Kenyan President William Ruto during an interview in Nairobi last week.

Kenyan President William Ruto during an interview in Nairobi last week. (Eduardo Soteras for The Washington Post )

NAIROBI - Kenyan President William Ruto’s state visit to Washington this week - the first by an African president since 2008 - highlights the deepening ties between Nairobi and Washington even as Russian mercenaries, Chinese loans, wars and coups are rolling back U.S. influence elsewhere on the continent.

Chad and Niger, formerly staunch U.S. allies, both asked American troops to leave their territory this year. Diplomatic heavyweight Ethiopia, once a key ally in Africa, is infuriated by U.S. allegations of gross human rights violations and ethnic cleansing during its recent two-year civil war. Washington’s fervent support for Israel has also put it at odds with continental players such as South Africa and Egypt, which have been vocal critics of the war in Gaza.

So the United States increasingly turns to Kenya: to broker cease-fires and negotiations; contribute to international peacekeeping operations in hot spots like Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Haiti; and gain support on topics ranging from Ukraine’s war to climate change.

“Kenya is the anchor state in east and central Africa,” Ruto said in an interview, ticking off initiatives Nairobi is shepherding: peace talks between the government and small rebel groups in South Sudan; negotiations to defuse tensions between Somalia and Ethiopia; and as a guarantor of the fragile deal that ended Ethiopia’s bloody civil war.

Before the end of this month, 200 Kenyan police officers will also head to Haiti, the first contingent of a force of 1,000, Ruto said. The United States is helping fund the year-long deployment to help stabilize the Caribbean island nation after gangs seized control. Kenyan police are themselves frequently accused of brutality, executions and enforced disappearances, although those numbers have slightly declined since Ruto took power and put an officer dubbed “Kenya’s Killer Cop” on trial.

Kenyan soldiers are also serving in neighboring Somalia as part of an African Union peacekeeping mission fighting insurgents linked to al-Qaeda. The mission deployed in 2009 and is due to end this year, but planning documents seen by The Washington Post indicate some troops - including Kenya’s - may stay on bilaterally. Kenyan troops also served in the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo but left late last year after Congo’s president blamed the multilateral peacekeeping force for not doing enough to fight the rebels.

Ruto says the fragility of many African governments means the United States must do more to bolster democracy with development funds.

“America needs to show up,” he said. “We live in a region where democracy is under threat. … Being a democracy, being a country that believes in the rule of law, must count for something. Democracy must deliver.”

The clearest way to ensure that, he said, is to revamp the international financial architecture and make sure countries who underwent reforms can access funding with favorable terms to finance development.

“It’s difficult to drive any meaningful development if you are accessing development resources at double digits,” he said, pointing out that between 60 and 70 percent of Kenya’s budget goes to loan repayments, even before recurring costs like salaries.

Some of those repayments are for Kenya’s $4.7 billion Chinese loan for a high-speed railway to the coast that ended up being shunned by the freight importers it was meant to attract. The previous government - in which Ruto was vice president - signed off on the loan but kept the onerous terms under wraps until Ruto published some of the documents in 2022.

“We made our documents public because it was public resources,” he said in the interview. More than 150 nations have Chinese loans; the terms are often opaque and the interest rate much higher than those of multilateral development institutions like the World Bank.

Kenya’s messy, vibrant democracy has generally grown more entrenched since multiparty elections were reintroduced in 1992. There was, however, a crisis following the disputed 2007 election that sparked deadly riots and ethnic cleansing, killing more than 1,200 people. The International Criminal Court charged Ruto and five others with crimes against humanity linked to the violence. The case was dropped in 2016.

Yet Kenya pulled through. Its 2010 constitution enshrined key rights, power was decentralized in the 2013 elections, and in 2017, the judiciary cemented its independence when the Supreme Court overturned the election of the sitting president on technicalities and forced a rerun. Ruto’s 2022 win unseated a ticket backed by the nation’s two most powerful political dynasties.

But despite the warm Washington welcome, Ruto’s popularity at home has been hammered by inflation, a raft of unpopular new taxes and government profligacy. Farmers were infuriated to find the government was supplying them with fake fertilizer, editorials raged at revelations that officials spent tens of thousands of dollars on a single chair, and current coverage has focused on the cost of the luxury private jet hired to take the Kenyan team to the United States.

Ruto and his deputy have expanded the budgets for their offices, while doctors at state-run institutions have been on strike for months, demanding a living wage. And the National Ethics and Corruption Survey published a review saying the average bribe that Kenyans were forced to pay last year had nearly doubled over the previous year.

“I am not afraid of taxes, but I don’t want them to buy a comfy seat for a governor’s fat bottom,” taxi driver Francis Maina said with a chuckle.

Ruto dismissed the criticism, pointing out that his policies avoided default on foreign loans, nearly halved inflation, stabilized a wildly oscillating foreign exchange rate and reduced the cost of staples like flour.

The government’s latest challenge: After three years of intense drought withered crops, unusually heavy rains have flooded swaths of the country, killing more than 267 people. Ruto’s government ordered homes illegally built near waterways to be demolished.

“The decision we have made as a government may not be popular, but it is the right decision,” Ruto said firmly.

But only buildings in poor neighborhoods were targeted. Half a dozen people, including three children, were killed by bulldozers. More than two dozen activists who helped residents protest the demolitions were arrested, their offices raided, and they were charged with incitement.

Josephine Mwakali, who earns just over a dollar a day scavenging recyclable plastic waste, lost everything she had ever worked for - and her last-born son. She had left 4-year-old Joseph behind while she fished the storm-swollen sewers, and a bulldozer crushed him to death. The government ordered them to leave 48 hours previously but did not offer any alternative accommodation or help, she said. She hasn’t seen a penny of the promised $75 compensation for her home, and no one from the government has come to see her about her dead son.

“We have heard many good words and promises,” she said bitterly. “They have given us nothing.”

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