Biden welcomes Kenyan leader as US under pressure in Africa

Kenyan President William Ruto is 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 commitment to the continent.

But relations with other African allies are under strain as strategic rivals such as Russia and China challenge traditional areas of Western influence.

At one point, Ruto would have been an unlikely candidate to be feted at the White House with the pomp and ceremony that only a handful of close allies receive each year.

The International Criminal Court charged him with crimes against humanity related to the violence that followed the 2007 elections in Kenya. But the case failed and Ruto has since reinvented himself as an indispensable partner for the United States.

Lingering suspicions about his democratic credentials are not the reason Congress decided not to invite him to participate in a joint session, says US Ambassador to Kenya Meg Whitman. As far as she knows, it’s a programming thing.

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

“If you really want to get closer to Africa, who would be the right choice to attend a state dinner?” she asks.

“Kenya has been a long-standing ally of the United States for 60 years. Without a doubt, it is the most stable democracy in East Africa. “President Ruto has stepped up and is a true leader.”

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

Although domestically he has faced protests over his handling of the 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 has pleased Washington by promising to send Kenyan police to Haiti.

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

Analysts suspect the state visit is intended in part to make up for Biden’s failure to fulfill his own promise to visit Africa.

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

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

In some ways, Ruto is the perfect example of that approach, but when he arrives in Washington the focus is on the United States’ setbacks in West Africa.

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

For years it housed more than 1,000 American soldiers, 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 the relationship: Niger’s military rulers grew closer to Russia and Iran.

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

The junta’s prime minister told the Washington Post that a high-ranking US delegation had adopted a “condescending tone” and shown “a lack of respect.” He accused him of trying to impose Niamey’s relations with other countries.

This week, the Pentagon confirmed a full 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 square U.S. interests and values, which also included a timetable for returning to civilian rule, with the junta.

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

“In the end, we were unable to reach an understanding that addressed our top priorities,” he said, noting that the relationship should be reciprocal.

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

The collapse follows Niger’s expulsion of the French, the former colonial power.

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

What happened in Niger has been echoed in other Sahel countries: Moscow is happy to offer protection to those who seized power through 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 officials there questioned the future of the U.S. presence.

The United States 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 followers. But the biggest change was the rise in Russia’s popularity.

“Historically, the West has seen Africa as a problem that must be solved. Actors like China and Turkey, and other Arab actors in the Gulf, see it as an opportunity to be seized,” says Muritha Mutiga, Africa program director at the International Crisis Group.

“So the way China, Turkey and the Gulf 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 points to some success in its efforts to treat Africa as a strategic partner.

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

American backing 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 with Ukraine.

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

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

“If you are seen to be delivering important projects that are beneficial to African economies and to African people, then from that you have influence to talk about democracy and things like that.”

Alex Vines, director of the Africa Program at the Chatham House think tank in London, rejects the perception that Western power is fading in Africa.

“An African leader told me: ‘We are tired of the Chinese buffet, we would like to eat a la carte, we want options,’” ​​he says.

“So I think what we’re seeing more and more is that a lot of 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 is “ragged African leadership” with an ambitious, long-term vision that can make the most of the competition.

President Ruto is seen as one of the figures who can do it, but everyone, including Niger, has options.

“There’s a chess game going on,” says Dr. Vines. “There is a new fight for Africa. The difference is that the chessboard, the African continent, is alive, not passive. It can draw people in and really surprise them.”

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