest menace for the DRC in eastern Congo. Kinshasa turned to the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), which has since deployed some 5,000 troops.    

Additionally, CSIS experts said President Ruto continues to assert his influence in the region. “We have seen him very active. They hosted the climate summit, the first such summit in Africa, which by all means was a success in terms of engaging the world from the African perspective and Africa putting out its own agenda on those issues.” 

President Ruto has also been playing major roles in various areas across the continent where the presence of Kenya is felt. “We saw and heard President Biden give him (Ruto) a shout-out at the General Assembly at the UN last year. And Kenya is now pushing a foray into Haiti, which is a point both of surprise but also of caution because if the engagement in a place like DRC did not pan out exactly as people had expected, the question is how this will work in a place like Haiti that is equally complicated,” CSIS team posed.