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US fielding new charges of hypocrisy over Kenya

US fielding new charges of hypocrisy over Kenya

Is the Biden administration downplaying crackdowns because it needs President Ruto's police in Haiti?


Weeks of unprecedented upheavals in Kenya have focused a searchlight on United States’ foreign policy objectives in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Of special interest in the unfolding conversation are two interrelated issues: the first being President Biden’s designation of his Kenyan counterpart, William Ruto, as one of America’s closest allies, and the second being the deployment of Kenya’s police on a foreign mission to restore order in troubled Haiti — both occurring at the very moment that Kenya’s police have carried out serious human rights abuses against Kenyan citizens.

Mere weeks after Biden hosted Ruto in an elaborate state visit in May which ended with the U.S. designating Kenya as a “major non-NATO ally,” the East African country erupted into deadly protests that have seen state security forces kill nearly two dozen protesters while injuring 300 others in a brutal crackdown that has attracted widespread condemnation.

According to human rights groups in Kenya, the numbers killed could be anywhere between 39 and 200, reflecting both the chaos and gravity of the situation.

The youth-driven protests, coordinated via TikTok and other social media sites, was sparked by anger over Ruto’s introduction of a finance bill, part of International Monetary Fund-mandated reform package to raise extra tax income in order to plug the deficit in the country’s budget as it reels under a huge sovereign debt burden.

Within a space of six years (Between 2014 and 2020), Kenya’s debt interest payment as a share of revenue rose from 11% to more than 20%, leading to a massive depletion of reserves alongside a 19% depreciation of the Kenyan national currency, the shilling, against the U.S. dollar.

After days of protest that saw rampaging youth in Nairobi storm the parliament, the offending bill was withdrawn in a last-ditch attempt to douse tension, but the protests and deadly clashes have continued, prompting the United States to issue a statement last week “urg[ing] restraint to restore order and provide space for dialogue.”

But the statement has drawn flak from within the United States and abroad. Amnesty International USA, for example, complained that Washington had not gone far enough and demanded instead that President Biden “loudly condemn police violence against peaceful protesters and enforced disappearances; including [by] speaking with President Ruto directly.”

The human rights group further stressed that the fact that the brutal crackdown was taking place “immediately after President Ruto was given the highest U.S. diplomatic honor by President Biden demonstrates that the U.S. has continued to fail to prioritize human rights in its relationship with Kenya.”

This echoes widespread popular distrust in Africa of the U.S. and other Western nations. “The U.S. cares more about this government being in power over the wellness of the citizens of Kenya,” Muoki Abel, a Kenyan activist involved in the ongoing protests, told Responsible Statecraft. “The U.S. are part of the forces behind what ails Kenya today,” Abel added.

In a protest that has seen slogans such as “IMF, World Bank, Stop the Modern Day Slavery,” gain currency amidst calls for Ruto to resign, Washington makes an easy target for anti-West sentiment. For example, the U.S is the largest financial contributor to the IMF and World Bank — the two global financial institutions many in sub-Saharan Africa have come to associate with mounting debt and austerity.

Yet during his state visit, Ruto and Biden launched the Nairobi-Washington Vision to seek relief for debtor nations alongside a commitment by the U.S. to make available new funding of up to $21 billion to reinforce IMF assistance to poor countries struggling with debt repayment.

Kenya has long been a key trade and security partner of the U.S. in East Africa. Among other assistance provided by Kenya, it has played a significant role in combating al-Shabaab in Somalia. But many young Africans like Abel believe that this relationship only benefits the West and Africa’s privileged elite while leaving ordinary people grappling with poverty and unemployment.

“U.S. officials are entirely aware of the long history of repression and human rights abuse in Kenya, but this has not deterred them from prioritizing short-term U.S. needs and interests over the long-term welfare of the Kenyan people,” Samar Al-Bulushi, an assistant professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, and a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute, told Responsible Statecraft.

As the protests flared, a detachment of Kenyan police backed by the U.S. deployed to Haiti on a multinational security support mission to tackle powerful, heavily armed gangs that have taken control of much of the Caribbean nation since early this year.

Critics allege that Washington is reluctant to criticize Ruto more harshly in major part due to its gratitude for deploying his police — a move reportedly opposed not only by popular opinion in Kenya, but also deemed illegal by Kenya’s supreme court. Some of the police officers deployed to Haiti were reportedly selected from a unit of the Kenya police force, the Recce Commandos, which has been accused of involvement in previous crackdowns on domestic protests in Kenya, as well as in security operations in Somalia.

“The Kenyan government's willingness to lead a U.S.-backed and funded police intervention in Haiti will ensure that U.S. officials continue to look the other way when it comes to the domestic concerns in Kenya, including the unlawful crackdown on protests,” according to al-Bulushi, who recently authored the book, "War-Making as World making: Kenya, the United States, and the War on Terror.”

Once more, the upheaval in Kenya demonstrates the dilemma facing U.S. foreign policy in the context of a region beset by insecurity amid Great Power competition. This challenge, also known as “the Africa policy trilemma,” underscores the difficulty of simultaneously promoting democracy, combating violent extremism, and finding one’s way in a world in which great powers are competing for influence.

With Russia making successful inroads into the region while practicing a policy of non-interference in its client states’ domestic affairs, the U.S. may find itself out-maneuvered.

In this light, Washington’s warm reception for Ruto back in May despite his controversial past reflects “a degree of U.S. pragmatism,” Fergus Kell of London’s Chatham House told Responsible Statecraft.

Kell,who works in the think tanks’s Africa Program, explained that the U.S. faces “increasingly limited options for strong bilateral partnership on the African continent.”

But pragmatism is one thing; ignoring glaring acts of human right abuses committed by an ally is another. Especially at a period when there has been a broader erosion of U.S. and Western influence on the African continent amid a wave of “popular” military putsches, the White House ought to be mindful that such an approach can add to growing irritation towards Washington among the region’s civil society and vast youth population.

Earlier in April, Niger’s junta asked U.S. forces to depart the landlocked West African country following a coup last year on the heels of a similar pullout by France from its former colonies in the Sahel. Relations with previously strong American partners such as Uganda, Rwanda, and South Africa have also declined in recent years.

Thus, the Kenya conundrum is an opportunity for Washington to reevaluate its foreign policy objectives in Africa. The key to moving forward is to resolve the dilemma at the heart of the issue itself, which is: what gets the highest priority between a values-based foreign policy and an interests-based one?

Obviously, making a choice between the two is not going to be as easy as it sounds because of what is at stake but as Kell advised, “the U.S. should avoid a temptation to approach relations solely through a prism of great power competition.” Instead, Washington should take “a strong line on encouraging restraint by the Kenyan security forces in engaging with demonstrations and emphasizing the legitimacy of freedom of expression,” he added.

It should also continue to stress support for resolving broader global challenges that have contributed to Kenya’s fiscal malaise, particularly those around affordable financing while prioritizing “deep support for African economic transformation via industrialization, beneficiation and technology transfer[by] offering a more comprehensive alternative to piecemeal and opportunistic Russian engagement.”

An injured man reacts during a demonstration over police killings of people protesting against the imposition of tax hikes by the government, in Nairobi, Kenya, July 2, 2024. REUTERS/Donwilson Odhiambo.

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