President William Ruto
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High stakes US trip only the sixth in Biden presidency

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President William Ruto. 

Photo credit: File| Nation Media Group

Stakes are high as President William Ruto prepares for his historic and much publicised three-day US State visit that begins on May 23 at the invitation of his host, President Joe Biden.

The Head of State’s in-tray is full as he not only carries the aspirations and wishes of Kenyans, but also wears the Africa hat, having been the first to be accorded the highest honours since Ghana’s John Kufuor in 2008.

President Ruto will be only the sixth head of state—after South Korea, France, India, Australia and Japan—to be accorded a State visit during the Biden presidency. Washington and Nairobi will be celebrating 60 years of diplomatic ties in security, trade, investment climate change solutions among others. Dr Ruto now joins the list of former Kenyan presidents to have been invited for State visits, with President Daniel arap Moi in 1980 and President Mwai Kibaki in October 2003.

President Moi had working visits to the US in 1987 and 2002, while President Uhuru Kenyatta had two working visits in August 2018 and February 2020.

“This visit cements the 60-year bilateral relationship between Kenya and the US. It highlights Kenya as an anchor State in the turbulent Horn of Africa region while also advancing Kenya's credentials as a leader in democracy on a continent that has witnessed democratic backsliding,” said Professor of Political Science at the City University of New York, David Monda.

Prof Monda argues that US is interested in Kenya as an ally and partner on political, diplomatic, economic, security and climate change issues.

“This falls in line with one of the major goals of American foreign policy, the spread of democracy and democratic norms globally. So it reinforces the idea of shared values and norms between both countries for the advancement of global peace and stability.”

For his part, Prof Vincent Ongore, who teaches Strategy and Corporate Governance at the Technical University of Kenya, sees the visit as a high profile charm offensive on Washington DC.

“Ruto is increasingly emerging as a new kid on the African diplomatic block, with fresh and revolutionary ideas on how African countries should relate with the rest of the world as partners, and not underdogs,” Prof Ongore says.

Prof Monda notes that Kenya’s biggest asset is that it has taken positions in concert with the US on the Ukraine-Russia war and its support for Israel's right to self-defence against Hamas in Gaza. “Kenya is an influential member of the United Nations and African Union which is of value to the US.

The US sees Kenya as an anchor state and an access point to the East and Central African market for American goods and services,” he explains. On the security front, Prof Monda says that Kenya not only lies on a strategic point on the Indian Ocean close to the Middle East and Red Sea, but is also a major ally of the US on its war on terror and expansion on terror networks in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East. Prof Ongore says the country is actively supporting peace efforts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somaliland, Tigray region of Ethiopia and South Sudan.

Kenya hosts a US air base in Lamu, which supports the fight against the proliferation of al-Shabaab's activities in the neighbouring Somalia.

“Kenya requires adequate facilitation to enable it to effectively discharge these onerous responsibilities on behalf of its neighbours in conflict situations,” said Prof Ongore. Prof Ongore argues that the spate of new military coups that have recently taken place in a number of French-speaking countries in West Africa and the Sahel region, including Burkina Faso, Benin, Guinea, Mali, Niger and others, is certainly of great concern to the USA.

“As one of the emerging voices of reason for Africa, President Ruto is likely to take on additional diplomatic overtures to these countries,” he added.

At the international level, he notes that Kenya has committed to send a 1000-person strong police force to Haiti to battle the Barbecue — led criminal gang that has annexed large swathes of the country's capital, Port-auPrince, and occasioned unprecedented humanitarian crisis in the country.