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The sun sets over a treen in the Tsavo East National Park in Kenya (Damian Patkowski via Unsplash)

Why Kenya Needs US Help to Promote Peace

… at a moment witnessing East Africa’s broadest turmoil in recent memory, and unprecedented climate disasters.

Words: Alex Rondos
Pictures: Damian Patkowski

This week’s state visit to the United States by Kenya’s president — the first by an African head of state in over 15 years — is meant ceremonially to celebrate 60 years of formal US-Kenyan relations. But Kenya’s current importance for America lies in its role as a valued partner, especially on the continent with the world’s fastest-growing population. President William Ruto can underscore both imperatives and opportunities for US roles across the continent that will shape security and prosperity for next generations of Americans and Africans. Urgent issues include averting catastrophic famine in East Africa and activating economic investment to support stability and democratization.

In short, Ruto’s talks with US officials carry a mutual burden of responsibility, and an opportunity, to navigate our world’s current unpredictability to the benefit of both countries.

Amid East Africa’s broadest turmoil in recent memory, and unprecedented climate disasters, Kenya is balancing tough challenges: to sustain democracy, manage heavy debts and meet the political demands of a demographic tidal wave of youth. The United States welcomes a partner in Africa that has tried to sustain democracy and maintain an open economy. These are grounds for substantial discussions and, one hopes, a commitment to concrete actions during the visit.

Ruto’s visit will likely revolve around issues that are difficult but, if addressed imaginatively and boldly, could open strategic opportunities for the United States, Kenya and East Africa.


Wars and climate change contribute to a famine, now looming in the nations around Kenya, that will exceed anything in recent memory and become the next destabilizer in the region. It would be surprising if Ruto were to remain silent at the international community’s apparent indifference, in contrast to the attention and resources devoted to Ukraine and, more recently, Gaza. The scale of potential catastrophe is horrifying. Death by mass starvation is now expected in Sudan. Food insecurity among Ethiopia’s 110 million people could tip into famine. Some 30 million are at risk of starvation in the region. International institutions, tied to a statistical definition of “famine,” often hesitate to use that label until it is too late to save many of its victims. President Ruto may well not mince his words.

He is likely to remind all that famine is the result of proliferating violence in the region. The conflict in Sudan is disintegrating into a web of regional battles and poses grave risks to its neighbors. Sudanese dams along the Nile, vulnerable to these conflicts, are key to the river’s steady flow downstream to Egypt. Sudan’s violence has interrupted South Sudan’s economically vital oil exports, partly by damaging a pipeline that carries them to Port Sudan.

Any effective international response to the famine crisis will require the kind of leadership that the United States can offer. Saving lives and reducing strategic risks will require coordinated political initiatives and protection of critical infrastructure. The region’s conflicts mean that humanitarian responses to famine will need to access Sudan or Ethiopia through Eritrea on the Red Sea, Kenya to the south or Chad to the west. Somalia, to the east, has failed to contain the violent extremism of a resilient Al Shabab movement. The crisis is regional and exacerbated by competing interests in the Gulf region.

Any effective international response to the famine crisis will require the kind of leadership that the United States can offer.

Ruto visits Washington as president of a nation whose own security requires its diplomacy in the surrounding conflicts. Sudan’s civil war has now reached Kenya’s neighbor, South Sudan. Ethiopia’s disorder is on Kenya’s frontier. Somalia’s failure to contain Al Shabab leaves Kenya vulnerable. Kenya has engaged, mostly behind the scenes, to address the disparate violent conflicts across the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia. In recent weeks, Kenya also hosted a reconciliation conference on South Sudan and convened parties to the Sudan conflict. It remains involved in northern Ethiopia’s conflict as a guarantor to the 2022 Pretoria Agreement for a cessation of hostilities there. The dispute between Somalia and Ethiopia is diverting attention from the need for a strategy to build peace among all Somalis, including the extremists of Al Shabab.

Need for Investment

Some 70% of the population in Kenya and much of Africa is under 30 years old. Continent-wide, a tidal wave of youthful discontent is building, and any chance to provide education, livelihoods and hope for their futures requires sustained economic investment now. The recent years’ collapse of most of the Sahel region into communal or extremist insurgencies and military coups shows how quickly such a mass can be radicalized to violence. Ruto will want to see whether the United States understands the strategic gravity of this threat — and the alternative future that Kenya and other African democracies can offer if supported.

The alarming and brutal economic reality is the inverse of what the world needs for an Africa that contributes to global stability in this century: foreign investment in Africa, including Kenya, is shrinking. Africa’s democracy advocates and governance reformists understand that creating conditions conducive to serious and long-term investment begins with their own countries. But they insistently question the external constraints shaped by international institutions and major-power rivalries. Kenyans, like other Africans, describe feeling US pressures against many investments from China. And they lament ways that international sanctions impede investments from Russia. Western finance is too timid, and international financial institutions place conditions that prohibit rapid and timely investment at the scale needed.

Kenya may well press for ways to welcome investors from diverse, even competing, global sources. A test will be whether the United States is willing to work with Kenyans so that their own government and institutions become an effective and transparent gatekeeper for business cooperation among American, Chinese, Russian, Indian, Japanese, and Gulf businesses.

This web of issues forms the background against which Kenya has accepted the difficult mission, proposed by the United States, to send armed police forces to help stabilize Haiti. Legal objections were raised in Kenyan courts and have been overcome. But Kenya has had to confront serious threats to regional peace with military expeditions to Somalia or the Democratic Republic of Congo — and it knows how critically the Haiti mission will need intelligence, communications, logistics and military support in the face of well-armed, hostile, indigenous forces. Given Haiti’s distance from Kenya, Kenyans will assume that the United States is prepared to fill those needs.

This article was originally published by the United States Institute of Peace.

Alex Rondos

Alex Rondos is a senior advisor for USIP’s Africa Center and co-chair of the Institute’s Senior Study Group on Peace and Security in the Red Sea Arena.

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