Keeping the Embers Alive: Biden Reignites U.S.-Africa Relations with Kenyan State Visit

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Black, red, and green will color the streets of Washington, D.C., on May 23, 2024, as the Kenyan flag is raised to welcome President William Ruto and First Lady Rachel Chebet for the Republic of Kenya’s third state visit to the United States in its history. The last official state visit from an African leader to the United States was President John Kufour of Ghana in 2008.

This state visit comes at an important moment for the U.S.-Kenya bilateral relationship, but it carries even more significance for U.S.-Africa relations more broadly. After President Biden broke his pledge to visit Africa during his first term in office, this visit will be viewed by many observers as a fig leaf and presented by the White House as a demonstration of the president’s continued commitment to the continent. Had President Biden traveled to Africa, it would have been the first U.S. presidential visit to the continent since President Barack Obama visited Ethiopia and Kenya in 2015. Instead, Washington now appears to be playing catch-up in its engagement with Africa, despite having a long history of diplomatic and development partnerships with African countries going back to the Clinton administration. The emergence and enthusiasm of a host of entrants, like China and Russia, who like Washington now have decades of ties to Africa, as well as newer entrants like Turkey, India, and Saudi Arabia, have highlighted that Washington should urgently step up the quantity and quality of its engagements across Africa. This shift is underscored by a recent Gallup poll which found that approval of China’s leadership has overtaken that of U.S. leadership on the continent.

As Kenya is one of Washington’s closest allies on the continent, Biden will also aim to tout the strength of U.S.-Kenya bilateral ties, highlight the growing leadership role Kenya is playing on the continent, and signal the importance of Africa to the Biden administration’s national security outlook during Ruto’s visit.

The Biden Administration’s Objectives for President Ruto’s State Visit

The Biden administration has made concerted efforts to repair U.S.-Africa relations, which frayed during the Trump administration. The administration released its U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa in August 2022, calling for a transformation of U.S.-Africa relationships into equal partnerships that advance the strategic interests of both Americans and Africans. The Biden administration also hosted the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit of December 2022, the first one held since 2016, and was successful in bringing together delegations from 49 African countries to Washington for three days of engagement. Both the strategy and the summit, though largely symbolic, were important signals sent to African leaders that the United States was ready to become a stronger and more reliable partner across a range of political, trade, and security issues.

Following the launch of the strategy and the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, there have been high expectations for the Biden administration’s engagement in Africa. The State Department has been fairly diligent in executing the promises made during the summit, which was underscored by a flurry of senior-level trips to Africa throughout 2023 regarding many issues of high importance to African leaders, like reforming the UN Security Council to add a permanent African seat and restructuring global financial institutions to work better for poor countries.

In 2023, President Biden only made one phone call to an African head of state—and that was to President Ruto to discuss an issue (Haiti) on Biden’s agenda, not Ruto’s. This visit will be an opportunity for him to tout his administration’s achievements in Africa following the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. Given that it is an election year, Biden is likely to use this as an opportunity to continue to distinguish his engagement with Africa from former president Trump’s approach, which many Africans feel was at best complacent and at worst contemptuous toward issues of concern to them.

In more practical terms, President Biden will be looking to forge stronger security ties with Kenya as Nairobi has shown both a willingness and ability to lead as a security partner in East Africa. The East African Community (EAC) regional bloc recently admitted the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Somalia to its membership. As Kenya is the United States’ closest ally in the bloc, Washington is relying heavily on Kenya to play peacemaker in the DRC, be a counterterrorism partner in Somalia, and serve as a base for U.S. forces in East Africa at Manda Bay.

Washington is also looking to Nairobi for support with the crisis in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, an issue that is rapidly emerging as a domestic election issue for President Biden. Although the Kenyan parliament temporarily halted the Kenyan-led, UN-authorized multinational mission to deploy at least 1,000 police officers to Haiti in March, starting in late May Kenyan forces are expected to begin deploying forces to Haiti. The United States is contributing a total of $300 million to the multinational security mission, and Biden will be looking to tout the Kenyan-led mission as a sign of his administration’s commitment to restoring security and calm in Haiti.

The Ruto Administration’s Objectives for the State Visit

President Ruto’s state visit is in many ways the capstone to his efforts to position himself and his country as one of Africa’s leading voices on issues such as trade, security, climate, and finance and to position Kenya as a prime destination for U.S. investment. His trip comes on the heels of a number of highly publicized events, like his road show last September to Silicon Valley with former eBay CEO and current U.S. ambassador to Kenya Meg Whitman and his hosting of the African Climate Summit, which helped raise his personal profile on the world stage and position Kenya as a spokesman on critical development issues impacting all of Africa.

But juxtaposed with the image of a country and a leader on the rise, Ruto faces stiff political and economic headwinds at home that have him under pressure to leverage his time in Washington to “bring home the bacon.” President Ruto stated that his trip to the United States will center “trade and investment.” This is an opportunity for Ruto to fulfill his campaign promise to create the “hustler” economy that he has struggled to deliver. Feeling the pinch of the rising cost of living and tax hikes, Kenyans took to the streets in 2023 to protest. Therefore, Ruto will be looking for some signature investment deals to announce to demonstrate that average Kenyans are also benefiting from his global gallivanting. Pressing forward with concrete proposals to shape the next generation of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act legislation that is starting to work its way through the U.S. Congress will also likely be on Ruto’s agenda. He’ll attempt to maximize the benefit to Kenyan industry regarding everything from technology to cut flowers.

Security is likely to be Ruto’s other big talking point. He will have to find a way to manage his highly publicized commitment to deploy Kenyan forces to confront spiraling violence half a world away in Haiti while Africa has no shortage of security needs going unmet. The 2022 deployment of Kenyan forces to the DRC as part of the East African Community Regional Force was ineffective. Ruto will also likely be looking to translate the United States’ ever-expanding troop presence at its base in Manda Bay, as well as Kenya’s diplomatic and security efforts in a range of African hotspots important to Washington (e.g., Somalia, Sudan, and the DRC), into greater training and arms transfers for his Kenyan forces. 

The Geopolitical Context for Ruto’s State Visit

African leaders, who face their own domestic challenges with limited means to address them, typically shy away from taking on regional leadership roles in Africa’s fast-changing economic and security landscape. Not Kenya and not William Ruto, however: for the past three years, starting with Ruto’s predecessor Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya has steadily expanded its reach on the world stage, first in its backyard, and now under Ruto across the transatlantic world.

As the largest economy in the EAC, Kenya is at the forefront of trade and commerce within the subregion. Its strong financial sector, with actors such as Equity Bank, and its robust agricultural sector have helped Kenya project its economic influence beyond its borders for years. Kenya pushed for and succeeded in bringing the DRC into the EAC, a feat that would have been unimaginable five years ago.

Kenya also has been adept at capitalizing on regional conflicts, from Somalia to Ethiopia to the DRC, and turning them into opportunities for regional leadership on the political and security fronts. President Ruto has been particularly proactive and committed to carving out a leadership role in a fast-changing region, wading into spaces from climate change to peacekeeping and debt relief that would have been claimed by South Africa, Rwanda, Uganda, or Ethiopia. As those four countries navigate tense and uneasy relations with the United States due to deep disagreements over Gaza, Russia, M23, and LGBTQ+ rights, Kenya is blazing a trail through complex great power competition dynamics as a reliable African interlocutor for the United States, the European Union, and China.

Amid great power competition between the United States, China, and Russia, Kenya has emerged as a careful broker that has successfully leveraged bilateral ties with all three powers to their own benefit. For instance, President Ruto, who had been a strong critic of the Kenyatta administration regarding Kenya’s indebtedness to China, met with President Xi Jinping in October 2023 as part of a three-day state visit to Beijing. He asked for $1 billion in loans, adding to Kenya’s $6.3 billion debt to China, to help complete infrastructure projects. The trip further strengthened Kenya-China relations.

Kenya is also home to a major Belt and Road Initiative project, the Nairobi-Mombasa railway. This railway connects Kenya’s commercial capital to the coast and was built by Chinese contractors using Chinese loans to the Kenyan government. Despite Nairobi’s growing ties to Beijing, Kenya remains the closest partner of the United States in East Africa and one of its closest allies on the continent. President Ruto’s visit to Washington, D.C., represents a significant milestone in the diplomatic relationship between the United States and Kenya. Furthermore, this African state visit holds considerable significance for both presidents’ resumes because the trickle-down effects of this visit will traverse beyond Kenya and the United States to nations such as the DRC and Haiti.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele is a senior fellow and director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Cameron Hudson is a senior fellow in the Africa Program at CSIS. Khasai Makhulo is the program coordinator and research assistant for the Africa Program at CSIS. Catherine Nzuki is an associate fellow for the Africa Program at CSIS.

Khasai Makhulo
Program Coordinator and Research Assistant, Africa Program