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Why US is tying up Kenya security partnership in the Horn

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Presidents William Ruto (Kenya) and Joe Biden (US) hold talks at the White House, Washington, DC. 

Photo credit: PCS

Security and diplomacy dominated President William Ruto’s state visit to the US, the first for an African head of state in 16 years.

And Kenya reaped big in security during Ruto’s state visit where US President Joe Biden pledged new partnerships in technology, security and debt relief to Kenya.

Kenya signed a number of deals but of significance is the military support that confirms Kenya as the third highest recipient of US security aid on the continent. Kenya will receive a Sh2.4 billion ($18.7 million) fund for counterterrorism and to help build Kenya's criminal justice system’s ability to address terrorism threats.

The US had already agreed to contribute Sh39.3 billion ($300 million) to a multinational security support (MSS) force that will include 1,000 Kenyan police officers to Haiti, even though much of that money is now tied up in Congress political bickering.

Of more importance, however, is the US pledge for a joint military training programme for Kenyan troops, a purchase of aircraft, and expansion of the Manda Bay runaway among other support in security and defence areas. Biden’s government also announced it will give Kenya 16 refurbished helicopters to bolster the country's security operations.

The United States is also making long-term investments in Kenya’s defence capabilities, including building border security capabilities and increasing maritime security awareness.

“The US has invested heavily in Kenya’s defence capabilities, providing over Sh30 billion ($230 million) in civilian security and defence sector funding since 2020,” a statement from the White House read in part.

The two leaders committed to bilateral dialogues that reinforced commitments to security not just to Kenya but with her allies in the East African region as well as Haiti. Kenya has been a key partner for the US in combatting al-Shabaab militants in neighbouring Somalia and earlier this year joined an East African Community led team to broker peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In a joint statement, the two leaders said they would work together to support the Somali government in its fight against terrorism and asked warring parties in Sudan to allow humanitarian access to aid and agree to a ceasefire.

“Together the United States and Kenya are working to deliver on the challenges that matter most to our people's lives, health security, economic security, cybersecurity and climate security,” Biden said on Thursday when he welcomed President Ruto at the White House.

“Around the world, Kenya and America are also standing united against the terror of ISIS and al-Shabaab, that they continue to perpetrate in East Africa, the aggression that Russia is inflicting on Ukraine, the violence that has toppled too many democracies across both our regions.”

From Kenya’s vantage point, the United States is an important economic and security partner.

“My visit takes place at a time when democracy is perceived to be retreating worldwide. We agreed on the significant opportunity for the US to radically recalibrate its strategy and strengthen its support for Africa,” Ruto said.

The gains in military support from the US follows the Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin III visit to Kenya in September 2023, when he underscored the two countries shared commitment to regional peace and security. Biden is leaning on the highest trappings of American diplomacy this week, including designating Kenya a major non-Nato ally, the first in sub-Saharan Africa.

The designation gives non-members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation access to military and financial advantages that Nato members enjoy, but without the mutual defence agreement that holds Nato together. It mostly depends on approvals from the Congress. Egypt, Morocco, Qatar, Israel and 15 other countries share the designation.

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 move signals the shifting of US security cooperation with East Africa just as US troops prepare to depart Niger, leaving a vacuum that the US does not want filled with Russia. Biden also pointed out Kenya’s role in regional and international peacekeeping roles, saying the US was willing to offer Kenya support to counter terrorism and bring peace to Haiti.

“That's a fulfilment of years of collaboration on joint counterterrorism operations that degraded ISIS and al-Shabaab across East Africa, our mutual support for Ukraine and rallying the world to stand behind the UN Charter, and our work together on Haiti is helping pave the way to reduce instability and insecurity,” Mr Biden said.

Answering the call from Haiti and the international community, Kenya has pledged to lead an international force as authorised by a UN Security Council Resolution 2699.

Kenya plans to deploy 1,000 police to Haiti, in a Multinational Security Support Mission (MSS), a decision that has been riddled with controversy since its announcement in October 2023, forcing Biden and Ruto to clarify.

“Deploying our forces in the hemisphere raises numerous questions that could easily be misinterpreted about our intentions,” Biden explained, emphasising the geopolitical complications of deploying US troops to neighbouring Haiti, which required an alternative solution.

“We sought to identify a partner or partners to lead this effort, allowing us to participate by providing supplies and ensuring they have what they need, rather than deploying American forces.

Intelligence and equipment.

The US has pledged to support the mission through logistics, intelligence, and equipment. Defending the decision, Ruto underscored Kenya’s dedication to global peace and security.

“Kenya’s participation in Haiti is about the peace and security of humanity.”

According to the UN, over 2,500 people were killed or injured from January to March, and at least 95,000 people have fled the capital, Port-au-Prince.

President Biden also announced Sh2.4 billion ($18.7 million) to help build the Kenyan criminal justice system’s ability to address terrorism threats in a manner consistent with the rule of law.

As laid out at the US-Africa Leaders Summit, the State Department Bureau of Counterterrorism, the funds provide training, mentorship, and equipment to investigators, forensic examiners, law enforcement, court officials, and prosecutors.

The two countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding to expand the Manda Bay Airfield on coastal Kenya by building a 10,000-foot runway.

Defence Cabinet Secretary Aden Duale signed a MoU with the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee to enhance security measures and joint military operations.

“The agreement, which includes an infrastructural expansion and upgrade of Manda Bay airfield near the Somalia border, will support counter-terrorism efforts, improve operational capabilities, and accommodate larger aircraft, enhancing the mobility and flexibility of security forces,” said Duale.

The expanded facility provides Kenya the required infrastructure to increase operations against the terrorist group al-Shabaab.

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

Photo credit: PCS

In February this year, US Secretary of Defence Lloyd J. Austin III praised the close partnership between the US and Kenya on a range of security issues when he met with Duale in the US.

Additionally, Kenya is in the process of joining Operation Gallant Phoenix, a program that advances multinational collaboration and sharing of terrorist information to build mutual capacity to collect and use battlefield evidence in civilian criminal justice proceedings in a multiagency, multinational setting.

These initiatives will help both countries better protect borders and citizens from terrorist actors.

Kenya is scheduled to receive 16 US-manufactured helicopters between late 2024 and summer 2025 to bolster its ability to provide regional peace and security (8 Hueys) and participate in peacekeeping missions (8 MD-500s).

Currently Kenya has one of the largest US Foreign Military Sales portfolios in Africa.

Kenya selected approximately 150 M1117 Armored Security Vehicles from US Excess Defence Article stocks, which are projected to arrive in September 2024.

Following Ruto’s visit, Kenya will also enjoy joint military training with the US troops.

The country will host and participate in some of the largest U.S. military exercises in Africa, including Exercise JUSTIFIED ACCORD – the second largest U.S. military exercise in Africa – and Exercise CUTLASS EXPRESS, which focuses on building interoperability amongst multinational partners in the maritime environment.

In summer 2024, for the first time the Kenya Defence Forces have candidates starting courses at the U.S. Military Academy, the US Naval Academy, and the U.S. Air Force Academy.

The U.S. military currently has seven advisors in Kenya supporting Kenyan aviators and for the first time, the United States is providing a Strategic Logistics Advisor to Kenya’s Ministry of Defence.

Kenya’s US-trained Disaster Response Battalion has also been involved in recent search and rescue operations in response to recent flooding in Kenya.