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U.S.-Kenya New Partnership: Shifting the Horn of Africa’s Balance of Power?
By Abukar Sanei
Wednesday May 29, 2024


In December 2002, former President George W. Bush welcomed Daniel arap Moi of Kenya and Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia to the White House. The timing of the invitation of the two African leaders is straightforward. About a year and three months ago by the time the meeting takes place, the tragic event of 9/11, the most heinous act of terrorism in the U.S. soil, happened, and the agenda of the meeting with Moi and Zenawi was to bring both leaders on the table as “partners” against the “global war on terrorism.” As it was reported by the BBC, the two leaders were described by Bush as "two strong friends of America... two leaders of countries which have joined us to fight the global war on terrorism.” After the brief address by Bush, both Moi and Zenawi spoke as they underscored their full support of the war on terror. Mr. arap Moi stated that he was most concerned with the security in and around his country and the global fight against terrorism. President Moi’s security concern “around his country” was mainly referring to Somalia. On the other hand, unsurprisingly, the language used by Zenawi was more stronger than the language of Moi as Zenawi affirmed his belief that the war against terrorism “is a war against people who have not caught up with the 21st century; people who have values and ideals that are contrary to the values of the 21st century.” He continued noting that the war “is not a fight between the United States and some groups; it's a fight between those who want to catch up with the 21st century and those who want to remain where they are."

Eventually, Zenawi was “crowned” as the trusted partner in the Horn of Africa to execute the agenda of the “global war on terrorism,” and the target country that eyes should be kept on was Somalia. Zenawi had gone above and beyond in his ill-advised interferences in Somalia politically and militarily. In 2004, he played a key role in the establishment of a warlord-led transitional government in Mbagathi, Kenya. In mid 2006, with an overwhelming popular support, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) came to power as they defeated the warlords who failed to provide the Somali people neither governance nor security. However, Meles invaded Somalia as he crashed the ICU and due to his illegal invasion, al-Shabaab was born as they increased their operations inside Somalia as well as their threat to the wider Horn of Africa region. In 2007, the first batch of the African Union forces mostly Ugandans for peace-keeping mission came to Somalia as Meles “withdrew” his forces from Mogadishu after a severe battle and resistance from the people of Mogadishu.

As the “global war on terrorism” that Bush started continues today, Ethiopia, under the current condition, has failed to be a reliable partner, and the U.S. must look for another partner that can continue the mission. As a result, President William Ruto was found to be the ideal partner for the continuation of the war against terrorism. The objective of this article is three folds: what is the U.S.-Kenya new partnership? What does the partnership mean for the Horn of Africa, and finally, the article will conclude by addressing the implications for Somalia regarding the U.S.-Kenya new partnership.

What is the U.S.-Kenya’s New Partnership?

On May 22, President William Ruto came to the United States for an official state visit to the White House. President Ruto’s visit is described as the first state visit by an African president to the White House since 2008. However, the question is what is the U.S.-Kenya’s new partnership, and what does this new partnership mean for the region? According to the White House communication, the strong partnership between Kenya and the United States is based on four pillars. The first pillar is to designate Kenya as a major non-NATO ally. This pillar is to strengthen the security of the two countries and countries around the world. Even though this designation may have a wider objective, it can be attributed as a reward for the recent decision of Kenya to send 1000 police forces to Haiti. The second pillar is to launch what is termed as “the Nairobi-Washington vison.” Under this pillar, it is stated that the objective is to mobilize resources for countries saddled by debt, open opportunities for private sector financing and promote better lending practices. Cooperation on technology is the third pillar of the partnership. The aim of this pillar is “to bolster Artificial Intelligence (AI), semiconductor, and cybersecurity partnerships as well as expanding STEM education and internet access across East Africa.” The fourth pillar of the partnership between Kenya and the United States is “strengthening people to people partnership.” The objective of this pillar is to enhance the democratic principles that connect between the two people.

With those four partnership pillars, however, security is the top critical element of the new partnership between Kenya and the United States. The security pillar can be considered as the main objective behind Ruto’s state visit to the United States. In his address at the White House reception, President Ruto stated that he is confident that the partnership between the United states of America and Kenya will provide solutions that the world so seriously needs. Mr. Ruto touched upon the “heavy lifting Kenya is doing” when it comes to peace and security in the Horn of Africa and Great Lakes regions. Even though the Great Lakes is mentioned here, the critical security threat that the United States and Kenya are partnering with is the one that emanates from the Horn of Africa. In order to suppress the threat from al-Shabaab, Kenya invaded southern Somalia in 2011, and then officially became a member of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). However, al-Shabaab targeted Kenya three times in the last two decades. In 2013, al-Shabaab attacked Westgate Mall in Nairobi and killed sixty-seven shoppers. In 2015, the terrorist group carried out a horrific attack at Garissa University with 148 people dead, and in 2019, al-Shabaab targeted Dusit D2 Hotel around Westland area and killed about 21 people.

What does the U.S.-Kenya New Partnership Mean for the Horn of Africa?

In order to address the challenges, the United States wants a reliable partner in the Horn of Africa, and at this moment, Kenya is the only country that can fulfill the conditions for three reasons. First, with some fragility that may show up after elections, Kenya can brag that it is a democracy compared to any other country in the East Africa region. Kenya’s transition to democracy started in 2002 after Daniel arap Moi, who ruled the country from 1978, left office. In 2007, Kenya was a brink of collapse as ethnic war erupted after Raila Odinga rejected the election results that gave victory to his rival, Mwai Kibaki. However, in his address at the White House during the welcoming event, President Ruto described his visit and the relationship between the United States and Kenya as a sign of friendship, partnership and collaboration between two countries that share common values of freedom democracy rule of law equality and inclusivity. It is important to note that Kenya’s democracy has been maturing since 2013, and the last election is a testament for this as the well- established Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of the first Kenyan President, was defeated by William Ruto, an individual with no establishment in the elite system that the British colonial power left behind.

Second, unlike other countries in the East Africa region, Kenya has an open door for foreign investors as it is also a hub for the East African economy. This brings a positive investment climate that makes Kenya attractive to international firms seeking a location for regional or pan-African operations. This is an area that the United States wants to tap for its multi-national corporations by competing with other economic rivals including China, which has a huge infrastructure investment in Kenya. However, Ruto’s objective is to bring foreign investment to his country as multi-national corporations attract Kenya’s labor force as he claims that he is neither facing West nor East, but facing forward.

Third, Kenyan Defense Forces (KDF) have established their presence in southern Somalia, and this will continue in the foreseeable future whether it is under ATMIS or under unilateral or bilateral agreement with the Somali government. It is also possible that Kenya will play a leading role in any post-ATMIS combat operations against al-Shabaab in Somalia. As it is designated as a non-NATO ally – the only country in the sub-Saharan Africa to be given in that status, Kenya will receive all the material support that it needs to confront the security threat posed by al-Shabaab in the Horn of Africa. Through a coordination with AFRICOM, the material support that Kenya will receive from the United States will include AI and cybersecurity as it is stipulated in the pillar three of the new partnership. Finally, it is important to note that the U.S.-Kenya new partnership has revealed that the security partnership between Ethiopia and the United States on the “war against terrorism” that started in 2002 has come to an end as Kenya is now the official reliable partner in dealing with the security challenges in the Horn of Africa.

The Implications for Somalia

By the way of conclusion, the question is what are the implications for Somalia regarding the U.S.-Kenya new partnership? Somalia is not only unstable in security wise; it is also unstable politically as Somalis cannot even agree how to govern themselves. This is a sad reality, and that is why there is African Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) in the country. The insecurity of the country due to the threats of al-Shabaab, and the political impasse among the elites enable the countries with strategic interests to effectively plan for their interventions. This is why the new partnership between United States and Kenya was introduced.

By looking at the security conditions in Somalia with critical eyes, the planned drawdown of ATMIS forces, which is scheduled for December 2024, is uncertain. Even though President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud started a war against al-Shabaab, a total liberation of the country from al-Shabaab will take time. However, there are two scenarios that are likely to happen. The first scenario is that it is possible to extend the ATMIS timeline for another year as this decision will be made by the UN Security Council before the end of 2024. The second scenario is that another African Union mission with the leadership of KDF will be initiated sometime in 2025. In the process of these two scenarios, Somali officials will, of course, be consulted, but the final decision will be made by the Security Council.


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