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Haiti, trade top agenda as Kenya's Ruto makes historic state visit to US

By RFI
Kenya AFP - LUIS TATO
MON, 20 MAY 2024 LISTEN
AFP - LUIS TATO

Kenyan President William Ruto is this week making the first state visit to the US by an African leader in 15 years. The crisis in Haiti, where Kenya has pledged troops to quel gang violence, is topping the agenda – as are trade and security partnerships.

Ruto will meet US President Joe Biden in Washington on Thursday for talks that will largely focus on Kenya's plan to lead a UN-backed multinational mission to restore order in Haiti. 

Nairobi has offered to send 1,000 military personnel. While several other countries have pledged forces, the US and other major nations have ruled out putting their own troops on the ground.

A first contingent of Kenyan police is expected to make the 12,000-kilometre journey to the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince this week – despite a fresh court challenge in Nairobi against the deployment.

Money for Haiti mission

Ruto has defended what he calls a "mission for humanity" in the western hemisphere's poorest nation, which has suffered from poverty, political instability and natural disasters for decades.

But a new lawsuit filed last week is seeking to hold Ruto's government in contempt for "blatantly" ignoring a January court order prohibiting the deployment as unconstitutional and illegal.

Funding could also prove a stumbling block for the mission.

The US is the largest backer of the force, pledging more than $300 million since the Haiti crisis intensified several years ago, but other countries have been slow to offer support. 

Ruto will demand "the US do more to rally financial support for the UN basket fund", said Meron Elias, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.

"Kenya also wants the US to commit greater backing to stemming the flow of arms into Haiti, including from US ports in Florida."

Trade deal  

Having begun his US visit in Atlanta on Monday, Ruto is due to meet a congressional delegation on Wednesday to call for the extension of a free trade agreement – the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) – which eliminates import tariffs on goods from eligible African nations.

The pact expires in 2025, prompting African leaders to seek clarity on any future arrangements.

Most of Kenya's imports are from China – also one of its biggest bilateral creditors – and Washington has been keen to eat into Beijing's clout in the region. 

Kenya began talks with the United States on a free trade agreement in 2020 but nothing has been signed.

'Extremely disappointed'

A request for Ruto to address a joint session of Congress fell through after Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson declined to extend an invitation.

Last week, Democrats accused Johnson of disrespecting Africa, saying they were "extremely disappointed" by the decision.

The last African leader to address Congress was Liberia's Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the continent's first female elected head of state, in 2006.

The visit "feels a bit like a fig leaf" for Africa, the Center for Strategic and International Studies said, as it comes after Biden broke a promise to visit Africa last year.

Kenyan historian Macharia Munene also cautioned that Nairobi's future relationship with Washington would hinge on the outcome of the US presidential election in November. 

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