Ruto: An energetic and astute politician who impressed Atlanta dons during US tour

President William Ruto departs for Andrews Airforce Base. [PCS]

It is the evening of Friday, May 24; the last day of the State visit to the United States by President William Ruto. He stands on the near-perfect tarmac to receive the final flag salute from the honour guard and go up the steps of his aeroplane at Andrews Airforce Base.

Journalists who had accompanied him on this trip are all frantically trying to piece together our analysis of his trip; the highs and the lows. What he has achieved and what he has not. The joys and the regrets of his four-day whistle-stop tour in Atlanta, Georgia and Washington DC. 

I was on the tarmac to watch the President arrive on American soil in Atlanta, and seeing that the United States had pulled out all the stops and rolled out the red carpet to receive the Kenyan delegation put to rest the disquiet created by weeks of questions and debates about whether this was a state, official working visit, or a working visit. 

The President’s State visit, the highest level of visit in diplomatic parlance, and the confirmation of excellent diplomatic relations between America and another country, is the first by a Kenyan leader in two decades, the first by an African leader, since Ghana’s John Kufuor’s visit in 2008.

Making history

As part of a select group of journalists accompanying the President on his visit courtesy of the United States Embassy in Nairobi and USAID, I had privileged access to most of the itinerary and events and alongside colleagues from other Kenyan and global media houses, was able to witness first-hand history in the making. 

The President’s program was fast-paced. And President Ruto has energy, both physical and mental that challenges a person half his age. His days were packed with quadruples of events. Members of the Fourth Estate had to literary run to keep up with the pace from venue to venue with sirens blaring. 

On arrival in the US, Ruto, was regal in bearing, standing tall and straight, even as members of his delegation arrived looking tired and dishevelled. 

As members of his team dozed off and tried to stifle yawns, he changed persona every so often flawlessly, at every stop, shifting from Ruto the poetic politician, cracking jokes about the ‘deep-state’ and the Kenyan election, to wearing the hat of a scholar and researcher receiving accolades from his scholarly peers at Spelman, an all-women college in Atlanta. 

And again at the hallowed halls of John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, who noted how “Dr Ruto, with a PhD in plant ecology, was well placed to understand first hand, the impact of climate change on the environment”. 

African leader

President Ruto also adroitly played the role of an African leader at the forefront of the African climate justice and global financial sector reforms campaign.

President William Ruto speaks after opening a Vivo active store in Atlanta, Georgia. The store is the 27th and the first one outside Kenya. [Peter Wakaba, Standard]

And while he has performed a stellar job on climate justice going as far as catching the attention of some of the foremost climate change and climate financing movers and shakers and getting many global climate bodies to make firm commitments in financing and policy, there are those who feel he has fallen far short in the financial sector reforms. 

You see, President Ruto has in the past spoken widely about global financial sector reforms and the changes that need to take place to make both the IMF and the World Bank more responsive to African challenges. In his maiden address to the United Nations General Assembly as President in September 2022, President Ruto said heavily indebted countries “run the risk of losing development gains due to the shocks inflicted by the pandemic and associated disruptions.” 

He had urged global financial institutions and the international community to take urgent measures to provide the much-needed additional liquidity and secure better fiscal space for developing countries.

A year later in September 2023, speaking on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, he called for reforms, saying that “the building blocks of financial markets - such as credit rating agencies, sovereign debt analysts, and risk analysis, required a “rethinking amid new approaches that were needed to provide concessional finance.” 

Many of those who watched his elegant performance at these events will feel he may have waned in his zeal on the global stage, failing to properly articulate the need to reform the Bretton Wood institutions, in particular, the formula used to allocate special drawing rights at the IMF or SDRs as they are more commonly known, in the presence of senior global financial sector players and in front of his host, President Joe Biden. 

In a past interview with the Financial Times, President Ruto had stated that in calls for the reform of the global financial architecture, his ambition went beyond just the re-channelling of International Monetary Fund Special Drawing Rights to needier, more developing countries.

He had criticized the current framework and described it as wired for something else, and being ‘unfit’ to meet present-day challenges, and more importantly, being totally ‘beholden to national and shareholder interests.’ 

At the IDA 21 replenishment meetings held in Nairobi, donor countries committed $93 billion dollars to the global kitty that is targeted at helping the world’s poorest countries tackle major challenges like financing education, nutrition and health. 

African leaders under the leadership of the African union had expressed frustration that the amount was not adequate and would need to hit at least $120 Billion in the current replenishment and grow to at least $279 billion by the year 2030, if it was to have any meaningful impact. 

White House chefs display a taste of what would be on the menu for the State dinner. [Alex Chamwada, Standard]

President Ruto had been particularly vocal about this: “Given the enormity of the challenge faced by African countries and its global implications as a collective emergency, we call on our partners to meet us at this historic moment of solidarity and respond effectively by increasing their IDA contribution from the US$93 billion raised in 2021, to at least US$120 billion in 2024.” He said

He added: “Our proposal and request entail a vision for Africa-driven socio-economic development, executed with transparency and inclusiveness, and our case is straightforward; significant capital injection into IDA is crucial. The G20 Independent Expert Group recommends tripling IDA’s financing capacity to US$279 billion by 2030, while maintaining the essential concessional nature of its financing. At the very least, let us not ignore or wish away this expert advice.” 

The announcement of the increase in the US contribution to current IDA replenishment by President Joe Biden during President Ruto’s visit was thus right on the money, or indeed a feather in his cap. 

“In the coming weeks, the US is going to make an additional $21 billion available to the IMF. And today, I’m proud to announce there will be $250 billion in new lending capacity from multilateral development banks like the World Bank to help low-income nations invest in their development and tackle growing challenges. This is supported by the US and many other countries as well. Said President Biden at the bilateral press conference with President Ruto in Washington. 

The announcement, while welcome, however, fell far short of dealing with the fundamental issue that caused the challenge in the first place. And that must have been immediately apparent to President Ruto’s economic advisors sitting on the sidelines. 

Deep down, they must have been asking: Would the US throw its support behind reforms at the Bretton Woods institutions, throw out outdated frameworks of operation, some that date back to 1944 and constructed with colonial intention in mind, but are still operational today?  

Ruto’s failure to articulate that one particular issue will have far-reaching ramifications and be analysed far and wide for years to come. 

But it is not as if President Ruto is coming home from Washington DC empty-handed. Indeed, far from it. Despite the criticism back home that he flew to the proverbial magic carpet to Washington at a cost that has made many taxpayers wag an admonishing finger, this cloud has a major silver lining and the President has indeed added many a feather to his and Kenya’s collective cap.

The announcement is perhaps the most important geopolitically. The move to officially designate Kenya, a country on the equator and one in the global south, a US non-NATO ally. Kenya becomes the 19th country to be named a major Non-NATO ally globally, and the first in Sub-Saharan Africa. Kenya’s designation is the latest since Qatar was granted a similar status in 2022. Though largely symbolic, the designation entitles a country to stronger military cooperation and closer coordination and support. 

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

Three other countries on the African continent all in North Africa - Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia - have already gained similar status.

As a first mark of closer cooperation, three Kenyan military cadets one from the Air Force, one from the Army and one from the Navy, will join US military academies. 

And as the State visit marks 60 years of official US-Kenya partnership, it was also an apt moment to announce a renewal of the Kennedy-era student airlift program. The newly announced Kennedy-Mboya Partnerships support a new scholarship program that promotes intellectual, academic, and innovative exchange. 

In addition, the governments of Kenya and the US, in collaboration with Microsoft, Mastercard’s Center for Inclusive Growth, Howard University, Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University, and Morehouse College announced the establishment of EDTECH Africa. This initiative serves as an emerging technology bridge between Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and African scholars, aimed at cultivating educational exchanges in the ever-evolving landscape of emerging technology. 

And while the deals were being signed thick and fast, the issue of deploying Kenya’s police to Haiti came through small demonstrations at the Kenyan embassy in Washington by people questioning the country’s role in the Haiti affair. 

As President Ruto left Washington DC, he left with yet another promise; That President Joe Biden will visit Kenya. “I plan on going in February after I’m reelected,” Biden said just before he hosted President Ruto to the State Dinner.  It is a promise he had made in 2022 when he addressed 49 African leaders from Washington DC. 

As his first term wanes and he goes into what is currently being seen as a hard fought election, the outcome of that may just be the single determining factor if he visits Africa and in particular Kenya as the leader of the free world.

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