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William Ruto in US: Why Joe Biden is rolling out the red carpet for Kenya’s leader

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  • Author, Barbara Plett Usher
  • Role, BBC News Africa correspondent, Nairobi

Kenyan President William Ruto will become the first African leader in more than 15 years to make an official state visit to the United States.

This is an opportunity for President Joe Biden to demonstrate his commitment to Africa at a time when Washington appears to be playing catch-up in its engagement with the continent.

But relations with other African allies are strained, as strategic rivals including Russia and China challenge traditional areas of Western influence.

At one time, Mr Ruto would have been an unlikely candidate to be celebrated at the White House with the pomp and ceremony afforded each year to only a handful of close allies.

The International Criminal Court charged him with crimes against humanity linked to the violence following Kenya’s 2007 elections. But the deal failed and Mr Ruto has since reinvented himself as the United States’ indispensable partner.

Lingering suspicions about his Democratic credentials are not the reason Congress decided not to invite him to speak at a joint session, U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Meg Whitman said. As far as he knows, it’s a matter of scheduling.

Ms. Whitman, a former CEO of companies including eBay and Hewlett Packard Enterprises, is a champion of Kenya and its investment potential as a technology hub, the so-called Silicon Savannah.

“If you really want to look to Africa, then who would be the right choice to come to a state dinner? she asks.

“Kenya has been a long-standing ally of the United States for 60 years. It is certainly the most stable democracy in East Africa. President Ruto has stepped up and he is a true leader.”

Under Mr. Ruto’s leadership, Kenya has expanded its role as the region’s diplomatic and business center, an “anchor state” for the United States in a difficult neighborhood.

Although domestically he has faced protests over his handling of a struggling economy, globally he has become an advocate for Africa on issues related to climate change and debt relief.

Kenya is also an important security partner in East Africa and pleased Washington by pledging to send Kenyan police to Haiti.

The only phone call President Biden made to a sub-Saharan African leader last year was to Mr Ruto, over Nairobi’s promise to lead a multinational force into the troubled country.

Analysts suspect the state visit is partly aimed at making up for Mr Biden’s failure to keep his own promise to visit Africa.

He made the pledge at a major summit of African leaders in Washington two years ago, during which he assured his guests that he was “all in” for the continent. But since then it has been distracted by crises elsewhere, such as the wars in Ukraine and Gaza.

Image source, Getty Images

Legend, President Joe Biden hosted many African leaders in Washington in 2022, but he did not go to Africa as president.

The summit follows the administration’s announcement of a new strategy aimed at transforming its relations with African countries into more equal partnerships that advance the strategic interests of both.

In some ways, Mr Ruto is the perfect example of this approach, but upon his arrival in Washington the focus was on US setbacks in West Africa.

If there is any country that best reflects the challenges facing the United States in Africa, perhaps it is Niger.

For years, it hosted more than 1,000 American troops, stationed at two bases from where they launched security operations against Islamist militants in the region.

But a coup last year changed the nature of relations, with Niger’s military rulers moving closer to Russia and Iran.

U.S. efforts to find a way to continue security cooperation failed in March.

The junta’s prime minister told the Washington Post that a senior U.S. delegation adopted a “condescending tone” and showed a “lack of respect.” He accused him of wanting to dictate Niamey’s relations with other countries.

This week, the Pentagon confirmed the complete withdrawal of its troops by September, opening the door to even closer ties between Niger and Moscow.

Molly Phee, the State Department’s top African affairs official, says it was impossible to reconcile America’s interests and values, which also included a timetable for a return to civilian rule, with the junta.

“We share legitimate concerns about the trajectory of (Niger’s) discussions with Russia and Iran,” she told the BBC.

“Ultimately, we failed to reach an agreement that met our main priorities,” she said, emphasizing that the relationship should be reciprocal.

“We intend to maintain a diplomatic partnership, as well as other aspects of our relations.”

Legend, The United States has agreed to withdraw its troops from Niger who were monitoring jihadist activities.

This failure follows Niger’s expulsion of the French, the former colonial power.

That highlights tensions as the United States tries to balance security partnerships with democratic values, boundaries the Russians do not share.

What happened in Niger resonated in other Sahel countries – with Moscow happy to offer protection to those who seized power in a series of coups, often in exchange for access to natural resources.

In recent weeks, a small contingent of U.S. troops was forced to leave Niger’s neighboring Chad as local officials questioned the future of the U.S. presence.

America also faces increased competition from other nations on the continent. China has been investing in Africa for two decades, but there are a host of new middle power players.

A Gallup poll last year found that the United States had lost its soft power advantage while China had gained fans. But the most significant change was the rise in popularity of Russia.

“Historically, the West has viewed Africa as a problem to be solved. Actors like China and Turkey, as well as other Arab Gulf players, see this as an opportunity to seize,” says Muritha Mutiga, director of the Africa program at the International Crisis Group.

“So the way in which China, Turkey and the Gulf countries have engaged has been welcomed, because it is seen as a long-term bet, it is seen as taking the continent seriously. »

The Biden administration reports some success in its efforts to treat Africa as a strategic partner.

A series of high-level visits have highlighted Africa’s importance as the “continent of the future”, with its rapidly growing young population, abundant natural resources and growing influence on the international stage.

American support has helped African nations gain better representation in global forums, such as the G20, the IMF and the World Bank, although the United States has struggled to gain African support for its positions on Israel’s war in Gaza and Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Legend, US First Lady Jill Biden was in Kenya last year, part of a series of high-level US visits to the continent.

The administration has also been praised for its investment in the Lobito Corridor, a rail line that snakes through Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia and will be used to transport critical raw materials.

“With this Lobito corridor, (the Americans) decided to speak in a language that Africans understand,” explains Kingsley Moghalu, a Nigerian political economist and former central bank governor.

“If you consider that you are carrying out major projects that benefit African economies and African people, then you have leverage to talk about democracy and things like that. »

Alex Vines, head of the Africa program at the Chatham House think tank in London, pushes back against the idea that Western power is fading in Africa.

“An African leader told me: ‘We’re fed up with the Chinese buffet, we’d like to have the menu, we want choice,’” he says.

“So I think what we’re seeing more and more is that many African countries want a little bit of the United States, but they’ll want a little bit of Russia or the United Arab Emirates or Turkey.”

The challenge lies in “unequal African leadership” with an ambitious long-term vision capable of making the most of the competition.

President Ruto is seen as one of those who can, but everyone, including Niger, has options.

“There’s a game of chess going on,” says Dr. Vines. “There is a new rush for Africa. The difference is that on the chessboard, the African continent is alive, it is not passive. This can attract people and really surprise them.

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