East vs West: Kenya’s big play in the United States

Author: Karoli Ssemogerere. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • Moving around in Nairobi, you get a feel you are in a global city. A young city governor has directed that Nairobi must now grow skywards. 

The first quarter 2024 belonged to Uganda. Uganda successfully hosted the Non-Aligned Movement Summit and the South-to-South Cooperation.  In 2023, Uganda also hosted the AU-Coffee Summit bringing together heads of state and government to designate coffee as a strategic crop.

The second quarter 2024 was a different story, Kenya President William S. Ruto was hosted to a State visit in the United States, the first African President to be so hosted since 2008 when Ghanaian President John Kufuor was hosted at a State dinner at the White House. State Dinners by diplomatic tact, are big affairs. President Joe Biden has only hosted six such dinners in his entire presidency. The icing on the cake for Ruto, was the fact that he met not one, but three American presidents; Bill Clinton, Barack Obama who were also on hand to support their Democratic counterpart who is in a fight of his life campaigning for re-election.

In the second row behind Kenyan top officials including Defence Cabinet Secretary Aden Duale, one of the the architects of Ruto’s presidential victory in 2022, was US Ambassador Meg Whitman, the former CEO of E-Bay.

The US trip is already the second of Ruto’s presidency. Meg Whitman’s first trip with Ruto last year introduced him to Silicon Valley. In 2023, Kenya averted a major financial crisis when it averted default on the Eurobond issued by his predecessor Uhuru Kenyatta. Already the Kenya Shilling has clawed back half its losses in a short time from trading as high as Kshs150 to the greenback to Kshs128 to the greenback.

Kenya’s commercial interests have a healthy tension between road and rail. A few years ago, Kenya launched the Standard Gauge Railway from Naivasha to Mombasa. Shortly before the 2022 General Election, Kenya unveiled the Nairobi expressway, which connects with the Thika expressway. It makes riding to the airport as smooth as it would be in the first country. Our expressway terminus has more beauty, the Nairobi one has a feel of efficiency. You usually get to the security checkpoint without much of an ado. The expressway exchange in Abayita Ababiri is dominated by sirens during the day and on some days at least two accidents a day as motorists struggle to slow down coming off the expressway onto local traffic.

In Ruto’s trip, a 440km six lane toll expressway was announced to improve climate change.  In the last 10 years, the surrounding places of Machakos, in the East, Ngong in the North and Kajiado in the South, Nakuru in the West have all become part of greater Nairobi. Moving around in Nairobi, you get a feel you are in a global city. A young city governor has directed that Nairobi must now grow skywards. Tiny towers starting in the Covid pandemic on all sorts of properties are rising.

Meg, it appears, is a working Ambassador. She loves her job. A Republican who unsuccessfully ran for US Senate, she is an internationalist, cut from the sack of luminaries like Mitt Romney and the late Senator John McCain. She has now cemented Kenya into the arms of the West. Already the British use Kenya as a military staging ground.

When you land in Nairobi, you will accept, the excess of European and American travellers overwhelms you. In the evenings, the airport is similarly overwhelming as a global exodus rushes through security for the night flights. It threatens to overshadow the fact that Jomo Kenyatta is Africa’s second busiest airport hub after Addis Ababa. In April, I surprised my colleague and client, a Ugandan lawyer, when I bumped into her, after she arrived on a Uganda Airlines commuter flight from Entebbe, and I on a British Airways Flight from London.

Sandwiched between the volatile but mineral and resource rich Great Lakes region, the Middle East and Asia, the Kenyans are making the most of this opportunity. Last year, Ruto added the Foreign Affairs docket to the Prime Cabinet Secretary’s office. Three peaceful presidential transitions, movement from one party to multi-party. A competitive political system. The Senate is tied, Americans understand that well between Kenya Kwanza and Azimio. And the National Assembly is 179 for the majority and 158 for the minority.

Americans love that narrative of global gridlock. If Ruto is complaining to Biden about being hamstrung, he will be told, in America too, the economy and politics thrive on gridlock.

Mr Ssemogerere is an Attorney-At-Law and an Advocate. [email protected]