Photograph — Reuters

State visits by African leaders to the US are rare. The latest, before Kenya’s President William Ruto’s last month, was Ghana in 2008. Hence, coinciding with the 60th anniversary of US-Kenya diplomatic relations, and marking the last state visit hosted by US President Joe Biden in his first term, all eyes were on the elaborate banquet set in Washington. But was the menu as delicious as it was presented by both governments during and afterward the budget?

The backdrop of President Ruto’s visit was undoubtedly marked by Washington’s efforts to recover its dwindling relationship with several African countries. Recent events in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa suggest that America’s influence in Africa has significantly waned. Moreover, the US has steadily strained relations with Ethiopia – its former security ally of preference in the region. Compounding these challenges are the increasingly turbulent relationships with countries like Uganda, Rwanda, and South Africa, highlighting the obstacles Washington faces in maintaining its presence in the region.

The question thus posed to the American administration was clear: if not President Ruto, then who? This visit offered the US an opportunity to swing the pendulum on the predominantly negative coverage of US-Africa relations today. Moreover, the U.S. had specific objectives for Kenya, notably accelerating Kenya’s deployment of 1000 police officers to Haiti. With Washington’s vehement refusal to send its troops to Haiti, Kenya’s involvement is nothing short of a gift to the US to maintain its sphere of influence in the Caribbean.

On the other side, the visit presented an indisputable high-stakes opportunity for President Ruto to secure tangible benefits for Kenyans and many expected President Ruto to remain mindful of the wider continent, in line with the pan-African stance he has taken recently on many global stages. But did it deliver for Kenya and Africa? Yes and no. Let’s start with Kenya.

What did President Ruto Secure for Kenya?

 During President Ruto’s visit to the US, the American government and various stakeholders pledged a slew of commitments to invest across various sectors in Kenya.

Several investments were made through the US’s  International Development Finance Corporation (DFC), including US$180 million for an affordable housing project through American firm, Acorn Holdings. Furthermore, coinciding with his arrival in the US was the approval for the Nairobi-Mombasa Expressway, this US$3.6 billion road infrastructure project, dubbed the “Ushashi Expressway”—a name that effectively implies the project will be done ‘accurately’—is presumed to rival the Chinese-built Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), and interestingly, it costs the same.

Also announced was a new partnership between Microsoft and G42, UAE-based Artificial Intelligence (AI) firm, G42 – to invest US$1 billion in a green data centre, poised to “usher in a transformative era for the digital ecosystem in Kenya and East Africa and foster sustainable economic and technological growth.”

These all sound excellent in principle, but it should also be noted that they were all primarily private-sector pledges, which are yet to be negotiated in depth. In addition, the U.S. private sector benefits greatly from Kenya, via tax cuts through the Finance Act 2023, and Kenya’s Export Processing Zones (EPZ) which give firms additional freedom to employ US nationals and enjoy lengthy tax holidays.

The only non-private sector pledge was Biden designating Kenya a major non-NATO ally. Pending Congress approval, this would make Kenya the first sub-Saharan African country to receive this status and could bring military benefits, especially in terms of possible equipment sales from U.S. manufacturing firms. So what about for Africa?

 What did President Ruto Secure for Africa?

 Unofficially, because of its rarity, Ruto’s visit symbolized Africa’s representation in the US, and Ruto certainly made some signals on this. Having recently assumed the role of AU champion for institutional reform, Ruto’s visit to the US provided a prime platform to align with his previous statements in forums such as the Pan-African Parliament and the AU.

For example, the U.S. has a trade agreement with 35 African countries – the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) – which is due for renewal in 2025. Like Nigeria’s foreign minister a few days prior, Ruto was keen to emphasise the need to extend it. Certainly, from Kenya’s perspective, this makes sense. Over half of Kenya’s exports to the US consist of textiles, apparel, and agriproducts, and qualify for tariff preferences under AGOA. That said, Ruto is also negotiating a more specific bilateral trade and investment treaty with the US, which has been seen by some as contradictory to the African Continental Free Trade Area. Further, President Ruto did not have any further proposals for the future of AGOA –avid examples could have included innovations for the U.S. to introduce, to leverage AGOA to incentivise local manufacturing, and diversify its export portfolio whilst in turn reducing import bills.

There were similar disappointments on the financing side. It should be remembered that during the US-Africa Leaders Summit, hosted by Biden in  December 2022, the US committed to invest US$55 billion in Africa over three years. However, while there have been some developments, many of these financial commitments remain in progress. For instance, the DFC has invested only US$2 billion across 46 transactions in Africa to date, and while Congress’ approval to send US$21 billion of Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) to the IMF’s Poverty Reduction and Growth Trust along with the allocation of US$250 million through the World Bank’s IDA Crisis Response Window for global crisis response are welcome, none of these are Africa specific pledges. Meanwhile, there are proposals on the table for SDRs from the U.S. and others to be allocated directly to the African Development Bank, and Ruto did not manage to persuade Biden to endorse his proposal for the World Bank’s IDA to increase to $120 billion, a proposal that Ruto had made at the World Bank IDA Summit just days before his U.S. visit.

Moreover, a joint declaration issued by Ruto and Biden on debt issues – ostensibly due to rising debt service payments in African countries – was fairly weak in comparison to both Ruto’s own and African leaders’ statements on underlying challenges of debt servicing, current relief and restructuring processes, reform of credit rating agencies, the IMF or World Bank, despite the US’ outsized impact on all of these.

More ambition, more coordination

The upshot is that the U.S. state visit presented a culmination of soft power projections on both sides. Kenya was able to project itself as a key, central player on the continent from an economic and security perspective, while the U.S. was able to present itself as engaged and willing to invest in Africa.

But it is outcomes that speak louder than words – and right now the main tangible outcome looks likely to be a slight uptick in U.S. private sector investment into Kenya. Africans might finally be back at the table in the U.S., meaning we are not on the menu, but joining the banquet is not the same as being able to also express your dietary preferences and invite your direct family to join as well. An equal, mutually beneficial relationship would deliver the latter.

Written by

Teta Mukulira, a Junior Policy Analyst at Development Reimagined with the Decolonising Development team.

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