Why Washington sudden embrace of Ruto is a loss for once preferred leaders in Africa

President William Ruto sits on Joe Biden's seat in the Oval Office, White House, on May 23,  2024.  [PCS, Standard]

President William Ruto, who has been in office for less than two years, has finally caught a break on the international stage. He’s Uncle Sam’s darling leader in Africa - after everything that he’s been through locally. 

The United States’ embrace of Ruto is a ringing endorsement for a man whose election victory was challenged, but whose career is now on the up and up.  

Ruto’s rise to international fame downgrades the significance of Washington’s erstwhile staunch African allies, some of whom have recently either adopted a nationalistic - if somewhat anti-Western - rhetoric or proved unreliable over the stiff competition between the West and its foes, particularly China and Russia. 

Given the range of deals – from security to trade, health, education, green energy and good governance – Kenya and the US have signed, it’s clear that Ruto is well ahead of the pack, even securing the coveted non-NATO ally designation, which is conferred on countries with strategic working relationships with the US military.  

President Biden equated his new partnership with Kenya with the night the country won its independence in 1963. 

“We stand at an inflection point in history where the decisions we make now will determine the course of our future for decades to come,” Biden said as Ruto stood on his right side. “Today, I am as optimistic and hopeful as I was those years ago when Kenyan patriots raised that new flag high that midnight sky because Kenya and the US stand together committed to each other, our people and building a better world, one of greater opportunity, dignity, security and liberty for all Americans, for all Kenyans. God bless our partnership.” 

Bagging Kenya is a big win for the US, whose soft and hard powers have been waning in Africa amid an aggressive push by China and Russia for the new scramble for the continent’s resources. 

Some African leaders’ criticism of Western foreign policies and their open display of autonomy on which country they can associate with, have irritated Washington, which, for decades, kept many African countries in its orbit without much of an effort or fear of being outbid. 

Until recently, the West was in general spoiled for choice as African countries – with no other options after the end of the Cold War and dissolution of the Soviets in 1991-- did its bidding. 

If Washington, for instance, wanted an African army to do a job on its behalf, it used to take its pick from an array of capable but groveling allies in every region of the continent: Ethiopia and Uganda in East Africa. Nigeria in the West and South Africa in the South. 

But now, it is the Africans -- whose resources are being sought by almost every major and emerging powers in the world -- are spoiled for choice. Countries that are not concerned about democracy and good governance in Africa are offering their services. 

China is currently Africa’s largest trading partner, and recently Russia has been displacing the US and its ally France from some West African countries, most notably Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. Capitalizing on the political, economic and security fluidities in Africa, China and Russia are giving the West a run for its money. 

Ruto’s elevation is the clearest sign of how Washington is so desperate to have an anchor nation in East Africa to blunt China’s outreach to this crucial part of the continent. 

The once iron-clad US ally, South Africa has joined an anti-Western alliance and recently angered Washington when it took a genocide case against Israel to the International Court of Justice, a move Secretary of State Antony Blinken dismissed as “meritless.” 

Nigeria, a military heavyweight in West Africa, is not only mired in corruption and misrule, but has since 2009 been busy trying in vain to stamp out a local militant group, Boko Haram, an insurgence that has dimmed its chance as a potential long-term strategic ally for America. 

Another country Washington once depended on to police the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia, is in a state of flux, as militias from two of its largest ethnic groups are wreaking havoc in the country and threatening the Addis-Ababa-based federal government. 

Old allies like Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame have charted their own course, putting their domestic interests above foreign considerations. Both leaders have removed presidential term limits, ignoring Washington’s and its European allies’ pleas. 

Ruto’s advent couldn’t have come sooner. In Ruto, Washington has a reliable, youthful and focused force of nature to whom it can outsource some of its policies in Africa. Ruto’s leadership is a marked departure from his predecessor’s slippery diplomacy that toggled between the West and China. 

“I’m confident, Mr. President, that a partnership between the United States and Kenya will give us the solutions that the world so seriously needs,” Ruto said, adding that the heavy-lifting Kenya is doing in the Horn of Africa and Great Lakes region needs to be recognized. 

Ruto’s state visit was literally an American attempt to prime the new leader for his role as the US’s go-to torchbearer in East Africa – and trust Ruto’s great savoir-faire and bulldog determination to charm Americans. 

“I really want to persuade friends, the great people of America, whom we share values of democracy, freedom, rule of law to work with us, so that we can do more for peace and security as Kenya in that region as you do more elsewhere because we know what you’re doing elsewhere,” Ruto said. 

Ruto has so far sewn up multi-billion-shilling deals that will be a major boost for his efforts to implement changes in the country and increase his profile in Africa. 

Fortunately for him, his biggest cheerleader was none other than the US Ambassador to Kenya Meg Whitman, who was by his side throughout the trip.  “Kenya is the most stable democracy in East Africa,” she told Americans. President Biden said he hadn’t seen his team “so excited about a visit in a long time.”

Washington would definitely try to maximize its relation with Ruto, who was hosted at the White House for a lavish dinner party, the first African Head of State to notch up this honor during President Joe Biden’s administration’s and the first for an African president since 2008. 

In a fact sheet on Ruto’s state visit, the White House celebrated “shared democratic values and mutual commitment to advancing human rights and strengthening political institutions.” 

“To a degree, Washington has little choice but to deepen ties with Nairobi during a period of ferment in the Horn of Africa. Relations with Addis Ababa, previously the preferred regional security counterpart for the US, are strained following the country’s brutal two-year civil war,” wrote Meron Elias, International Crisis Group’s East and Southern Africa analyst.

“Other erstwhile allies such as Uganda are not an attractive option as President Yoweri Museveni’s long rule has turned increasingly autocratic,” Elias said. 

Jakkie Cilliers, head of African Futures and Innovation at Pretoria, South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies, said that “Current indications point to China becoming more influential in Africa, with many [African] countries turning eastward.”  

“The more significant challenge is that the West faces a much larger and more powerful cohort of detractors” like BRICS, he said referring to the grouping comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Cilliers said Africa should not become an “arena for proxy conflicts and competition” between the US and China.  

Ruto believes that Kenya must have stability and a strong economy to become a bellwether in Africa’s development, without compromising on its interests and African values. 

“If we sign a bad deal, we must not (engage in) finger-point(ing). It’s up to us to make sure that we don’t sign bad deals for our people,” President Ruto said in Kigali last month. 

Washington demonstrated its trust in Kenya when it asked Nairobi to lead a multinational peacekeeping mission in Haiti, an issue that still remains unpopular in the country. 

In 2022, the two countries launched the United States-Kenya Strategic Trade and Investment Partnership, or STIP, with a focus on agriculture, anti-corruption, digital trade, environment and climate change, among other topics. 

With Washington’s blessing or urging, Kenya has been trying to resolve internal crises in Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and South Sudan. Kenya also has troops in Somalia under the African Union Peace Mission. 

It’s too early to predict how President Ruto would be able to balance the strong Kenya-US partnership and his ties with fellow African countries, many of which are skittish about America’s no-middle-ground foreign policy. 

Days before Ruto’s visit, Rwanda’s President said that Ruto’s invitation at “the table” was “good” and expressed his hope that the Kenyan leader would “represent us very well.” 

Kagame warned that sometimes the African countries feted at Western tables are “eaten up.”  “We should be very conscious of that and, therefore, not deceive ourselves but operate” as people who understand what “dictates things in the world,” he said. 

Kagame, who was a panelist at last month’s African CEO Forum in Kigali along with Ruto, said his country was removed from African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) for refusing to allow second-hand clothes into Rwanda. Asking African countries to align with one bloc is “not correct and Africa should refuse it,” he said. 

In an interview with Citizen TV’s JK Live, Whitman said her country’s policy is to “give Africans a choice.”  “Our objective is how could we make competitive offers, is not forcing people to choose between one superpower versus another,” she said.

“But how we could make good offers around health, people to people ties, economic trade and development, the digital economy and be more competitive .... We all live in a competitive world and we have to compete.”  

President Ruto has acknowledged the dilemma a developing country faces to choose between two friends in a polarized world. 

“It’s a delicate balance that we have to walk a tightrope because every country pursues its interests,” He said in a response to a question by a student from Harvard University who was part of students who called on him at State House. 

Kenya, Ruto said, wants to be “friends to all, and enemy to none. It’s a very difficult thing to do, especially in a polarized one where we’re today.” 

Cilliers said: “If the US wants to maintain its influence on the continent, it should find ways to collaborate rather than compete with China.” 

In the Sahel, the US’s influence has recently suffered a blow after Niger and Chad asked the US to remove its soldiers from their countries, an indication that Africans are no longer afraid of asking the US to do what was just a few years ago unthinkable. 

The US will, of course, push Ruto to keep China, Russia, Iran and its other enemies at bay, but that will be a challenge, given the lack of an African consensus on the matter. 

Valuable as Kenya’s relationship with Washington as it is, Ruto would hardly want to be labeled as the “US stooge” by fellow Africans. During his visit, he defended Kenya’s decision to send in troops to Haiti to dispel rumors that it was a result of US pressure.  

Despite local and international challenges, though, both Kenya and the US are likely to jealously guard their newfound amity and focus on strategic interests that unite them rather than wedge issues. 

The US may not, for instance, nitpick every Kenyan policy or push Nairobi hard on unpopular issues, such as gay rights, that could divide Kenyans and weaken Ruto’s nascent administration. The US knows all too well that the best ally is the one that’s stable.