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President's high-profile US visit: Strategic gains and controversy

Politics
 President William Ruto, First Lady Rachel and former basketball player Shaquille O'Neal pose for a photo at the King Center Historic site in Georgia, Atlanta. With them is Bernice Albertine King, the youngest child of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. [PCS, Standard]

First, there were the comical photos of President William Ruto staring up at the gigantic Shaquille O’Neal who, standing at 2.16 metres, is a colossus that dwarfed everyone in the room. Then the criticism when it was discovered that the Dubai’s Royal Jet he chartered cost $18,000 an hour.

When he started his 4-day state visit to The United States, Dr Ruto broke Kenya’s 20-year hiatus, following in the footsteps of the late president Mwai Kibaki who, in October 2003, was invited to visit America’s 43rd President, George W Bush. Dr Ruto is also Africa’s first president in over 15 years to embark on such a state visit.

He landed in Atlanta, the capital of Georgia, and stayed there for a while.

The State gladly announced his arrival on X and has since updated tweets on his activities.

“Honoured to host President Ruto and the Kenyan delegation in Atlanta, their first stop in the US! Atlanta thrives on global cultures, including our vibrant Kenyan community. As a hub for travel and history, we are excited to deepen ties with Kenya,” the state’s official X account read.

While there, Dr Ruto visited the Martin Luther King Memorial and, flanked by First Lady Rachel Ruto, laid a wreath at the crypt of the late Dr Martin Luther King.

Dr Ruto then visited Spelman College, a private, historically black, women’s liberal arts college in Atlanta, where he was to lay the groundwork for the creation of partnerships between Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Kenyan scholars, his press reported.

He visited the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, after which The First Lady wrote on X:

“The Health Partnership between the United States and Kenya, signed today at the CDC offices in Atlanta, will accelerate the Kenya government’s efforts to achieve Universal Healthcare. The preventive component of primary healthcare will greatly benefit women and children at the grassroots level, supporting household prosperity by reducing costs associated with curative healthcare.”

While still in Atlanta, Dr Ruto visited The Coca-Cola Company headquarters and signed a multi-million-dollar investment deal, officially opened the 27th Vivo Activewear store of the Vivo Fashion Group, met and had deliberations with Kenyans living in the state, visited The Carter Presidential Library and Museum, and even visited the iconic Tyler Perry Studios before it was time for Washington.

In Washington, Dr Ruto met former US President Barack Obama and President Joe Biden.

But why did he start with, and spend so much time in, Atlanta?

Atlanta is home to many Kenyans living in the United States, and some have thrived in business there, testament in their numbers and their fiery deliberations when he met with them upon his arrival.

Political commentator Javas Bigambo says that while the delegation could have stopped at other important destinations, the Atlanta stop was important and strategic.

“Atlanta stop over was crucial for milking foreign direct investment through CocaCola, but visiting the Martin Luther King Centre was of historic symbolic value as he paid vital tribute to that fallen global icon. But I think it would have made more sense to go to Los Angeles California because it is the real Silicon Valley, and a key commercial State in America with unimaginable tech hubs.”

The president himself insisted on his deliberateness to engage with the state, saying that Kenya “is keen on exploring the exchange of experiences and ideas with the City of Atlanta in areas of mutual interest such as low-cost housing and urban development. We also look forward to establishing a twinning partnership between Nairobi and Atlanta for the benefit of our two cities.”

Expenditure

Beyond the intrigues of Atlanta, commentators and the general public cannot agree on what many consider the president’s profligacy, with expensive transport costs and a not-so-lean entourage.

“The cost of this trip, including the decision to hire an executive jet, and the large delegation demonstrates an insensitivity to the economic crises Kenyans are facing. His rhetoric on austerity was clearly just that- rhetoric. He preaches austerity but proceeds to do the exact opposite. There are numerous indications of this,” says political commentator Tom Mboya.

Mr Mboya says that the trip could have been better managed and the spending checked, with the president himself repeatedly asking Kenyans to tighten their belts amid increasing taxes.

A longstanding standoff with doctors over interns’ remuneration nearly paralysed the country’s healthcare systems, and a raft of new levies and taxes have been introduced in consecutive Finance Bills, both in 2023 and 2024.

“You do not spend that extravagantly, not when the country is still in an economic crisis, struggling to deal with the debt situation and aftermath of the worst flooding in decades,” he says. 

Not everyone agrees, however. Mr Bigambo does not see the spending in the same light.

“While the economy is in recovery, Kenya is East and Central Africa’s economic powerhouse, and for that reason, it can afford the President’s comfortable travel, as long as such modes are not multiple in a year. But I think it makes a hard but necessary statement about buying a state-of-the-art state jet for executive use,” he says. “On the mode of travel, that can only be objectively assessed on the basis of the bulk, form and nature of bilateral agreements to be ultimately signed, and key commitments for the Biden administration.”

Netizens complaints saw government spokesperson Isaac Mwaura lambast those questioning the president’s spending on transportation. He labelled their questions “maswali za kipuzi”, or silly questions. 

Benefits 

“Rais ameenda kama mzee wa Kenya, kutafuta alafu wewe unauliza fare ni pesa ngapi na akirudi atarudi na zaidi ya hiyo fare mara milioni.” (The president has traveled as Kenya’s negotiator in pursuit of benefits and you are concerned with how much airfare he has spent, yet he brings back in benefits worth a million times the airfare). 

If he brings back benefits of such magnitude, probably Kenyans’ rants will subside. After a bilateral meeting, President Biden said,

“I know the responsibilities President Ruto and I have laid out will wake the best in us. We are working to designate Kenya a major non-NATO ally, launching the Nairobi-Washington Vision, kickstarting a new era of technology cooperation, and strengthening our people-to-people partnerships. We are stronger and the world is safer when Kenya and The United States work together.”

Mr Mboya says that Kenya being designated a major non-NATO ally may bring positive impact, including militarily, through access to significant weaponry.

And is Kenya seeking to be closer to the United States than it has been lately, with Eastern powers such as China and Russia foraying into Africa and making significant strides to establish influence?

“Objectively speaking, Kenya has always been close to the US. We have long-standing diplomatic and trade relations. Ruto as president does appear to be seeking to be even closer to the US than previous presidents. This is likely a strategic decision,” he says.

With an election coming up in the US in November, where Mr Biden will be battling former president Donald Trump, it remains to be seen if Dr Ruto will continue that approach if Mr Trump returns to The White House, Mr Mboya says.

He, however, says that the significance of the visit is not lost on him, with Kenya expected to receive “a lot of security assistance as well as funding for the justice sector and other sectors”.

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