Over the last few weeks, Kenya has hosted some elite security leaders from the United States. Midway through January, the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), William Burns, came calling, winning the attention of the Head of State.
A few days later, the Commander of the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) visited his own, meeting the Kenyan defence leadership led by the Cabinet Secretary for Defence, Adan Duale, and the Chief of the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF), Major General Francis Ogola. Details of the meetings remain scanty, providing fertile ground for speculation. What is not in doubt, though, is Kenya’s overall value to the United States’s global power calculus.
A few pointers give reliable hints to bear this out.
Last week, on January 23rd 2024, Kenya was among the 24 countries that gave a joint statement condemning the continued attacks by the Yemeni-based Houthis in the Red Sea. Kenya was one of the only two countries from Africa, alongside Guinea-Bissau. Curiously, none of the Horn of Africa countries bordering the Red Sea was part of the statement.
In October 2023, President Biden personally registered his appreciation, via a phone call, for Kenya’s acceptance to lead the Multinational Security Support (MSS) mission to Haiti. Incidentally, the High Court has since declared the move unconstitutional. Thirdly, the exponential increase in the role of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) points to the shift.
Specifically in the region, there is little doubt about Kenya’s leading role as the US’s geostrategic ‘staging post’ in the latter’s quest to exercise control. With the surge in tensions and flare-ups within the regions, Kenya’s value to the US can only rise. Visible hotspots include the protracted civil war in Sudan, the fallout between Ethiopia and Somalia over a port deal with Somaliland, a persistent dispute between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and a diplomatic fallout between Rwanda and Burundi. Kenya has registered fallouts of its own with the DRC, Tanzania and Uganda.
But what is Kenya getting by sticking her neck out? In the US mind, it is currently negotiating a bilateral trade deal with Kenya, the Strategic Trade and Investment Partnership (STIP). Kenya also continues to be a key beneficiary of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). Further, a few US corporate giants, including in the sporting world, have identified Kenya as their regional hub. National Basketball Association (NBA) is among the latest high-profile brands to set base in Kenya. Additional investments in the health sector would feature in the list. But is Kenya getting a fair bargain in the engagement with the US, and its Western allies more broadly? Can it secure a better deal?
It is a fair point to make that Kenya, and indeed the Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) region, is yet to scale the heights of the US’s economic ladder. The continent has yet to excite America’s humongous economic might. The few investments in Africa barely scratch the surface of the US economic system. It raises little curiosity as to the US’s general disinterest in investing in infrastructural projects in the SSA.
The global order has fundamentally shifted over the last few decades. The rise of China has particularly dented the US’s global dominance as known before. The continued emergence of other powers, such as India, sustains the shift. Any foreign policy would hardly turn a blind eye to such a dynamic, especially when offerings from rival powers provide complementary benefits. Various countries have appeared to drive a hard bargain to get the best out of such a configuration. For instance, President Biden’s initial hostility to Saudi Arabia upon assuming power withered, with the latter’s move to openly embrace China. Just recently, Turkey put to good use its NATO veto power to secure F-16 fighter jets from the US by tying it to the approval of Sweden’s admission to the military alliance.
It is hardly an express persuasion that Kenya’s foreign policy powerfully exploits the current global order. It appears caged into one corner of the order, lacking the stamina to make calculated shifts. Hopefully, the recent visit by Prime Cabinet Secretary Musalia Mudavadi to China and Kenya’s move to join the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) marks the start of optimal policy re-balancing. In a multipolar order, it would be unwise for Kenya to operate a unipolar policy posture. It even runs counter to the realization of some pledges made by the Kenya Kwanza administration, particularly the ambitious infrastructural projects.