5 reasons why Kenya’s state visit to US is a big deal

TheGrio was on the ground as Kenya President William Ruto visited the White House for a range of engagements with the Biden-Harris administration.

U.S. President Joe Biden, First Lady Jill Biden, Kenyan President William Ruto and his wife Rachel Ruto wave together during an arrival ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House on May 23, 2024, in Washington, D.C. During the state visit, Ruto and Biden will participate in a bilateral meeting, a joint press conference and state dinner. Ruto’s visit is the first official state visit to the White House by a leader from an African country since 2008. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

TheGrio was on the ground as the Biden-Harris administration welcomed Kenya President William Ruto and First Lady Rachel Ruto to the White House for a series of engagements to celebrate 60 years of bilateral partnership between the two nations.

On Thursday, the White House held an arrival ceremony for President and First Lady Ruto. Hundreds gathered on the South Lawn, adorned with American and Kenyan flags.

In an apparent effort to connect the Black diaspora between African-Americans and Kenyans, the White House invited the Howard University gospel choir to serenade attendees with soulful renditions of the Black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and other gospel selections.

During his opening remarks, Biden named the United States and Kenya two “proud democracies” committed to leaning on the “power of the people and the strength of our diversity.” The president said that after six decades, the two nations are ready to “write the next chapter and our partnership together” amid modern and historic global challenges and strategic goals related to climate change, economic growth, technological advancement, and more. 

“The past is our proof that we are stronger and the world is safer when Kenya and the United States work together,” the president said.

Here are five reasons why Kenya’s state visit this week is a big deal both domestically and globally. 

Kenya hasn’t had a state visit since 2008

Kenya’s official state visit marks the first such visit in nearly 20 years and is the first African nation to make an official state visit since President Joe Biden entered office. The last time a Kenyan president came to the White House for a state visit was in 2008 under President George W. Bush. 

The White House rolled out the red carpet for Kenya’s president, first lady, and delegation, which will culminate with an elegant candle-lit state dinner Thursday night. TheGrio attended a preview of the dinner with First Lady Jill Biden, who shared the decor and dinner menu for dinner guests. The summer-inspired menu included chilled green tomato soup, lobster, and short ribs on top of kale, corn puree, roasted turnips, sweet potatoes, and squash, and a white chocolate basket with fruits for dessert.  

Kenya visit follows unfulfilled promise from Biden

U.S. President Joe Biden shakes hands with Kenyan President William Ruto during an official state arrival ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House on May 23, 2024, in Washington, D.C. During the state visit, Ruto and Biden will participate in a bilateral meeting, a joint press conference and state dinner. Ruto’s visit is the first official state visit to the White House by a leader from an African country since 2008. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

President Ruto’s state visit invitation came more than a year after President Biden convened 49 African leaders for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, where he committed to visiting Africa. A U.S. president has not stepped foot in Sub-Saharan Africa since President Barack Obama visited Kenya and Ethiopia in 2015.

Amid global crises in Ukraine and Gaza and only months until Election Day, it was unlikely that Biden would be able to travel to Africa before the end of his term. Some saw the Kenya state visit as a constellation for Biden’s unfulfilled promise. On Thursday, the White House announced that if President Biden is reelected in November, he will travel to Africa in February 2025. Such a U.S. visit would signal America’s commitment to expanding its diplomatic relations with the continent.

In the absence of President Biden visiting the continent, Vice President Kamala Harris visited Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia. Other Biden-Harris officials who visited Africa include First Lady Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan.

Biden aims to bolster Africa on the global stage

President Biden has sought to boost Africa’s global standing through the U.S.’ renewed partnership with Kenya and other African nations. In 2022, he called for the African Union to become a permanent member of the G20 group of the world’s largest economies. 

“Africa belongs to the table in every room … where global challenges are being discussed, and in every institution where discussions are taking place,” Biden said at the time. 

On Thursday, during Ruto’s state visit, Biden continued his commitment to centering Africa by announcing that he would designate Kenya as a major non-NATO ally, which would come with some defense trade benefits.

Additionally, the U.S. has invested more than $300 million toward the Kenya-led security mission into Haiti to help quell the violence that has overtaken the Caribbean nation amid political instability and economic turmoil. Though the military mission has been criticized by some Haitian advocates, Pan-African activists have applauded the effort.

Joseph Tolton, an African policy expert and executive director of the advocacy group Interconnected Justice, told theGrio that he appreciates “the Pan-African sensibility” and “the fact that an African nation is going into Haiti to try to stabilize the country and bring peace.”

Kenya embraces U.S. vision of democracy 

U.S. President Joe Biden and Kenya’s President William Ruto shake hands during a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on May 23, 2024. President Biden announced that he intends to name Kenya as the first major non-NATO U.S. ally in sub-Saharan Africa, as he welcomed Ruto for a landmark state visit. (Photo by ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images)

As threats to democracy as an institution spread around the world amid government coups, neighboring invasions like in Ukraine, and the rise of authoritarian regimes, President Ruto, during his U.S. trip, reiterated his commitment to protecting democracy globally. 

Tolton, who was present for Ruto’s visit to the Carter Center in Atlanta on Monday, told theGrio that the Kenyan leader’s full-throated commitment to democracy was significant as authoritarianism spreads across the continent amid major conflicts that have resulted in political coups and democratic declines. 

“He knows what’s happening in our body politic and the threat that Trump is, and so for him to be so clear in that regard, I thought was of note that he’s clearly going to align himself with democracy going into our election,” said Tolton. 

In a United States-Kenya Joint Leaders’ statement released on Thursday, both Biden and Ruto said they are committed to “upholding the human rights of all,” including women and marginalized groups, and bolstering the “integrity of democratic institutions.”

Even as an anti-LGBTQ bill moves through Kenya’s Parliament, Tolton expressed optimism that Ruto’s commitment to democracy and upholding human rights gives the U.S. leverage to convince the Kenyan president not to sign such a bill into law. President Biden’s administration has been a vocal opponent of a similar bill in Uganda, which resulted in the African country being sanctioned by the U.S.

“Perhaps the leverage that the United States can help to give him is deepening our economic ties with Kenya because their economy is reeling at the moment,” said Tolton.  

Economic relief and growth for Kenya and Africa

Though Kenya has emerged as a leader in clean energy and digital transformation in AI and beyond, the nation has been economically crippled by crushing debt. In concert with President Ruto’s state visit, President Biden called on creditor nations to lessen the economic load for Kenya and other developing nations. 

The president’s proposals include providing better financing terms and incentivizing private investments. The White House also committed billions of dollars in lending to international financial institutions and called for other nations to do the same. Additionally, Biden’s administration committed to increasing trade and investment with Kenya, which would benefit workers, consumers, and businesses. The two nations said they are working toward finalizing an agreement by the end of 2024. 

Looking toward building Kenya’s economic future, the U.S. is also leading public-private investments in the African nation’s education and health sectors. To learn about the commitments of the U.S.-Kenya partnership, visit the White House’s fact sheet here.

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