How’d Congress Lose Kenya’s Address? A Misstep in Redefining the US-Africa Relationship

This week, Kenyan President William Ruto will be the first African leader to receive an official state visit since President George W. Bush invited Ghanaian President John Kufuor in 2008. President Ruto is traveling to Washington to mark the 60th anniversary of US-Kenyan diplomatic relations. But unlike several foreign leaders recently welcomed at the White House, including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, President Ruto won’t be delivering a formal speech to Congress. While a joint session featuring the Kenyan head of state had the backing of House Foreign Affairs Committee leadership, Speaker Mike Johnson declined to extend an invite citing scheduling constraints. That’s a disappointment and a missed opportunity for US lawmakers.

An invitation to address Congress would have been an opportunity for the US to demonstrate its commitment to cultivating an approach towards African countries that is built on respect, mutual interest, and partnership on equal footing. While the platform itself isn’t the most important or effective way for the US government to support Kenyans, it would have sent an important signal that US policymakers are interested in hearing the African perspective directly.

Hosting President Ruto in the chamber also could have served as an important step toward rectifying the lack of prioritization Congress has shown leaders of African countries historically. The last African leader to address Congress? Former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf over 18 years ago. In fact, she’s the only African leader to address Congress in the 21st century. (A stat which reminded us of our colleagues’ 2015 analysis highlighting how African leaders had quite often been snubbed from White House State Dinner invitations, as well.)

Kenya is one of Africa’s most dynamic economies, the largest historical beneficiary of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, and a strategic security partner in the region. The country is also leading the UN multinational mission to tackle gang violence in Haiti, an initiative backed by strong support (financial and otherwise) from the US.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee recently advanced a bill to require the State Department to host a US-Africa Leaders Summit at least once every four years, underscoring clear bipartisan interest in strengthening cooperation with African governments. Hosting President Ruto for an address could have been a significant step in that endeavor. Instead, we’re left with a decision that feels like a step back—a moment of progress unceremoniously denied.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

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