Biden cranks up diplomatic charm offensive in Kenya

Saturday July 29 2023
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President William Ruto with Ambassador Katherine Tai, the Principal Trade Advisor and Spokesperson on US trade policy, at State House, Nairobi, Kenya on July 16, 2023. PHOTO | PCS


In a span of two weeks, US President Joe Biden has dispatched two senior members of his administration to Nairobi with a firm message to President William Ruto on good governance, human rights and a subtle push on the geopolitics surrounding the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

And Kenya, a longtime Western ally, is under pressure to maintain trading ties with the US.

The timing of the visit was significant as Russia hosted over 17 African leaders out of the expected 43 on Thursday and Friday, with promises of free Russian grain “to replace” Ukrainian grain export arrangement known as the Black Sea Grain Initiative (BSGI).

Moscow pulled out of BSGI last week, accusing Ukraine of diverting it from poor recipients.

Read: Russia warns of Black Sea risks after grain deal exit

Financial intelligence


On Friday, Brian Nelson, the US Department of Treasury’s Undersecretary for Counterterrorism and Financial Intelligence, met and held talks with President Ruto on matters of security, terrorism, food security and money laundering among others.

“Kenya will continue working with the US government to strengthen its laws and regulations on money laundering and financial terrorism,” said Dr Ruto tweeted soon after the talks at State House, Mombasa.

“A firm regulatory and administrative enforcement on the source and flow of illicit funds will effectively promote integrity and stability in our financial system, thereby spur economic growth.”

Before Nelson, President Biden dispatched Katherine Tai, Trade Representative.

As a member of Biden’s Cabinet, Ambassador Tai is the principal trade adviser, negotiator, and spokesperson on US trade policy and her visit was significant because the two countries are currently negotiating the US-Kenya Strategic Trade and Investment Partnership.

Read: US guarded on Kenya trade deal past Agoa expiry

Left out

Unlike the Economic Partnership Agreement that Kenya recently signed with the EU, the Office of the US Trade Representative is opting for tariffs to be left out of negotiations entirely, in line with the current US stance on trading with the rest of the world.

The trade negotiations are still ongoing. But Tai, who was making her second visit to Kenya on July 17, caused a storm within President Ruto’s government when she declined to meet Trade Cabinet Secretary Moses Kuria, in a subtle protest over his latter’s tweets and remarks including an attack on the media, opposition demonstrations and lack of decorum in his engagement with the public on social media.

In Kenya, Nelson also met with Treasury Cabinet Secretary Njuguna Ndung’u, Ruto’s economic advisor Adan Mohamed and Augustine Cheruiyot, head of the Economic Transformation Secretariat.

Mr Cheruiyot is also Ruto’s chief adviser on food security and agriculture.

International Relations and Diplomacy expert Dr Peter Mwencha views the latest visit by the two high ranking US officials as significant in a sense that Kenya has always looked to the West and perhaps the Washington administration was around to strengthen the ties amidst the onslaught from Russia.

“We have traditionally been allied to the Americans and this is not something new. If you put it in the current situation where President Ruto is not participating in the Russia-Africa summit, it is not something that you can ignore,” said Dr Mwencha.

“If Kenya considers itself a US ally, Americans have certain expectations from Kenya. The reality is that the US would expect Kenya to support it by aligning to its policies.

Read:Ruto, Biden teams open trade talks

During Nelson’s visit, mitigating the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was clearly on his agenda as Russian President Vladimir Putin met other African leaders in a summit that President Ruto did not attend.

Nelson’s visit was significant in as far as the US- Russia relations are concerned, in that a day before he arrived, the State House Spokesperson Hussein Mohamed on Wednesday, July 26 revealed that President William Ruto could not attend during a live briefing.

He (Ruto) will be represented by the organs of the Africa Union. This decision aligns with the stance of African Heads of State and Government, who believe that in order for Africa to engage in meaningful discussions with global partners,” said Mohamed.

One of the major reasons why the US is keen on Kenya is the significant role the country plays in security in the region.

“The US being a security first oriented foreign policy, that obviously is critical to their bilateral relationship with Kenya. That means that Kenya is supposed to support the US policies that they are championing,” said Dr Mwencha.

The latest travel by Under Secretary Nelson to Nairobi, Kenya and Mogadishu, Somalia was to underscore the US commitment to strengthening financial connections with Africa, fight against terrorism and money laundering.