Ruto on first state visit by Kenyan leader to US in two decades

President William Ruto and First Lady Rachel receive a bouquet upon arrival at Hartsfield Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, USA. [Courtesy]

President William Ruto meets his US counterpart Joe Biden in Washington this week, with the crisis in Haiti and efforts to build trade ties likely to top the agenda.

Billed as "historic" by Ruto's office, it is the first state visit by a Kenyan president to the United States in two decades and the first by an African leader since 2008.

Thursday's Biden-Ruto talks will focus on trade and security partnerships including Kenya's pledge to lead a UN-backed multinational mission seeking to restore order in Haiti, which has been wracked by gang-fuelled anarchy.

Kenya has offered to send 1,000 personnel, along with forces pledged by several other countries, although the United States and other major nations have ruled out putting their own forces on the ground.

A first batch of Kenyan police is expected to make the 12,000-kilometre (7,500-mile) journey to the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince this week, security sources told AFP, despite a fresh court challenge in Nairobi against the deployment.

Ruto has defended the undertaking as a "mission for humanity" in the Western hemisphere's poorest nation, which has suffered from poverty, political instability and natural disasters for decades.

But a new lawsuit filed last week is seeking to hold Ruto's government in contempt for "blatantly" ignoring a January court order prohibiting the deployment as unconstitutional and illegal.

Funding could also prove a stumbling block for the mission, analysts say.

The United States is the largest backer of the force, pledging more than $300 million since the Haiti crisis intensified several years ago but other countries have been slow to offer support.

Ruto will demand "the US do more to rally financial support for the UN basket fund," said Meron Elias, East and Southern Africa analyst at the International Crisis Group.

"Kenya also wants the US to commit greater backing to stemming the flow of arms into Haiti, including from US ports in Florida," she said.

Trade deal

Ruto begins his visit on Monday in Atlanta, Georgia where he will visit the Carter Presidential Library and Museum, among other engagements.

"His remarks here will underline the importance of democracies working collaboratively to tackle global challenges," State House spokesman Hussein Mohamed said.

On Tuesday, he is due to visit studios owned by entertainment mogul Tyler Perry, who has championed greater diversity in Hollywood to "explore opportunities within the creative economy".

Ruto will meet a Congressional delegation on Wednesday and call for the extension of a free trade agreement -- the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) -- which eliminates import tariffs on goods from eligible African nations.

The pact expires in 2025, prompting African leaders to seek clarity on future arrangements.

Most of Kenya's imports are from China - also one of its biggest bilateral creditors - and Washington has been keen to eat into Beijing's clout in the region.

The East African nation began talks with the United States on a free trade agreement in 2020 but nothing has been signed.

In 2022, the United States exported goods worth $604 million to Kenya while imports totalled $875 million, according to the Office of the US Trade Representative.

Kenyan Trade Minister Rebecca Miano said there were "very big opportunities" for investment in the country.

"We have prepared more than 30 bankable projects worth over $20.5 billion to interest American investors and the Kenyan diaspora," she told local media last week.

'Extremely disappointed'

A request for Ruto to address a joint session of Congress fell through after House Speaker Mike Johnson of the Republican Party declined to extend an invitation.

Lawmakers from Biden's Democratic Party last week accused Johnson of disrespecting Africa, saying they were "extremely disappointed" by the decision.

The last African leader to address Congress was Liberia's Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the continent's first female elected head of state, in 2006.

The visit "feels a bit like a fig leaf" for Africa, the Center for Strategic and International Studies said, as it comes after Biden broke a promise to visit Africa last year.

Kenyan historian Macharia Munene also cautioned that Nairobi's future relationship with Washington would hinge on the outcome of the November US presidential election.

Ruto is currently "America's blue-eyed boy" and is "hobnobbing" with Biden, a situation that could change if Donald Trump wins the presidency again, he said in an opinion piece for The Standard newspaper.