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US-Kenyan Relationship: Thinking Beyond Proxy Arrangement

By Faisal A Roble

Despite a high profile reception by Washington, President William Ruto of Kenya could not escape from criticism. Some rebuked him for his willingness to let Kenyan police lead a multinational peace force financed by the US, whose public opinion would not let an American police officer die in the troubled nation next door.  Although many would have liked African nations to come to the rescue of the oldest Black nation created by the Jacobins after defeating France in 1791, many don’t see it feasible for Kenyan soldiers to come all the way to do an impossible job in the northern hemisphere. In a stern message on his facebook page, Ngugui wa Thiong’o, Kenya’s most famous author, challenged President Ruto and called him harsh names difficult to repeat here. 

President Ruto with President Biden at the White House

The question is whether one has to evaluate the visit’s overarching goal from the point of view of Black pride, as Nugugi did, or what could come out of creating close alliance with the most powerful nation on earth. The jury is out. 

Past history dealing with the US is marked with disappointing outcomes; often African client states are considered mere proxy in a bigger competition. As such, one is forced to ask whether this time could be different. For the optimist, it is plausible to say that if executed correctly, the US-Kenya relationship could as well lead to an overall better collaboration, and even perhaps transfer the good deeds to the entire continent.

Let us briefly review Africa’s past contacts with the West, the US in particular. Between slave trade, which deprived the continent of millions of its prime workforce, and the 1884 Berlin Conference, which created inorganic nation states, the West’s contact has inherited the continent a hard-to-recover destruction. Add to that the sustained pillaging of Africa’s resources before and after independence. 

Moreover, the killing of Congo’s popular leader at independence, Patrice Lamumba only to be replaced by Mobutu Sese Seko, Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Ivory Coast, and a host of dictators soured the history of the two sides. The late Walter Rodney and author of “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa ” meticulously located the African maldevelopment to be a direct product of imperial extraction from the continent. Some argue that imperial extraction never ceased.

With the exception of Ethiopia, an ancient and lone empire in the continent, Liberia founded by freed slaves from America, the year 1960 is known as the Year of Africa.” Entirely all partners of the East African Community, a grouping of nine East and Horn of Africa nations where Kenya is the largest economy, also got their independence in that event full year. Indeed, Africa has been free for about half a century but was under colonial bondage for a much longer period. The colonial legacy persists to haunt Africa. 

At independence, some African countries were at a par in development with Newly Industrialized Countries. For example, Ghana’s GDP per capita in 1960 was about $260 versus Korea’s $250 for the same period. In 2023, however, the gap is unthinkable in that Ghana registers an infinitesimal $1,600 versus South Korea’s impressive $30,000. Kenya was and is still less than that of Ghana.

Africa is the most youthful but poorest region in the world. By 2050, about 70% of its population will be under 30 years old. Almost half of the under-30 population of 2.5 billion in the world will be in Africa. However, its economy is minuscal compared to the size of its population. For its 1.4 billion people, it has a combined GDP of about $3 trillion. Compare this to South Korea’s with a population of 51 million and a relatively huge GDP of $1.7 trillion. 

What has transpired in Africa in the last 60 years is a complex political history? Some may argue that Ghana under Kwame Nakrumah took a “socialist” path to development, while South Korea has benefited from its close association with the US between the 1960s and 1980s. It is stipulated that some of these NICs attained what Walter Rusow called the “takeoff” stage in development, thanks to US help. The NICs experienced a robust industrialization but not Africa. 

While it is true the US helped build the infrastructure of its Southeast Assian client states, it approached its African client states from a mere security point of view. Even if one argues that Ghana, with the most developed economy at independence, followed the socialist path to development, that was not the case with countries like Kenya, Ivory Coast, and a host of West African countries. 

If both pro-US African countries and the NICs followed the same Export-oriented development model, which is what the World Bank Groups prescribed, the question that begs serious discourse is why such a model worked for the Southeast Asia clients and not for Africa? What happened to Africa?

Among many scholarly debates, at least one school of thought holds that the West, the US in particular, did not take the US-Africa relations to that level it did with the NICs region. Such a misgiving of the relationship seems to be the cause of critiques such as the one we heard from Ngugi. Or, the gravitation of many African countries to China could also have roots in the disappointing relationship of the last 60 years. 

In the case of the NICs, the geopolitics of US interest went farther than the issue of security; the US was intentional about demonstrating how the liberal economic model and political culture of the West pays off.  With a clear strategy to help develop the economies of the NICs, the US helped in infrastructural development that are key to industrialization, encouraged the private sector to partner with local businessmen and women, and pushed democratization. That, of course, resulted in an impressive growth within a short span of time.

In the case of Africa, however, industrialization policies were not central to the US-Africa relationship. The World Bank Group, under the leadership of the late McNamara in the 1970s, for example,  wasted much time by employing a meek policy called “Income Inequality.” Unlike in the case of the NICs, devastating to Africa was also the West’s notion in the1980s that African states were “soft states,” a blueprint  that diverted aid resources to Western-controlled Non-governmental Organizations (NGO). Neither did IMF’s “structural Adjustment” policies helped Africa. The World Bank Group (WBG)  thus far choked Africa more than it helped. 

Is the Biden-Ruto pact, which designated Kenya as the region’s anchor state, to be different? Can this upgraded relationship go beyond the familiar proxy engagement where the US prioritizes its national security over that of Africa’s need for development and economic growth?

Can Kenya’s arrangement with the US, and hopefully with the rest of Africa, help the continent catch up? Demographically speaking, Africa’s population will impact the world economy as both consumers and producers; it will also impact food issues and climate change. 

In that view, the US must recalibrate its engagement with Africa and be a genuine partner in development and growth beyond securitization of the relationship. Of course, the potential is there, but is the partnership ready to treat Africa beyond the familiar proxy condition? 

The late Ali Masrui, a Kenyan political thinker, theorized how the US-Africa relationship a bond through the history of slave trade. He wondered if that painful history could serve as a positive bond for a genuine collaboration. He argued that three of the wealthiest people of the African diaspora live in the new world (USA and Brazil) and South Africa. A burgeoning Black population outside the continent is an asset Africans could and should cash for development and economic growth. 

Afro-Americans in the US offer much potential in the US-Africa relationship. Former president Obama, whose Harvard-educated father came from Kenya, must bode well for the US-Africa relationship. As noticed at the celebrity-studded Gala reception President Rutu received in Atlanta also signifies the potential role of Afro-Americans in Africa’s affairs in the future. 

The promises of modernizing Kenyan military hardware may or may not help the average Kenyan. The Cold war era taught us that prioritizing the West’s geopolitical interest did not help propel Africa to growth and development. Neither did pouring more weapons into Africa help.

Although president Biden encouraged private investors to partner with Kenya’s business community, the designation of Kenya as a non-Nato ally could end up overemphasizing securitization of the relationship over economic development and place on president Ruto undue pressures for proxy politics. 

Given the complex history of Africa’s politics and inter-regional conflicts, the looming civil war in Ethiopia, and the proliferation of small arms throughout the continent, Africa needs less emphasis on modernizing its weapons. So does Kenya. To the contrary, the continent needs engagement in climate change, investment in infrastructure, and agribusiness so that industrialization can take off. The continent’s youthful population is hungry for jobs and a promising future than drones and the transfer of Pentagon’s discarded fighting helicopters. 

Finally, as President Ruto said many times, the economic formula between the West and Africa must be recalibrated. The current financial instruments offered to Africa, favored by the World Bank Groups and IMF favored Export-oriented or structural adjustment, which denies Africa industrialization but plunges it into the dark chambers of debt traps, will not work. Centering African priorities – industrialization, rethinking of new financial instruments by WBG and IMF, and job-creating infrastructural development – is an idea whose time has come.

Faisal A. Roble
Email: [email protected]
Faisal Roble, the former editor of WardheerNews portal is Principal City Planner and  CEO for Racial Justice & Equity for the Planning Department, Los Angeles City.

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