Not all about goodies: US flexes soft power as it advances rights issues in Africa

Tuesday May 28 2024
Biden Ruto

Kenya President William Ruto and US President Joe Biden during their talks at White house on May 23, 2024. PSC

By Macharia Gaitho

The basketful of goodies earned from Kenyan President William Ruto’s State Visit to the United States no doubt serves as a valid indicator of mission success.

President Joe Biden rolled out the red carpet for his guest in a manner that not only indicated the renewal of sometimes fractured relations, but also Washington’s regard for Kenya’s strategic role in Africa and a key regional security partner.

The first State Visit to the US by an African leader since President John Kufuor of Ghana in 2008 served as a major boost for President Ruto’s profile as an emerging African leader making a major impact on the international stage.

President Ruto came back with a loaded plate which showed that the US is not only focused on advancing her commercial interests in Kenya, strengthening military and security cooperation and recruiting a key ally against Chinese and Russian encroachment in the region.

It’s also leveraging its influence to employ a soft-power approach in nudging the Ruto government towards important people-centred reforms in areas of governance, democracy, human rights, media freedom, civil society activity, and reform of the justice, law and order sector.

Read: US plan to eclipse China's influence in EA


Reliable man

That is nothing new from the United States which has a history of loudly pushing reforms in Kenya ever since the tenure of ‘Rogue Ambassador’ Smith Hempstone during the tumultous years of the multi-party campaign in the early 1990s.

The present US envoy Meg Whitman has often been accused of being an unalloyed supporter and admirer of President Ruto, closing her eyes to human rights abuses and runaway corruption, while promoting him as Washington’s reliable man on the continent.

The raft of governance and rights issues put on the table during President Ruto’s US visit might in other circumstances have been dismissed and denounced as interference in Kenya’s internal affairs, but it is likely that the President had no option but to concede ground if he wanted a sympathetic ear.

While Ms Whitman has not spoken out strongly in public, often appearing as a Ruto cheerleader, there is evidence that she has quietly applied pressure on areas of concern. It has been whispered in both State House and diplomatic circles that her interventions have forced President Ruto to effect some Cabinet reshuffles, moving Cabinet secretaries from dockets where the US refused to engage with certain individuals.

Read: US, Kenya aim to strengthen ties with new deals

Presidential entourage

It was also notable that a sizeable number of Cabinet secretaries in ministries central to the discussions and agreements signed in the US were missing on the presidential entourage.

Tittle-tattle on the diplomatic circuit suggests that some US visas were withdrawn or denied at the last minute.

The visit is interpreted by many analysts as part of efforts by the US to claw back ground lost in Africa to China on commercial links and to Russia in security relationships, particularly following a string of military coups in West Africa where new juntas have gravitated towards Moscow.

Read: Ruto makes case for African states in US visit

President Ruto cementing his role as a key Washington ally in global geopolitics invariably raises questions as to whether he is becoming a western lackey.

It also remains to be seen how China, Kenya’s biggest bilateral lender and contractor on major infrastructure projects, will respond to the seemingly tilting back towards Washington since the shift to Beijing financiers started when President Mwai Kibaki came to power in 2002.

Much of the reporting on the trip has focused on the ‘big ticket’ pledges of support on security and military cooperation, education, health and communications areas; as well as agreements struck with both government institutions and private corporations on diverse sectors including road infrastructure, the digital superhighway, climate change, clean energy, hydroelectric power, electric vehicles, trade and investments, housing, scientific research.

Largely missing from the conversations were clear indications that the US is also quietly nudging President Ruto towards keener attention to areas that would otherwise be anathema to many in the Kenya Kwanza administration.

Values of democracy

A White House briefing on outcomes from the visit started by highlighting areas that President Ruto’s communications team, either in social media posts or official briefings, chose not to mention.

This includes support for democratic institutions, independent media, civil society, human rights watchdogs, police reform, judicial freedom, and well as transparency and accountability in government.

The briefing released ahead of the visit noted shared values of democracy, governance and human rights. It noted that the endeavour to guard against erosion of political checks and balances, counter misinformation and disinformation, and act against hate-fuelled violence targeting members of vulnerable communities.

There was also the pledge to tackle corruption through strengthening transparent and accountable governance systems, and promoting new areas of cooperation to safeguard rights and freedoms in the face of rising authoritarianism.

The United States has set aside nearly $40 million for democracy, human rights, and governance programmes in Kenya aimed at defending democratic elections and political processes, increasing women’s political participation and leadership, and countering gender-based violence targeting women political and public figures.

The US also committed to supporting independent civil society organisations, noting that President Ruto on May 9 assented to the long-delayed 2013 Public Benefits Organizations Act which codifies global best practices for civil society protections.

It was a surprise locally when President Ruto signed into law the legislation that had been ignored by his two predecessors, Presidents Uhuru Kenyatta (2013 to 2022) and Mwai Kibaki (2002 to 2013); especially as his State House inner circle is populated by figures who do not hide their disdain for media, civil society and other independent institutions that call power to account.

It might be instructive that President Ruto signed the instruments not too long before embarking on the US visit, indicating that there may have been subtle pressure.

The US announced $700,000 in new assistance in this regard, in addition to the $2.7 million already being provided towards civil society oversight of governance processes.

The White House briefing paper also noted an additional $1.3 million programme aimed at strengthening youth political engagement at the local level, and $600,000 for disability inclusion.

In a new initiative of its kind, the US pledged to support investigative journalism in Kenya by helping build linkages between reputable international investigative organisations and select NGOs, media outlets, and citizen journalists.

The aim is to establish Nairobi as a regional hub for investigative journalism and the exposing of issues in the public interest.

The support will also help journalists in their pursuit of public information, a critical area in an environment where the government often holds most official information as secret and largely refuses to operationalise the Freedom of Information Act.

Human rights also featured high on the agenda with both countries committing to upholding the rights of all both domestically and around the world in defending peoples against the forces of autocracy.

Both agreed to bilateral dialogues that reinforce commitments to human rights, as well as a series of engagements with the Kenyan military, police, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs aimed at strengthening collaboration on security sector governance and prevention of atrocities.

More transparency

Corruption was another area tackled, with the US signalling intention to provide $500,000 to make county budget processes more transparent and inclusive and increase citizen engagement; and a further $500,000 to help civil society organisations mobilise citizen campaigns action against corruption.

The US will also support government anti-corruption efforts with $250,000 through the Global Accountability Programme, and $300,000 to bolster whistleblower protection laws and the overall anti-corruption legal framework.

Another $2.7 million will support enhanced enforcement of policy and laws that deal with fraud, waste, and abuse in the delivery of public services to Kenyan citizens.

In an environment where the Kenya National Police Service is notorious for corruption, incompetence and human rights abuses, the US and Kenya jointly announced a new $7 million partnership for police reforms and capacity building.

It will include modernisation and professionalisation of the Service with a focus on staff training and development.

The US also earmarked $4.9 million in new funding for Kenya and other East African countries to combat transnational organised crime and bolster cooperation and coordination within the criminal justice sector.

On democracy, the US further undertook to strengthening institutions for free and fair elections.

The administration will ask Congress for $1.5 million in new technical assistance to support electoral legal framework reform process, targeting the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, political parties, and campaign finance reform.

It hopes to lay the groundwork, says the briefing, for a more inclusive, transparent and peaceful 2027 election.