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Kenyan President’s State Visit: An Antidote to U.S. Troubles in Africa?

WorldAfricaKenyan President’s State Visit: An Antidote to U.S. Troubles in Africa?


As other African nations move away from the United States, disillusioned with democracy or lured by rival powers, President William Ruto of Kenya arrives in Washington on Wednesday for a three-day state visit intended to showcase a stalwart American ally on the continent.

A spate of military coups, shaky elections and raging wars have upended Africa’s political landscape in the past year, giving an edge to American rivals like Russia and China, but also shredding Washington’s key selling point: that democracy delivers.

In Niger, a recently installed military junta has asked American troops to leave. Relations with once-firm American allies like South Africa and Ethiopia are decidedly cool. A recent election in Senegal, long considered a beacon of stability, nearly went off the rails.

Mr. Ruto, the Biden administration hopes, is the antidote to those troubles.

Since he came to power two years ago, Mr. Ruto, 57, has pulled Kenya, the economic powerhouse of East Africa, ever closer to the United States. His visit is just the sixth state visit hosted by the Biden administration, and the first for an African president since 2008.

In some respects, President Biden is atoning for a broken promise. At a high profile Africa summit in Washington in December 2022, Mr. Biden declared he was “all in” on Africa, and pledged to make a visit to the continent in the following year. The trip never materialized.

In choosing Mr. Ruto, the Biden administration is confirming that it views the Kenyan leader as one of its closest security, diplomatic and economic partners in Africa.

The two countries cooperate closely to fight militants with Al Shabab in Somalia. American corporate giants like Google have sizable operations in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, which is also a hub of diplomatic efforts to end the chaos in neighboring countries like Sudan, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Very soon, Kenya is expected to start deploying 1,000 paramilitary police officers to help quell unrest Haiti — a dangerous mission largely funded by the United States and one which runs significant political risks for Mr. Ruto if Kenyan personnel are injured or killed.

And Mr. Ruto has adroitly garnered American support for his outspoken advocacy on global issues like debt relief, reform of international financial institutions and climate change, on which he is attempting to carve out a reputation as Africa’s leading statesman.

“We live the nightmare of climate change every day,” he said in an interview with The New York Times on Sunday, hours before he flew to the United States. Nearly 300 Kenyans died in the past month as heavy rains lashed the country, causing floods that forced hundreds of thousands from their homes.

“A year ago we were deep in drought,” he said during the interview, speaking in an open pavilion next to State House, his official residence in Nairobi, as thunder rolled and more rain fell. “This is the case of many countries on the continent.”

It’s not many years since Mr. Ruto was considered part of the problem in Kenya. A decade ago he was on trial at the International Criminal Court, facing accusations of orchestrating post-election violence that left over 1,100 Kenyans dead. At the trial, his lawyer was Karim Khan, currently the court’s prosecutor. The United States backed the prosecution, seeing it as a chance to end impunity in Kenya’s political class.

But the trial collapsed in 2016, after witnesses disappeared or changed their testimony, and Mr. Ruto’s electoral triumphs eclipsed the trial at home: He was elected vice-president in 2013 and 2018, and then president in 2022.

“So much was said about who we were in that episode,” he said, referring also to former President Uhuru Kenyatta who faced similar charges. “But doesn’t it strike you that finally we were elected by the same people we were being accused of harming? That tells you the whole narrative was false.”

An American official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said that Mr. Ruto had been privately urged to confront indirectly what was described as his “I.C.C. hangover” early into his visit. At his first speech on Monday, at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Museum and Library in Atlanta, he vowed to keep Kenya “on the path of an open society, strongly committed to greater accountability and transparency, with robust engagement of civil society.”

Mr. Ruto also needs the trip to succeed. As he has made about 50 foreign trips since 2022, gathering support for his ideas, his popularity at home has plunged. Faced with a crippling debt crisis — Kenya owes about $77 billion — Mr. Ruto introduced tax hikes that brought cries of protest from his citizens.

Some Kenyans call him “Zakayo,” in reference to the biblical tax collector Zacchaeus. The reference makes him smile. “I have been very candid with the people of Kenya that I cannot continue to borrow money,” he said, predicting he would eventually win over his critics.

Still, time is running short, and Mr. Ruto’s big idea for turning around the economy is to ride the wave of green energy. Over 90 percent of Kenya’s energy comes from renewable sources — mostly wind and geothermal springs — a natural advantage Mr. Ruto hopes to leverage to convert Kenya into an industrial powerhouse.

He wants foreign companies to move to Kenya, where their products would be carbon neutral. He is also selling Kenya as an enormous carbon sink, tapping into the nascent industry of sucking carbon from the atmosphere, then burying it deep in the rock formations of the Rift Valley.

How do we move Africa from a continent of potential to a continent of opportunity and finally to a continent of investment?” he said. Last month, Microsoft and two other firms announced they were building a 1 gigawatt data center, powered by renewable energy in Naivasha, 40 miles northwest of Nairobi.

Still, Mr. Ruto’s embrace of Washington and democracy are not universally popular in Africa. Disillusionment with sham elections and corrupt elites has fed young people’s support for recent military coups in countries like Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.

“There is a perception that democracy hasn’t delivered, that elites which had come to power through elections were not delivering,” said Murithi Mutiga, Africa director at International Crisis Group. Yet, he added, Kenya’s example of stability and steady growth proved that while democracy can be “messy, difficult, noisy and tough,” it still works.

Mr. Ruto is scheduled to spend much of Wednesday with members of Congress. On Thursday he lays a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery before meetings with Mr. Biden and a state dinner at the White House. The pomp and prestige is a major prize for a first-term president who, critics charge, has a strong authoritarian streak.

Last year Mr. Ruto launched public attacks on judges whose rulings obstructed his policies, reviving fears he could eventually take Kenya down an authoritarian route.

And like other African leaders, he is not afraid to play the field of foreign suitors.

Last year, to American dismay, Mr. Ruto hosted President Ebrahim Raisi of Iran, who was killed in a helicopter crash on Sunday, and foreign minister Sergei V. Lavrov of Russia. In October, Mr. Ruto flew to Beijing for a three-day state visit to China.

Mr. Ruto dismissed the suggestion that he is a darling of the West, or anyone else.

“This is not about taking sides,” he said. “It’s about interests. There’s absolutely no contradiction to working with different countries. It’s just common sense.”



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