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Will Wanjiku enjoy the benefits of President Ruto's State visit to US?

Xn Iraki
 President William Ruto, his US counterpart Joe Biden and their spouses Rachel and Jill at the White House, Washington, D.C. on May 23, 2024. [PCS, Standard]

The Kenyan president’s state visit to the USA was widely covered in the media and heralded as the first by an African head of state in two decades. Did Uhuru Kenyatta, his predecessor, not visit the White House in 2021? Why so much focus on this trip? Who benefits and why?

I will leave the means of transport used to cross the Atlantic and those in the entourage to another writer. But, 120 years after the invention of the plane, flying is still a status symbol. I recall my first flight at age 33 and the feeling thereof. What makes flights more fascinating is the cost.

A return ticket to the USA through Atlanta is about Sh150,000. If someone pays for that and takes care of your accommodation and food, it would not be hard to forget your political affiliation. Add the fact that most citizens will only see a plane flying overhead in their lifetime.

Do you recall the numerous trips made by county officials after the 2010 constitution? Add the entourage to the airport, and flying is yet to lose its luster. The only exception is that banana leaves are now safe, no longer adorning buses that took us to the airport in the past.

Back to the trip. Visiting the USA is an endorsement by the sole superpower. A photo with the US president is not just any photo. By paying a visit to the USA like other presidents before, except Jomo Kenyatta, you leave no doubt you are at the helm. Other leaders and countries notice that in their dealings with you.

The visit started in Atlanta, home to a large population of Kenyans. I noted this on a visit there a few years ago. It was curious to see dancers welcoming our president. Was there any mzungu in the troupe? The president then had a question-and-answer session with Kenyans in Atlanta.

I was amazed by the openness and freedom. Does that happen in Kenya? Kenyan leaders are very different when abroad. Why do they distance themselves from local Kenyans compared with those in the diaspora, who seem to enjoy special treatment? Have you observed that, or am I biased?

The places the Kenyan delegation visited speak volumes. Did the delegation realize they were in the South, the Bible Belt, which has a different culture from the rest of the USA? They should have visited the Deep South, preferably Mississippi. A visit to New Orleans would give them a glimpse into how floods are tamed. How about another visit to coincide with Mardi Gras?

I would be curious to know what the delegation did during their free time, beyond shopping. Did they take a walk in various parks and realize how “lonely” Uhuru Park is? Did they wonder why the place is clean and not congested? Did they watch policemen stopping cars?

The next destination was Washington DC, the capital. There was a visit to Arlington National Cemetery. When shall we get our national cemetery, a resting place for our heroes? What of the numerous monuments in the capital; is that what President Moi tried with Uhuru Park? Add the superhighways that make Thika Road look like a toy. I would advise the next visit to be in winter. There is more to see and admire, away from our endless summers.

Let’s get into geopolitical and economic issues behind the visit. The victory by Kenya Kwanza in the polls gave the USA a chance to shift Kenya from the Chinese orbit. I find that interesting because UDA is talking to the Chinese Communist Party. Politically and ideologically, we have not shifted to the East, read China. It is more economical. Any Kenyan child with a Chinese first name like Kennedy or Michelle?

To balance Chinese influence, an expressway will be funded by Americans to Mombasa, parallel to the Chinese-built SGR. Kenyans will now see something concrete built by Americans. To be fair, we have the American wing at the UoN main campus that houses Engineering lecture rooms. The visit will bring home lots of American investments, as reported by the media. Are we investing in the USA to reciprocate? Any deal allowing Kenyans to export more to the USA market beyond the confines of AGOA?

This is unlikely to be shouted, but the rising Russian, Chinese, and their allies’ influence in Africa is concerning to Americans. Remember Iran’s president visiting Kenya and the Russian foreign minister? The fading French influence in West Africa makes African allies more precious. Does that explain the French President’s visit to New Caledonia?

Kenya is one of the emerging allies. Her location, not just geographically but emotionally, makes it very attractive. Historic links make it easier to deepen the relationship. An American president visited Kenya as early as 1909. Add our Obama. Instructively, some of the Happy Valley (Wanjohi in Nyandarua) socialites were Americans. And unbelievably, one of Al Capone’s bodyguards lived in the Happy Valley. We can’t forget the airlift of 1959.

What next after the visit? Our delegates will come home with stories of what they saw in the USA. But you need to live there long enough to differentiate the USA you see in the media and the real USA. I would love to interview the delegates for a research paper. The USA will continue getting closer to Kenya.

She never shies away from pursuing her strategic interests, and soft power is her secret weapon. The photo and media sessions revealed that. How will the Chinese, Russians, French, Turkish, and Arabs react to USA overtures? Kenya is now like a beautiful girl courted by everyone. Who will marry her? Will she choose? Could she elope?

The quintessential question is who will benefit from this multilateral engagement? Will Wanjiku feel it through more jobs, better living standards, and national pride? Will this visit have a trickle-down effect? Bottom-up is unlikely. We can wait and see. A disclosure before signing off: I lived in the USA’s Deep South for a number of years, visited 40 of the 50 states, and left genetic imprints in one of them.

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