Kenya to get major non-NATO ally status during president’s US state visit

President Joe Biden will extend major non-NATO ally status to Kenya during the three-day state visit by the African country’s leader this week, two U.S. officials confirmed.

Kenya will become the first sub-Saharan nation to receive the designation, which allows the recipient country to obtain more sophisticated weaponry from the United States and engage in closer security cooperation.

The new status is an upgrade in the relationship between the two nations — one that could give Washington greater influence in East Africa. Both countries already have a longstanding counterterrorism relationship, working together to combat the al-Shabaab terrorist group that has launched deadly regional attacks for decades. Kenya is also part of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, a coalition of about 50 nations that meet regularly to coordinate on how best to arm Kyiv against Moscow.

“If any country in Africa that does not already have the status has a prima facie case for being designated a major non-NATO ally, it is Kenya,” said J. Peter Pham, a former top Africa official in the Trump administration.

The growing bond between Washington and Nairobi comes as the Biden administration worries about China’s growing sway on the African continent, in addition to Russia’s ties with Kenya. Even though Biden has yet to travel to the continent, as he promised to do, the major non-NATO ally status might serve as a consolation and sign of intent.

Judd Devermont, who until this year led Africa work in Biden’s National Security Council, said, “Upgrading how we partner with Africa has been an important through line during our administration.” In 2022, the White House released a sub-Saharan Africa strategy and that December held a U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit.

President William Ruto is in Washington for three days to meet with Biden and discuss multiple economic and security matters, namely the deployment of 1,000 Kenyan police officers to curb gang violence in Haiti. The new status, which is largely symbolic, could offer more legitimacy to Kenya’s mission.

The Associated Press first reported on the expected move.

Kenya will become the 19th country to be named a major non-NATO ally, the most recent addition since Biden bestowed the title on Qatar in March 2022. Three other countries on the African continent — Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia — have already gained the status.

The U.S. is not treaty-bound to come to such a country’s defense as it would be with actual NATO allies. But the designation, according to the State Department, provides “certain benefits in the areas of defense trade and security cooperation.