This article examines Kenya-US relations from a historical perspective, as a background for analyzing its prospects under Joe Biden’s presidency. The US was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with Kenya immediately after the country gained its independence in 1963. This was partly due to Cold War geopolitical considerations, including US perception of Kenya’s strategic location in the fight against the spread of communism in Africa.1K. Waweru, The Kenya Socialist: Classes and Class Struggles in Kenya (Nairobi: Vita Books, 2019).
Since the end of the Cold War, relations have remained largely cordial, and gained further traction when Kenya joined in the US-led global war on terror, having suffered a major terrorist attack by associates of Al Qaeda in 1998, during which the US embassy in Nairobi was bombed. The emergence of the Islamic militant group, Al Shabaab, around 2006 in neighboring Somalia also posed a threat to Kenya’s security.2J. D. Nyunya Olewe, “Towards Understanding U.S.-Africa Relations During the Cold War Era,” in The United States and Africa: From Independence to the End of the Cold War, eds. Macharia Munene, J. D. Olewe Nyunya, and Korwa Adar (Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers, 1995), 177-92. Following Kenyan military intervention codenamed Operation Linda Nchi (Operation Protect the Nation) in Somalia in 2011 to fight Al Shabaab militias, members of the group launched retaliatory strikes on targets in Kenya in 2012, 2013, 2015, and 2019 in a series of deadly terrorist attacks. The bombings also targeted other US and Israeli investments in Kenya. These attacks drew the US and Kenya closer than ever before.
Apart from close diplomatic and economic ties, military cooperation in the fight against Al Shabaab formed a critical part of Kenya’s relations with successive US administrations. The US provided logistical support and weapons to Kenya’s military in order to deter these threats and elevated its military bases in Mombasa and Lamu.3David Moore, “Reading Americans on Democracy in Africa: From the CIA to ‘Good Governance’,” The European Journal of Development Research 8, no. 1 (June 1996): 123-148. Both countries started to conduct joint military training programs with the British, and Kenya also received additional military aid and equipment, including military drones.4P. L. Ploch, “US-Kenya Relations: Current Political and Security Issues,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, 2013. Although military cooperation within the framework of the war on terror was elevated during the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, it declined slightly under Donald Trump.
Under Joe Biden’s presidency, there are certain expectations that the new US administration will pay more attention to and provide adequate support for addressing the fallouts of the terrorist attacks borne by Kenya over the years. These include supporting Kenya to neutralize continued threats posed by terrorist groups, particularly Al Shabaab, dealing with extremist and radicalized groups within Kenya, and providing development aid to the country. Given its growing debt profile, including growing concerns about the proportion of debts owed to China, the US and other donor countries can provide support in the form of economic investments, increased trade, and equitable aid packages that can help Kenya catalyze economic growth, fight the Covid-19 pandemic, while also reducing its external debt burden. It is against this background that this essay interrogates how Joe Biden’s presidency will likely engage Kenya differently from the way Donald Trump’s presidency did.
A Brief History of Kenya-US Relations
The US was one of the first countries to which Kenya deployed a full ambassador. Ever since the first ambassador, Burundi Nabwera, was posted to the US in April 1964, there was overwhelming good will between the two countries. Through the cooperation between Ambassador Burundi Nabwera and Tom Mboya, a political leader and one of the country’s founding fathers, Kenya sent over 2,000 students to study in the US through the famous Kenya-US airlifts in the 1960s. The airlifts helped Kenya to stabilize as far as high-level human resources were concerned.5R. Stephens, Kenyan Student Airlifts to America 1959-1961. An Educational Odyssey (Nairobi: East Africa Educational Publishers, 2013). Given the background of the Cold War, there was tremendous pressure on Kenya from Western countries to turn the country into a bastion of capitalism, and a buffer against the spread of socialism from neighboring Uganda under Milton Obote and Tanzania under Julius Nyerere.6Goran Hyden, Beyond Ujamaa in Tanzania: Underdevelopment and an Uncaptured Peasantry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980). However, Kenya joined the neutral states under the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) founded by President Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India, President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, and Ghana’s President Kwame Nkrumah.
The US and other Western countries invested heavily in Kenya within the context of their Cold War strategic calculations.7M. Munene, Historical Reflections on Kenya: Intellectual Adventurism, Politics and International Relations (University of Nairobi Press: Nairobi, 2012). Many Western countries established their diplomatic missions in Nairobi and by 1965, Kenya had over 20 diplomatic representations, the highest in Africa at the time. Largely due to US diplomatic influence, Kenya became the only African country selected to host two United Nations agencies, the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) and United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN-HABITAT) which elevated Nairobi to the most favored diplomatic station in Africa. US-Kenya relations also developed rapidly as a result of military cooperation, by taking advantage of Kenya’s geographical location to pursue US strategic interest in containing the spread of communism. Many western international NGOs and foundations established local offices in Nairobi. Such organizations included the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Action Aid International, Oxfam International, and CARE International, among others.
Following the changing geopolitical landscape in Africa at the end of the Cold war, US engagements with Kenya experienced some changes. These included the introduction of Western economic and political programs aimed at the promotion of market-based economic reforms, human rights, and multiparty democratization. In this regard, US support for dictatorships in Africa changed under President Bill Clinton. The US policy on democracy was articulated by Ambassador Smith Hempstone (1989-1993), who openly supported the nascent political opposition in Kenya.8S. Hempstone, Rogue Ambassador: An African Memoir (University of the South Press: Tennessee, 1997). Kenya-US relations experienced another major shift after September 11, 2001, when Kenya became an important ally in the fight against terrorism. The election of Barack Obama in 2008 as the first Black president of the United States (the product of a union between a Kenyan father and American mother) also boosted Kenya-US relations and fueled high expectations on the Kenyan side. At the official level, US support for Kenya’s military in dealing with Al Qaeda cells in East Africa and the Al Shabaab menace in Somalia has grown. Kenyan troops currently serve in southern Somalia as part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) with massive logistic support from the US.
In the economic realm, the Obama presidency helped in improving Kenya’s economic fortunes through direct foreign investment and foreign aid. The US government lifted many tariffs and enhanced market access for Kenyan goods based on the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), and through policies promoted by United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and World Trade Organization (WTO).9P. Nyinguro, “United States Policy and The Transition to Democracy in Kenya, 1990-1992,” Political Science, University of South Carolina, Department of Government and International Studies Program in Political Science, 1999. Many Kenyan agricultural products, such as tea and coffee, entered the US in larger amounts, thereby improving the country’s economic fortunes. The US President’s Fund for Aids Relief (PEPFAR) and the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria (Global Fund) also lent support to the fight against diseases in Africa, including Kenya.
Kenya-US Relations during the Donald Trump Administration
During the Trump presidency, Kenya-US relations declined partly due to the US’s focus on the Middle East, particularly the fight against Middle East-based terrorist and extremist groups, including the Islamic State, the containment of Iran’s nuclear ambitions and containment of the fallouts from the Syrian crisis.10S. M. Waiyengo, O.E. Opongo, and W.E. Wahome, The State and Nation-Building Processes in Kenya since Independence: Remembering the Marginalized and Forgotten Issues and Actors (Langaa RPCK: Cameroon, 2019). However, Kenya continued to receive traditional support through USAID and other bilateral engagements.
Trump was not an avid supporter of African countries, and his reference to some of them as “shithole” countries (though he later denied this) did not go down well with many Africans.11I. X. Kendi, “Unthinkable: The Day “Shithole” Entered the Presidential Lexicon,” The Atlantic, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2019/01/shithole-countries/580054/. Although President Uhuru Kenyatta visited Washington, DC, and met with Trump twice, in 2018 and 2020, some observers note that the benefits were not as significant as when he visited Obama in the White House. President Trump reportedly proposed reducing military aid, direct grants and aid to Kenya.12Tele-SUR, “Trump Proposes Cut to More than Half of US Aid to Kenya,” Tele-SUR, March 14, 2019, https://www.telesurenglish.net/news/Trump-Proposes-Cut-to-More-Than-Half-of-US-Aid-to-Kenya-20190314-0002.html. The US reduction of funding to UN agencies, many of which, including UNEP and HABITAT, operate out of Nairobi also indirectly affected Kenya. Although Kenya experienced a reduction in economic support from the US during the Trump Presidency, there are high expectations that this situation will change for the better during Biden’s presidency.
Kenya-US relations are likely to improve during Biden’s presidency, similar to the close ties enjoyed during the tenures of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Expectations in Kenya are high that the country will receive an increased level of support from the US under the new administration. This is partly fueled by the belief that US presidents belonging to the Democratic Party, such as Obama, have always given Kenya more resources in the form of aid and grants as well as special programs focusing on Kenya.13“Country Development Cooperation Strategy,” USAID Country Development Cooperation Strategy 2014-2020, May 2014, https://www.usaid.gov/sites/default/files/documents/1860/USAID_Kenya_CDCS_Public_Full_Color_May_2014_updated20202.pdf. Kenya is also expected to benefit from improved direct and indirect foreign investment and debt waivers. It is, therefore, hoped that Joe Biden’s Africa policy will make Nairobi the nerve center of its operations on the continent.
Other areas likely to benefit from improved relations include agriculture, trade, security/military cooperation, and training. The Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) are likely to receive continued or increased logistical equipment, training programs, and military hardware support in its war against terror and violent extremism. In the cultural realm, Kenya may likely benefit from scholarships and exchange programs such as the Fulbright program which were drastically reduced under Trump. In addition, US state and non-state democracy-support and poverty reduction programs for civil society and grassroots organizations are also likely to resume and get a fresh lease of life. It is also likely that US funding for refugee programs may increase, and Kenya will benefit as a host to the biggest refugee camps in the world, such as Kakuma and Dadaad refugee camps. Kenya’s membership of the UN Security Council (UNSC) could be of benefit to Biden’s administration, which may seek to leverage upon Kenya’s strategic position to engage with Africa in many issues, among them its engagements with China. There is also a good chance that ongoing reforms of US immigration policy under Biden will ease traveling between both countries.
The prospects for Kenya-US relations are bright under the Biden presidency, but these are not without challenges linked to pressing domestic priorities on both sides. For example, President Biden faces challenges posed by an economic crisis at home, including mobilizing resources to support over eleven million unemployed Americans in the midst of a Covid-19 pandemic that has claimed many lives and continues to pose a major challenge to public health. There is no doubt that, faced with such formidable domestic demands, the US would need to carefully balance such demands against its pressing foreign policy priorities that are linked to its global leadership. However, it is unlikely that this will dampen the expectations of improved relations under Joe Biden’s presidency. US support would benefit Kenya’s trade, economic growth, and security and help in dealing with the adverse effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Kenya can also continue to partner with the US on several fronts. Security cooperation aimed at countering violent extremism and terrorism in Kenya and the greater Horn of Africa will also contribute towards stability and regional integration in East Africa. Kenya can also leverage upon its position in the UNSC to advance African interests at the global level, and also elicit the support of the US in bolstering Kenya’s diplomatic leadership internationally. Other areas that can be explored at the bilateral level include infrastructure support, migration and refugee policy, cultural exchange, ICT, external debt management, and tourism.
- 1K. Waweru, The Kenya Socialist: Classes and Class Struggles in Kenya (Nairobi: Vita Books, 2019).
- 2J. D. Nyunya Olewe, “Towards Understanding U.S.-Africa Relations During the Cold War Era,” in The United States and Africa: From Independence to the End of the Cold War, eds. Macharia Munene, J. D. Olewe Nyunya, and Korwa Adar (Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers, 1995), 177-92.
- 3David Moore, “Reading Americans on Democracy in Africa: From the CIA to ‘Good Governance’,” The European Journal of Development Research 8, no. 1 (June 1996): 123-148.
- 4P. L. Ploch, “US-Kenya Relations: Current Political and Security Issues,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, 2013.
- 5R. Stephens, Kenyan Student Airlifts to America 1959-1961. An Educational Odyssey (Nairobi: East Africa Educational Publishers, 2013).
- 6Goran Hyden, Beyond Ujamaa in Tanzania: Underdevelopment and an Uncaptured Peasantry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980).
- 7M. Munene, Historical Reflections on Kenya: Intellectual Adventurism, Politics and International Relations (University of Nairobi Press: Nairobi, 2012).
- 8S. Hempstone, Rogue Ambassador: An African Memoir (University of the South Press: Tennessee, 1997).
- 9P. Nyinguro, “United States Policy and The Transition to Democracy in Kenya, 1990-1992,” Political Science, University of South Carolina, Department of Government and International Studies Program in Political Science, 1999.
- 10S. M. Waiyengo, O.E. Opongo, and W.E. Wahome, The State and Nation-Building Processes in Kenya since Independence: Remembering the Marginalized and Forgotten Issues and Actors (Langaa RPCK: Cameroon, 2019).
- 11I. X. Kendi, “Unthinkable: The Day “Shithole” Entered the Presidential Lexicon,” The Atlantic, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2019/01/shithole-countries/580054/.
- 12Tele-SUR, “Trump Proposes Cut to More than Half of US Aid to Kenya,” Tele-SUR, March 14, 2019, https://www.telesurenglish.net/news/Trump-Proposes-Cut-to-More-Than-Half-of-US-Aid-to-Kenya-20190314-0002.html.
- 13“Country Development Cooperation Strategy,” USAID Country Development Cooperation Strategy 2014-2020, May 2014, https://www.usaid.gov/sites/default/files/documents/1860/USAID_Kenya_CDCS_Public_Full_Color_May_2014_updated20202.pdf.