Habari! White House to welcome Kenyan president

The White House — The White House gave three reasons for inviting Kenyan President William Ruto on Thursday to break the 16-year drought during which no African leader has been honored with a pomp-filled state visit.

Those include the two governments’ shared democratic convictions and their like-minded approach in leveraging the private sector to meet government aims. 

But the primary reason, the administration’s new top Africa policymaker told VOA, is Kenya’s recent decision to assert itself globally by offering 1,000 peacekeepers for Haiti. The first tranche of boots on the ground are expected to hit Haitian soil this week.

“We chose Kenya for a few reasons,” Frances Brown, senior director for African affairs at the National Security Council, told VOA during her first media interview since taking the post. “No. 1 is the Kenya-U.S. partnership has really grown from a regionally focused one to a globally focused one. We’ve been really pleased by the way that Kenyans have stepped up to play leadership [roles] beyond their region.”

Analysts say a state visit is a big deal. 

“It is the highest diplomatic honor that our president can bestow,” said Cameron Hudson, a senior fellow in the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

“It’s typically an indicator of a very close and important bilateral relationship. And so, elevating Kenya to the level of, let’s say, a Japan, which was the most recent country to have a state visit, I think it is symbolic. And it’s important for all the reasons that I just described as far as Kenya being on a level that we would give it the same privileges as one of our oldest and longest security partners,” Hudson said.

Brown said the administration aims to use the visit to reach agreements in areas like technology, climate management, debt relief and health. 

And on the Haiti mission, Washington has signaled its approval: with $300 million in support.

“We’ve been working really closely with them,” Brown said. “As you may know, there’s been planning underway for a number of months. It has included policing experts from around the world working to develop a concept of operations. Kenya is not going it alone.”

Other priorities 

Meanwhile, the Kenyan leader says his focus is on debt restructuring, and activists in the East African nation are sounding the alarm over human rights concerns. 

Ruto, in Atlanta for his first stop of his four-day U.S. visit, said he’d use his time in Washington to “make a case for many countries in Africa, including Kenya, seeking to adjust international financial architecture.”

“Many countries are in economic and debt distress occasioned by climate change and compounded by an unjust international financial architecture and also an imperfect multilateralism,” he said. 

“We now run the escalating risk of democracy and free markets being associated with poverty, and lending credit to the widespread lamentation that democracy is or has been on the retreat in many parts of the world, including Africa,” Ruto added.

But human rights advocates in Nairobi told VOA they hope American leadership will also raise what they see as serious concerns, like reports of abuses by Kenyan police, who are taking the lead in the Haiti mission. 

“We see this as a really excellent opportunity to focus on governance, human rights and rule of law, for many reasons,” Irungu Houghton, executive director for Amnesty International Kenya, told VOA. “Both the United States and Kenya are nations that projected themselves as essentially, nations that believe in these values, and the state dinner is an opportunity really to focus on that.”

Others highlight a tightening of public expression, especially over the hot-button issue of the Gaza war. Many African nations have criticized Israel’s behavior in the conflict, but Kenya’s government has kept largely quiet. 

“Especially within the Muslim community in Kenya, we’ve had persons trying to protest them and to picket on this issue, but they had a very, very hard time having access to the streets, because every time they go out, the police arrest them,” said Demas Kiprono, who leads the Kenyan section of the International Commission of Jurists.

Others say they hope American leadership will voice concerns over a pending Kenyan law that they say targets sexual minorities.  

“It’s criminalizing things even like pronouns. It’s criminalizing things like using [gender] neutral toilets. It’s a horrible, horrible law that is being financed by Family Watch International — that’s the same organization that financed the Uganda bill and all the (LGBTQ)-related bills basically in Africa and even in the U.S.,” said activist and organizer Yvonne Muthoni. 

Family Watch International is a conservative Christian American lobbying group. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups, says it “works within the United Nations and with countries around the world to further anti-LGBT and anti-choice stances.” 

“We are looking at violence that is coming from this. Whether it’s online or physical violence, we are seeing a rise in the number of cases that are being reported, in the number of complaints, in the rallies that are being called for. So, it is quite a scary time for Kenya right now,” Muthoni said.

The view from here and there

At the White House this week, a large Kenyan flag was displayed alongside an American flag, each covering the height of an entire story of the hulking gray Eisenhower Executive Building. Workers erected massive white sails around the White House’s North Portico, where the Bidens plan to formally welcome the Rutos. 

Meanwhile, the day after Ruto departed Nairobi — likely traversing the new Chinese-built superhighway that cuts the city in half and ends at the airport — one had to scroll far down on news to find mention of his American jaunt.

Instead, the nation’s prominent newspapers focused on issues that Kenyans wrestle with daily. The Standard’s front page wrote of 850,000 new jobs last year — close to the 900,000 the World Bank says is needed to sustain economic growth in the lower middle-income country. 

That coverage mirrors Kenyans’ priorities, Houghton said. 

“Most Kenyans are economically distressed,” he said. “They are very concerned about the cost of living. Thousands of them went onto the streets last year and almost rendered the country ungovernable in certain counties because they felt that the crippling number of taxes that had been introduced were essentially not making it possible for them to survive. We’ve seen a deterioration in terms of the services, education, health and otherwise. … So, there is a very clear disproportionate, I guess, energy around this visit.” 

Farhad Pouladi contributed to this report from the White House. 

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