US AFRICAN COUNTRIES RELATIONS ON THE AGENDA

Heather Cox Richardson

The White House hosted a three-day state visit for President William Ruto and First Lady Rachel Ruto of Kenya beginning on May 23, 2024. The visit marks the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Kenya and is the first state visit for an African leader since President John Kufuor of Ghana visited in 2008.

The Biden administration has worked to develop ties to African nations, whose people are leery of the United States not only because of what Biden called the “original sin” of colonists importing enslaved Africans to North American shores, but also because while the Soviet Union tended to support the movements when African nations began to throw off colonial rule, the U.S. tended to support right-wing reaction. More recently, during the Trump years the United States withdrew from engagement with what the former president allegedly called “sh*thole countries.”

In contrast, officials from the Biden administration have noted the importance of the people of Africa to the future of the global community. Currently, the median age on the continent is 19, and experts estimate that by 2050, one in four people on Earth will live on the African continent. 

Saying that Africans must have control over their own countries and their own future, U.S. officials backed the admission of the African Union to the Group of 20 (G-20), welcoming the organization’s 55 member states to the intergovernmental forum that focuses on global issues, and pledged more than $55 billion to the continent to aid security, support democratic institutions, and advance civil rights and the rule of law. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, First Lady Jill Biden, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have all visited the continent, where they have emphasized partnership with African countries for economic development rather than a competition with China and Russia for resource extraction. 

In March 2023, Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Ghana, Tanzania, and Zambia to emphasize the connections between Africa and North America, focus on the importance of democracy as Russian disinformation in Africa is driving pro-Russian and anti-U.S. sentiment, and announce U.S. investment in the continent as well as calling for more. 

But in July 2023, those efforts appeared to take a step back when a military coup in Niger deposed elected president Mohamed Bazoum. A few months later, the ruling junta asked the forces of former colonial power France to leave the country and turned to Russia’s Wagner group for security. In March, U.S. diplomats and military officials expressed concern about the increasing presence of Russia in Niger, and a few days later, officials told close to 1,000 U.S. troops stationed in the country to leave as well. Russian troops moved into a military base the U.S. has been using. 

The U.S. says its troops will leave by mid-September and has pledged to continue negotiations. Niger was a key ally in the U.S. antiterrorism efforts against armed forces allied with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Neighboring Chad has also asked the 100 U.S. troops in the country to leave.

Meanwhile, in the year since her trip to Africa, Vice President Harris has focused on digital inclusion in Africa, recognizing that the spread of digital technology has the potential to promote economic opportunity and gender equality and to create jobs, as well as open new markets for U.S. exports. Last week, she announced that the African Development Bank Group and Mastercard have launched the Mobilizing Access to the Digital Economy Alliance (MADE), which is working with public and private investors to provide digital access for 100 million individuals and businesses in Africa over the next ten years, focusing first on agriculture and women. 

Kenya’s President Ruto won election in 2022, promising voters that he would champion the “hustlers,” the young workers piecing together an income informally. U.S. ambassador to Kenya Meg Whitman, former chief executive officer of eBay and Hewlett-Packard and unsuccessful 2010 Republican candidate for governor of California, has supported this idea of economic development. Focusing on “commercial diplomacy,” she has worked with Ruto to encourage business investment in Kenya.  

At a state luncheon with President Ruto last week, Harris reiterated her belief “that African ideas and innovations will have a significant impact on the future of the entire world—a belief driven in part by the extraordinary creativity, dynamism, and energy of young African leaders” and by the continent’s young demographic. She reiterated the need to “revise and upgrade the U.S.-Africa narrative, which is long overdue; and to bring fresh focus to the innovation and ingenuity that is so prevalent across the continent of Africa.” She warned: “Any leader that ignores the continent of Africa is doing so at their own peril.” 

While Kenya’s main economic sectors are agriculture, manufacturing, and tourism, it is also a technology hub, and Harris called out its “Silicon Savannah,” a technology ecosystem that produced the cellphone-based money transfer system M-PESA, as well as startups making biodegradable plastics, creating drinking water from humidity, and so on. 

Ruto thanked Harris and Biden “for helping us reshape, reengineer, and write a new narrative for our continent.” Africans “are going to write our own story,” Ruto said, adding that the narrative of “this continent of conflict, trouble, disease, poverty” is “not the story of Africa.” “Africa is a continent of tremendous opportunity,” he said, “the largest reserves of energy—renewable energy resources; 60 percent of the world’s arable, uncultivated land; 30 percent of…global mineral wealth, including those that are necessary for energy transition; the youngest continent, which will produce 40 percent of the world’s…workforce by 2050 and where a quarter of the world’s population will be living, providing the world’s biggest single market. In short,” he said, “Africa is a rich continent and a continent of opportunity.”  

In a conversation with Vice President Harris and Ambassador Whitman, President Ruto said that the young population of Africa is “tech hungry” and that technology “is the instrument that we can use to leapfrog Africa from where we are to…catch up with the rest of the world.” The digital space, he said, is the space that will create the greatest output from young people and women. To that end, he said, Kenya is investing 30% of its annual budget in education, training, knowledge, and skills. 

As part of his reach for global leadership, Ruto has put Kenya at the front of an initiative backed by the United Nations for a multinational security intervention in Haiti, where officials have asked for help restoring order against about 200 armed gangs in the country, coalitions of which control about 80% of the capital, Port-au-Prince. The assassination of Haitian president Jovenel Moïse in July 2021 exacerbated political instability in Haiti by creating a power vacuum, while weapons flowing into the country, primarily from straw purchases in the U.S., fed violence. Last year, then–prime minister Ariel Henry had pleaded with the United Nations Security Council to bolster Haitian security forces and combat the gangs.

The U.S. declined to lead the effort or to provide troops, although it, along with Canada and France, is funding the mission. On Thursday, Biden explained that “for the United States to deploy forces in the hemisphere just raises all kinds of questions that can be easily misrepresented about what we’re trying to do…. So we set out to find…a partner or partners who would lead the effort that we would participate in.” Kenya stepped up, although Kenyan opposition leaders, lawyers, and human rights groups are fiercely opposed to deploying Kenyans to the Caribbean nation. 

The Haitian gangs oppose the Multinational Security Support Mission (MSS), which is supposed to consist of 2,500 troops, 1,000 of whom are Kenyans. The Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belize, Benin, Chad, and Jamaica have officially notified the United Nations secretary-general of their intent to send personnel to the mission. Other nations have said they will support the mission, but as of May 20 had not yet sent official notifications. The MSS was supposed to arrive by May 23, but a base for it in Port-au-Prince is not yet fully equipped. Experts also told Caitlin Hu of CNN that Haitian authorities have not done enough to explain to local people how the mission will work, and Haitian police say what is most necessary is more support for local police.  

Kenyan news reported that the advance team of Kenyan police officers who went to Haiti to assess conditions for their deployment there will recommend a delay in deployment.

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