Kenya Protests Are a Blow to Biden’s Embrace of President Ruto

The street turmoil that swept Kenya’s capital on Tuesday represented a blow to the Biden administration’s tight embrace of President William Ruto, a strong U.S. ally on a continent where American influence is rapidly waning.

Just a day earlier, President Biden had formally named Kenya a major non-NATO ally, and Mr. Ruto had seen off a first group of 400 Kenyan police officers headed to Haiti on a contentious security mission that is largely financed by the United States.

The non-NATO ally designation, which clears the way for greater security cooperation between Kenya and the United States, was one of the main outcomes of Mr. Ruto’s state visit to Washington last month, the first by an African leader in 16 years. At the White House, the Kenyan leader was feted with a state dinner that included celebrity guests and former President Barack Obama, whose father was Kenyan.

For Mr. Ruto, the state visit was the high point of a globe-trotting presidency. He has visited dozens of countries since being declared the winner of a fiercely contested presidential election in August 2022. For the Biden administration, it was an opportunity to cement a major relationship in Africa at a time when rivals like Russia and China have expanded their influence.

However, Mr. Ruto’s domestic support has plummeted over tough economic measures that he said were necessary to get Kenya’s ailing national finances back on track. Many Kenyans, particularly from the middle classes, felt they were being forced to pay more than their fair share — especially as Mr. Ruto’s government showed few signs of cracking down on the top level corruption that has plagued Kenyan governments for decades.

The discontent set off days of protests that reached a nadir with the turmoil on Tuesday, when police fired tear gas and weapons during protests near Parliament in Nairobi. Amnesty International and several civic groups said that at least five people were killed.

At a news conference in Washington on Tuesday, Matthew Miller, a State Department spokesman, condemned the violence, saying, “We mourn the loss of life and injuries sustained and offer our condolences to the families who lost loved ones. We urge restraint to restore order and provide space for dialogue.”

And the U.S. Embassy in Kenya joined with 12 other Western embassies to release a statement on Tuesday saying that they were “shocked” by the scenes around Kenya’s Parliament and “deeply concerned” by allegations that some protesters had been abducted by the security forces. The statement called for “restraint on all sides.”

Mr. Ruto enjoys a famously close relationship with the U.S. ambassador to Kenya, Meg Whitman, a former American business executive who last summer accompanied him on a tour of Silicon Valley that included visits to Google, Apple and Intel.

Ms. Whitman, a former C.E.O. at Hewlett-Packard and eBay, has become a vocal advocate for American businesses to set up in Kenya, a thriving hub of tech startups and innovation sometimes called Africa’s Silicon Savannah.

American and Kenyan officials say that Mr. Ruto and Ms. Whitman often speak informally on the phone, sometimes with little notice. Ms. Whitman has drawn strong criticism from Kenyan opposition leaders who say she shows Mr. Ruto excessive favor.

“I want to tell the rogue ambassador, leave Kenyans alone,” Raila Odinga, a veteran opposition leader who lost the contested 2022 election to Mr. Ruto, said last August.

Mr. Ruto had also won support from Western nations for his strong advocacy of radical reforms to the international financial system, and more debt relief, to spur economic growth across Africa.

He has pushed for greater African representation at the top of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which are dominated by rich countries, and for inward investment by companies that can take advantage of the massive renewable energy in countries like Kenya.

Until recently, he seemed to be getting places: During Mr. Ruto’s Washington visit, Microsoft and an Emirati artificial intelligence firm, G42, said they would invest $1 billion in a green data center in Kenya, the country’s largest ever digital investment.

Michael Levenson contributed reporting.

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