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Why America needs Kenya in new Africa strategy to dethrone China

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President William Ruto speaks on investing in climate solutions at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg Centre, Washington, DC.

Photo credit: PCS

The United States has shown intent to dilute China’s influence by signing a flurry of more than half a trillion-shilling deals with Kenya – including a Sh472 billion highway to rival the Chinese-built Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) – during a four-day State visit by President William Ruto to Washington.

The White House on Thursday released a lengthy list of agreements which focus mainly on security, governance, infrastructure, technology and trade as Washington sought to reclaim its position as the main bilateral partner with Nairobi in a region that faces security threats.

It was a third state visit by a Kenyan president to the US, the first being Daniel Moi’s in 1980 and a 2003 one by Mwai Kibaki.

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

US President Joe Biden, who has only hosted South Korean, French, Indian, Australian and Japanese leaders for state visits, stressed the strong relations his country has with Africa as he sought to pivot back after years of neglecting the continent. Kenya is seen as the gateway in this drive.

As Washington retreated from the continent, Beijing swept in, building roads, railways, ports and energy projects under the Belt and Road Initiative. Chinese goods flooded the local market.

U.S. President Joe Biden welcomes Kenyan President William Ruto at the South Portico of the White House in Washington, U.S., May 22, 2024.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Leah Millis

The US, which is embroiled in a trade war with China, appears to be plotting a comeback. In President Ruto, the US has found a convenient partner, analysts say.

The two presidents’ meeting focused more on security co-operation. At least three of the deals inked were in security, including designating Kenya as a major non-NATO ally, pointing to Kenya’s strategic importance to the US in the fight against terrorism and insecurity in the region.

Should Congress approve, Kenya will be the first Sub-Sahara country to have a major non-NATO ally status. The others on the continent are Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco.

Choices have consequences

Unlike the members of NATO to whom the US must defend in case of an attack, America is not obligated to come to the aid of a non-NATO ally, which is why the status is being described as symbolic.

Such a status, however, comes with benefits, including increased military and financial advantages.

Kenya celebrated as an oasis of peace in a region mired in conflict, has been a reliable ally of the US. Occasionally, these close ties have made it a target for terrorism, including the 1998 bombing of the US Embassy in Nairobi by al-Qaeda operatives.

At a press briefing on Thursday, President Biden described the conferment of the status as “fulfilment of years of collaboration”.

“Our joint counter-terrorism operations have degraded the Islamic State group and al-Shabaab across East Africa. Our mutual support for Ukraine has rallied the world to stand behind the UN Charter, and our work together on Haiti is helping pave the way to reduce instability and insecurity,” he said.

US  President Joe Biden addresses the press at White house as Kenyan President William Ruto looks on. 

Photo credit: PCS

Last year, President Biden made only one call to an African head of state – Dr Ruto. The topic was Haiti, a US-driven mission that has sparked debate in Kenya.

The US has relied on Kenya as a peacemaker in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which joined the East African Community last year. America is also keen on the situation in Sudan where no solution has been found to a raging civil war.

The fight on terrorism, especially in coastal and northeastern Kenya, is set for a boost after the US promised to expand the Manda Bay airfield in Lamu by building a 10,000-foot runway.

The other US military outpost in Kenya is in Mombasa, another area terrorist activities have festered. Two other US outposts in the region are in Djibouti where China – which is engaged in a battle for global domination with the US – has a military base.

Except for the signing of the Sh472.9 billion toll road from Mombasa to Nairobi to be tapped from investors, the US financing did not deviate from its traditional areas of focus of helping Kenya fight corruption, hold free and fair elections and strengthen the justice system.

After decrying the manner in which US firms have been edged out of government deals by corruption, Washington promised to inject millions of shillings to bolster transparency in public procurement.

The civil society has also been a beneficiary in the deals announced by the two leaders. There are plans to encourage young people participate in the 2027 General Election.

One of the reasons China has been popular in Africa, a continent that has had its fair governance challenges, is its stance on not interfering in countries’ internal affairs.

Ruto Biden

U.S. President Joe Biden welcomes Kenyan President William Ruto during an official White House State Arrival ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, U.S., May 23, 2024.

Photo credit: Reuters

A case in point is the 2013 General Election in which Dr Ruto was the running mate of Mr Uhuru Kenyatta. The two had been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

Asked about Washington’s position on the candidacy of the two politicians, then-Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson famously quipped: “Choices have consequences.”

“We live in an inter-connected world and people should be thoughtful about the impact that their choices have on their nation, on the region, on the economy, on society and on the world in which they live. Choices have consequences,” Mr Carson said.

The patronising lecture on human rights and democracy appears to have given way to a focus on trade and investment as the US moves to play catch-up against China.

Kenya US visit

Kenya President William Ruto and US President Joe Biden with first ladies Rachel Ruto and Jill Biden at the White house on May 23, 2024. 

Photo credit: Reuters

Beijing, which has been hesitant to extend the SGR fearing defaults, recently agreed to build the railwayline from Naivasha to Malaba into Uganda.

China is Kenya’s biggest bilateral trade partner. Though it has in recent years reduced lending to Kenya, the Asian military and economic giant remains the biggest bilateral lender.

Its total outstanding loans to Kenya at the end of March was $5.674 billion (Sh754.1 billion), way ahead of the second bilateral lender, Japan which stood at $1.19 billion (Sh158.3 billion).

For this year’s budget support, France’s contribution on the Sh896.99 billion will be Sh26.49 billion, Germany (Sh16.71 billion), Japan (Sh14.39 billion), and China at Sh7.25 billion, way below its Sh29.46 billion last year.

Unlike the US, to which Kenya exports many of its products, China has not been a reliable buyer of local goods.

The US now wants to diminish this Chinese influence, saying the world’s second largest economy has pushed most African countries into a debt trap.

“The agreements signed can be directly related to the deepening Chinese influence in the region,” said Cavince Adhere, a scholar of international relations with a focus on China-Africa ties.

“The decision to support the construction of the expressway from Nairobi to Mombasa is a direct response to the SGR.”

The construction of the expressway was mooted by then-United States president Barack Obama several years ago.

The highway, which was to be built by Bechtel – an American construction company – was to begin in 2018, as the US sought to put up a transport network to rival the SGR, one of China’s largest projects on the continent.

East and West

US private equity company Everstrong Capital LLC, whose key stakeholders include former ambassador to Kenya Kyle McCarter, is one of the financiers that will blend local and foreign funding in the $3.6 billion project.

In what is seen as a jibe to China, which is accused of burdening Kenyans with crippling debt, the road is dubbed Usahihi Expressway, translated as “done the right manner”.

“Usahihi Expressway is not just a project. It is a testament to the transformational power of doing things right. It symbolises passion, commitment and transparency, demonstrating how to deliver immense value, not only to Kenyan citizens but to the entire East Africa,” Mr McCarter said.

Whether this is an indication of the beginning of broader engagement in a region Beijing has dominated in bilateral trade and financing mega infrastructure projects remains to be seen.

Other countries are also coming into the fray. Russia, a United States nemesis just like China, has had a long bilateral engagement with Kenya.

Then there are new entrants like Turkey, India and Saudi Arabia.

But with President Ruto shuttling between East and West scouring for deals, it will be interesting to see how he balances the interests of Beijing and Washington, especially after Nairobi is officially designated a major non-NATO ally.

The two world powers have laid the red carpet for President Ruto.