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Kenyan President William Ruto is meeting President Joe Biden today at the White House as he closes out his four-day state visit.

Ruto is being feted in Washington, where he hopes to push forward partnership on green energy and trade. Security too is on the agenda as Kenya could send a peacekeeping force to Haiti and is a partner in the never-ending fight against al-Shabaab in Somalia. Kenya will be designated a major non-NATO ally by the United States.

The bilateral economic relationship has an energetic advocate in former eBay and HP CEO Meg Whitman, who serves as U.S. ambassador to Kenya. Whitman, Politico’s Nahal Toosi writes, has become an “evangelist for the idea that American businesses should consider” Kenya.

The China Factor

Yet as Ruto is being feted in Washington, Beijing very much remains in the mix in Kenya — a pivot state in East Africa. A senior Kenyan official says China’s Ex-Im Bank has committed to finance the extension of the country’s standard gauge railway to the Uganda border.

China built and financed the first two phases of the railway project from the port of Mombasa to the dry port of Naivasha, just over 50 miles past Nairobi. The project has been subject to much criticism — including from Ruto himself, who said years earlier, “We are hurting from paying the Chinese debt.” But the railway is key to Kenya’s ambitions to serve as a regional connectivity corridor. Financing its third phase was on Ruto’s wish list when he met with Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping at last year’s Belt and Road Forum.

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Update: May 25, 2024 — In response to a question by CNN’s Richard Quest on whether Kenya prefers U.S. or Chinese investment, Pres. Ruto said, “We’re neither facing west nor east. We’re facing forward.” As CNN’s Larry Madowo notes, this is a quote from Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first prime minister — a pan-Africanist and a leader in the Non-Aligned Movement.

Change Starts at Home

China and the United States appear to be playing to their respective strengths in Kenya. Beijing offers infrastructure construction and financing, albeit now with a diminished risk appetite. And Washington offers market access for Kenyan exports and private-sector investment.

But as Ruto is wining and dining in the U.S., he’s come under criticism from Kenyans back home, whose tax burdens have increased since he came to power in 2022. Ruto can leverage great power rivalry to secure deals for his government, but in the end, he must bring home the bacon.

Kenya’s export base remains low — largely consisting of agricultural products like tea, flowers, and coffee. Apparel exports are rising, driven by duty-free access provided by the U.S. through the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA).

But it may be too late in the game for Kenya to emerge as a global player in the garment industry. Kenya, wisely, has its eyes set on becoming an African tech hub. It’s dubbed itself “Silicon Savannah.” But to achieve these dreams, Ruto will have to invest in his people. Human capital will matter more than physical infrastructure and attention given by great powers.

Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.

He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.

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