South Korea received delegations from 48 African countries, about 25 of whom were heads of state and governments. Photo: Statehouse Nairobi.   

By Sylvia Chebet

The Kenyan economist XN Iraki sees the universal law of attraction through the prism of his academic discipline.

"Africa is like a beautiful girl; every man wants her hand," he declares, alluding to the just-concluded inaugural 2024 South Korea-Africa Summit that took about 25 heads of state and governments from the continent to Ilsan and Seoul.

The June 4-5 event was the latest in a series of similar African summits hosted by Russia, Italy, China, and France.

Like Africa's other suitors, Seoul has pledged billions of dollars' worth of investments to the continent.

"To boost cooperation with Africa, South Korea will expand the ODA (Official Development Assistance Programme) to around (US) $10 billion until 2030,” President Yoon Suk Yeol announced to the gathering.

"South Korea will also provide 14 billion dollars in export financing," he said.

To Iraki, a professor at the University of Nairobi's School of Business, anyone who denies the scramble for Africa "is either asleep or sleepy."

Snooze and lose

The US appeared to have gone into hibernation after its 2014 Africa Summit, losing ground to China economically and to Russia on the security front.

Presidents Joe Biden and William Ruto walk with their spouses to the White House Pavillion for the State Dinner on May 24, 2024. Photo: Statehouse Nairobi

But this May, Washington rolled out the red carpet for President William Ruto of Kenya. The White House state dinner during that visit was the first for an African leader in 15 years.

"We are launching what we are calling a Nairobi-Washington vision," President Joe Biden said during a joint press conference with Ruto at the White House.

"This initiative is going to bring together international financial institutions to mobilise more resources for countries saddled with debt, to open more opportunities for private sector financing, and to bring more transparent, sustainable and affordable lending practices."

For his part, President Ruto categorically stated that the East African country was facing neither East nor West but "forward." He said the US had an opportunity to radically recalibrate its influence in Africa.

"America needs to show up," Ruto said. "Being a democracy, being a country that believes in the rule of law, must count for something. Democracy must deliver."

Pundits saw this as an acknowledgement that the US had fallen behind and needed to catch up.

In a display of renewed momentum, Biden announced Congress' plan to designate Kenya as a major non-NATO ally.

NATO factor

Formed to counter the erstwhile Soviet Union and its allies, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has existed for 75 years. Its stated purpose is to guarantee security and freedom for European and North American countries at both ends of the Atlantic Ocean through its political and military resources.

"So, in simple terms, being a non-NATO ally means that you can access some military hardware, software and intelligence, hopefully making you a more secure country," Iraki tells TRT Afrika. "But you may not get as much protection as a member of NATO, such as being defended if attacked."

He points out that since receiving the status of a major non-NATO ally, three African nations — Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt—have benefited from military hardware and are now considered among the strongest armed forces in the Middle East and North African region.

Kenya will be the first sub-Saharan country and the 19th nation to be designated a major non-NATO ally. Photo: Statehouse Nairobi

Once the US Congress approves, Kenya will become the 19th country to be named a major non-NATO ally, and the first in the sub-Saharan Africa region.

But there is a flip side to this. "I fear that by openly showing our (Kenya's) alignment with the US, we create new enemies. The big question is whether the benefits outweigh the risks," says Iraki.

The economist and commentator also raises another concern. "Kenya is probably breaking its Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) status by being a non-NATO ally."

However, many analysts believe NAM's influence is fading as lines blur in an increasingly multi-polar world. Now, countries are seeking alliances that serve their interests.

No free lunches

The US counts Kenya among its stable democratic partners on the continent, valuing its contribution to peace and security efforts in troubled countries such as Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Haiti.

While this strategic collaboration has lasted 16 years, analysts read more into America's recent benevolence towards Nairobi. The US's influence in Africa has faded over the past 50 years and is seizing the opportunity to make a comeback.

"I think the US also says we cannot leave the continent's resources to China alone. It wants as big a stake," says Iraki.

President Ruto returned home from his three-day state visit with a slew of goodies, including the $3.5 billion Nairobi-Mombasa expressway project and a $7 billion security deal.

The US is also sending 16 helicopters and approximately 150 armoured vehicles to enhance Kenya's participation in peacekeeping missions.

A section of analysts forecast that the East is likely to respond with more trade and investment offers to counter the US.

"We hope that we will benefit from both the East and the West in the long run. As they say in Swahili, tutapita kati kati yao (we will go right through the middle)," says Iraki.

Defining interests

Korea-Africa Summit

Based on the renewed growth momentum, experts recommend that the world's most dynamic continent needs to define its strategic interests clearly to reap sustainable benefits from its wealth of mineral reservoirs.

"I am sure you have noticed that nowadays couples have a prenuptial agreement before they marry," says Iraki. "If we don't have well-defined interests, we will be taken advantage of."

The economist emphasises that ordinary citizens at the bottom of the pyramid ought to feel the impact of these partnerships or alliances first and foremost.

"At the end of the day, people want money in their pockets, whether their governments are facing East or West," he says. "It has to be a story of all-round economic growth. A win-win for everyone."

TRT Afrika