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Biden welcomes Kenya’s leader as US under pressure in Africa

Kenyan President William Ruto will become the first African leader in more than 15 years to make an official state visit to the US.

This is an opportunity for President Joe Biden to demonstrate commitment to Africa at a time when Washington appears to be playing catch-up in its engagement with the continent.

But relations with other African allies are under strain, as strategic rivals including Russia and China challenge traditional areas of Western influence.

At one time Mr Ruto would have been an unlikely candidate to be feted at the White House with the pomp and ceremony granted to only a handful of close allies a year.

The International Criminal Court charged him with crimes against humanity related to the violence that followed Kenya’s 2007 election. But the case collapsed and Mr Ruto has since reinvented himself as an indispensable partner to the US.

Lingering suspicions about his democratic credentials are not the reason that congress decided against inviting him to address a joint session, says US ambassador to Kenya, Meg Whitman. As far as she knows, it is a scheduling issue.

Ms Whitman, a former CEO of companies such as eBay and Hewlett Packard Enterprises, is a champion of Kenya and its investment potential as a tech hub, the so-called Silicon Savannah.

“If you really want to lean into Africa, then who would be the right choice to come to a state dinner?” she asks.

“Kenya has been a long-standing 60-year ally of the United States. It is certainly the most stable democracy in East Africa. President Ruto has stepped up and he’s a real leader.”

Under Mr Ruto Kenya has developed its role as the region’s diplomatic and business centre, an “anchor state” for the US in a tough neighbourhood.

Although domestically he has faced protests over his handling of the struggling economy, globally he has become an advocate for Africa on issues related to climate change and debt relief.

Kenya is also an important security partner in East Africa, and has pleased Washington by pledging to send Kenyan police to Haiti.

The only phone call President Biden made to a leader in sub-Saharan Africa last year was to Mr Ruto, about Nairobi’s promise to lead a multinational force to the troubled country.

Analysts suspect the state visit is partly meant to compensate for the fact that Mr Biden has failed to keep his own promise to visit Africa.

He made the pledge at a grand summit of African leaders in Washington two years ago, in which he assured his guests he was “all in” for the continent. But since then, he has been distracted by crises elsewhere, such as the wars in Ukraine and Gaza.


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