Biden asked to anchor US engagement with Kenya on democracy and growth

US Senator Risch, a Republican in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. [Pearl Matibe]

US President Joe Biden has been asked to prioritize Kenya's long-term democratic stability and growth over short-term gains. Jim Risch— ranking member of the US Senate told The Standard on Tuesday that the best deal Mr Biden could give Kenya in his engagement with visiting President William Ruto is to “encourage Kenya to strengthen its democratic institutions and serve as a beacon for its neighbors.”

Senator Risch who is the top-most Republican in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a strong advocate for human rights, said that in light of Kenya's significant role in the region, nudging the country to becoming a stable democracy should be top on the list in discussions between Presidents Biden and Ruto. “We must work to ensure that the US-Kenya relationship promotes democratic values that are aligned with the goals of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,” he said.

President Biden, he said, should make it clear that closer ties between the two countries are anchored on increased transparency and responsiveness to mutual concerns. “The Biden Administration's focus on President Ruto's actions outside of Kenya must not overshadow the need for the Kenyan president to combat the pervasive corruption within his government. Accountability requires political courage and strong anti-corruption action against the worst offenders,” he said.

Mr Risch also urged President Ruto to collaborate with all political factions and the wider Kenyan society to uphold democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. “By tackling these issues and securing Kenya’s long-term stability, our countries will be able to further promote trade, investment, security cooperation, and conservation,” he said, warning that pursuit of short-term interests that do not capture the long-term aspirations of Kenyans will be futile.

When the two Presidents—Biden and Ruto— met on Wednesday, the Biden administration said that the partnership between Kenya and the US is rooted in “shared values, deep cooperation, and a common vision for the future.”

A senior Biden administration official, familiar with the two leaders’ agenda said the engagement would address “areas of cooperation to safeguard rights and freedoms in the face of rising authoritarianism, expand avenues for dialogue, and elevate our shared global commitment to protecting democracy.”

It was expected that the Biden administration would reiterate democratic values and a commitment to human rights and strong political institutions as pillars of the US-Kenya partnership.

Dr Ruto’s State Visit is expected to focus on the aspirations of the Kenyan and American people, as articulated by the two leaders. Both countries aim to protect political checks and balances, combat misinformation and hate-fueled violence, and address corruption through transparent and accountable governance.

Below is a list of what the White House said would be discussed during Ruto’s Thursday visit:

Delivering Democracy:  The United States has programmed nearly $40 million for democracy, human rights, and governance programming in Kenya, including through Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal programs that defend democratic elections and political processes, increase women’s political participation and leadership, counter Gender-Based Violence, and advance digital democracy.  Additional support for activities in Kenya under the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal builds on Kenya’s important work as a member of the 14-country Global Partnership for Action on Gender-Based Online Harassment and Abuse, which is advancing global policies to address online safety for women and girls, including targeted violence against women political and public figures.  

Supporting Independent Civil Society:  President Ruto executed on May 9 the legal instruments required to operationalize the 2013 Public Benefits Organization Act, which institutionalizes groundbreaking, global best practices for civil society protections.  The United States announced $700,000 in new assistance to support this effort in addition to the $2.7 million the United States is providing to improve civil society engagement in and oversight of governance processes.  The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) also announced an additional $1.3 million youth empowerment program aimed at strengthening political engagement at the subnational level and $600,000 to advance disability inclusion. 

Bringing Transparency to Government:  The United States and Kenya commit to strengthening the Open Government Partnership (OGP), which Kenya co-leads and the United States co-founded, including through robustly fulfilling our open government commitments at home.  USAID Administrator Power plans to represent the United States at the OGP event on the margins of the UN General Assembly High Level Week in September.  This event gathers world leaders for an opportunity to showcase the powerful global coalition on open government and democracy and to consider opportunities for further collaboration.  

Promoting Human Rights:  The United States and Kenya affirm their commitment to upholding the human rights of all.  Together they stand with people around the world defending their rights against the forces of autocracy.  Kenya and the United States commit to bilateral dialogues that reinforce commitments to human rights, as well as a series of security and human rights technical engagements with counterparts in the Kenyan military, police, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs aimed at strengthening collaboration on security sector governance, atrocity prevention, and Women, Peace and Security in Kenya and regionally. 

Combatting Corruption:  The Administration intends to provide $500,000 for a new Fiscal Integrity Program to make county budget processes more transparent and inclusive and increase citizen engagement, and $500,000 to broaden the reach and effectiveness of anti-corruption advocacy by empowering civil society actors to create and disseminate multimedia content that engages citizens and mobilizes action against corruption.  To support the Government of Kenya to combat corruption, the Administration is providing $250,000 through the Global Accountability Program, and $300,000 to support Kenya’s proposed Whistleblower Protection law to strengthen Kenya’s anti-corruption legal architecture.  In addition, USAID has provided $2.7 million to support the improved enforcement of policies and laws that deal with fraud, waste, and abuse in the delivery of public services to Kenyan citizens. 

Gathering Anti-Corruption Professionals:  With support from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the East African Association of Anti-Corruption Authorities convened a regional conference from May 20-23, 2024, in Nairobi, Kenya, gathering anti-corruption practitioners and policymakers from countries participating in the East Africa Anti-Corruption Platform.  

Strengthening Police Reform Efforts:  Building on a longstanding partnership to further police capacity building and reform efforts, the United States and Kenya announced a new $7 million partnership to advance and strengthen the modernization and professionalization of Kenya’s National Police Service, with a focus on staff and training development. 

Reducing Prison Overcrowding and Improving Detention Conditions:  The United States and Kenya are committed to further advancing Kenyan-led efforts to improve the oversight of and conditions within Kenya's prison service.  The United States announced a new $2.2 million initiative to provide training, mentoring, and technical assistance to implement priority reforms. 

Combatting Transnational Organized Crime and Supporting Criminal Justice Sector Reform:  Recognizing the regional role Kenya plays in combating transnational organized crime, the United States intends to provide $4.9 million in new funding for Kenya and other East African countries to improve cooperation and coordination in combating criminal networks and holding criminals accountable.  Funding also supports capacity-building and reform efforts within the Kenyan police and justice sectors. 

Supporting Investigative Journalism:  The United States seeks to amplify Kenya’s leadership in building Africa’s digital resilience by supporting linkages between well-known international investigative organizations and select Kenyan NGOs, media outlets, and citizen journalists to build up Nairobi as a regional hub for exposing issues in the public interest.  This support also helps journalists in their pursuit of public information.  Pursuing these efforts in Kenya – a regional media and technology leader – positively impacts East Africa and the broader continent, particularly as Kenyan recipients connect with counterparts in the region. 

Strengthening Kenya’s Frameworks for Free and Fair Elections:  Working with Congress, the Administration intends to provide $1.5 million in new technical assistance to support Kenya’s electoral legal framework reform process aimed at strengthening the election commission, political parties, and campaign finance.  This funding aims to improve public awareness raising and advocacy around the reforms, laying the groundwork for a more inclusive, transparent, and peaceful 2027 election.  This support complements Kenya’s amendment to the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission Act, which passed the National Assembly on May 3 and is now with the Senate.

Pearl Matibe is the Chief White House Correspondent with expertise in defense, foreign policy, and international security.

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