Haiti: Kenya's mission exposes officers to risky, untested waters

Armed gangs patrol a street in Haiti. [Courtesy]

As the government crosses its fingers hoping that the courts will unblock its intention to intervene in Haiti, it is training five of its most elite security formations to face marauding criminal gangs in a country where past stabilization missions, led by world giants such as the United States, France, Canada and Brazil, have failed.

A new report by the UN has called for the urgent deployment of foreign forces in Haiti terming the gang violence there as “cataclysmic.”

"Across Haiti, at least 3,960 people have been killed, 1,432 injured and 2,951 kidnapped in gang-related violence this year alone," said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk, in a report on Tuesday.

"The situation in Haiti is cataclysmic. We are continuing to receive reports of killings, sexual violence, displacement and other violence, including in hospitals,” he said.

The report said the situation in the capital Port-au-Prince has worsened and the police are unable to stop it. Additionally, gang violence has now started expanding to rural areas worsening an already bad situation.

Units getting ready

The five units Kenya is readying for deployment to Haiti are the General Service Unit’s Elite Reconnaissance Combat Unit (Recce Squad), Administration Police Border Patrol Unit (BPU), Rapid Deployment Unit (RDU), Anti Stock Theft Unit (ASTU) and the Special Operations Group (SOG).

The units will be supported by drivers, nurses, mechanics and other support staff from the Administration Police, plus ordinary platoons from the GSU completing what is set to be one of the most formidable police fighting units ever sent by Kenya to a foreign mission.

The Recce Squad, which is perhaps the most known among ordinary Kenyans due to the exploits of its commandoes during the Garrisa University and Dusit D2’s terror attacks, will be used to support and reinforce the AP units as they carry out security operations in Port-au-Prince.

The BPU, RDU and ASTU are expected to translate their experience in guarding Kenya’s borders, fighting the Al-Shabaab and bandits into neutralizing the heavily armed but untrained gangsters in Haiti. They will be supported by the SOG who are experts in hunting down and neutralizing the toughest terrorist cells.

All the special units that will be deployed in Haiti have received overseas training including from the globally acclaimed US Antiterrorism Assistance (ATA) programme. The US has also pledged $100 million (Sh14.7 billion) to support the mission in Haiti.

“The United States remains committed to Kenya to bring stability in the region and beyond. We deeply appreciate Kenya’s friendship and leadership,” said the US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin when he visited Kenya in September.

Weaponry and training

According to diplomatic observers, getting Kenyan officers in Haiti will pay triple dividends. They say that the move will cement Kenya’s position on the global peace as Kenya’s security forces are currently involved in both Somalia and the DRC. Haiti’s mission will also help in modernizing the police force in terms of weaponry and training while at the same time giving Kenya much needed foreign revenue.

Once in Haiti, the Multinational Security Support (MSS) will work alongside Haitian National Police including training and equipping local officers “to counter gangs and improve security conditions characterised by kidnappings, sexual and gender-based violence, trafficking in persons and the smuggling of migrants and arms, homicides, extrajudicial killings, and recruitment of children by armed groups and criminal networks.”

Additionally, the mission whose mandate will last an initial one year will guard critical installations such as the main airport, seaport, schools and hospitals but will be compelled to use force only when proportionate.

Kenya’s offer to lead a multinational force has however been met with skepticism from Haitians and Kenyans alike. Many have questioned whether the officers being sent to Haiti have the technical capability to take on ruthless armed gangs in close combat and on an unfamiliar terrain, and without conversational ability of French language that is used locally.

While the security forces heading to Haiti have experience battling the al-Shabab Islamist militant group, bandits in the North Rift and slum residents during riots, they will be on alien ground once in Port-au-Prince. Additionally, they will significantly be outnumbered by the gang members who are about 30,000.

“We have never failed. We'll succeed there too," said Inspector General of police Japheth Koome.

Despite the IG’s confidence, he will probably have to borrow lessons from the UN mission, which despite having 9,000 boots on the ground in Haiti failed to restore order after a controversial 13-year-mission. The force had been deployed to Haiti in June 2004 through a UN approved stabilization mission after former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown in a rebellion organized by a street gang. The chaos that followed forced the US, Canada and France to send their soldiers who were later replaced by a Brazilian-led UN mission.

The 9,000-strong UN mission collapsed in 2017 amidst accusations of sexual abuse, dumping infected sewage from one of its camps into a river, causing a cholera outbreak that killed 9,000 people. Since then, no nation on earth has been willing to take its soldiers to Haiti until Kenya offered to do so at a time when the situation has moved from bad to worse as Haiti slides into a failed state status.

“Kenya had been involved in restoring peace in Somalia, South Sudan and the DRC and Haiti would not be any different,” the IG said.

Most of the peace missions referred to by Koome have primarily been carried out under the auspices of the UN in predominantly rural or sparsely populated areas.

However, the situation in Haiti presents an entirely different ball-game as the Kenyan security forces will not be operating under the command structures of the UN. Instead, they will be spearheading a MSS mission aimed at restoring security in Haiti and creating an environment conducive to holding free and fair elections. 

Pledged support 

Several other nations, including the Bahamas, Jamaica, Italy, Spain, Mongolia, Senegal, Rwanda, Belize, Suriname, Guatemala, Antigua and Barbuda, and Peru, have also pledged their support, but it is Kenya alone that has fully committed to deploying its police officers on the ground. This leaves the responsibility for whether Haiti will be able to conduct elections in 2024 or not squarely on the shoulders of the officers whom Kenya will dispatch to Port-au-Prince.

The last time Haiti held an election was in 2016 when Juvenel Moise was controversially elected in a close poll against his closest challenger Jude Celestins. Moise was assassinated in his presidential palace in July 2021 just two years after a 13-year long UN mission was pulled out.

Since Moise’s death, Haiti has had no president. The constitutional mandate of Haiti's current ruler, Prime Minister Ariel Henry ended in 2022. The country’s senate is supposed to have 30 members, and its parliament 119. All those seats are unfilled as elections keep being postponed.

Power vacuum

With no democratically elected leaders since 2021, gangs have stepped up to fill the power vacuum. In December last year, the UN estimated that the gangs-controlled 60 per cent of Haiti’s capital. Other sources however say the gangs control up to 90 per cent of Port au Prince including a major fuel offloading terminal.

About of four people are kidnapped daily in Haiti, according to UN. In 2022, there were at least 2,200 gang-related murders in the capital alone.

“Killings, sexual violence, including collective rape and mutilation, continue to be used by gangs every day and in the context of ineffective service support for victims, or a robust justice response,” UN Special Representative for Haiti, María Isabel Salvador, told the UNSC on October 23.

“The Haitian National Police can only achieve lasting results when public security is restored, and the State resumes its functions, especially in disadvantaged neighbourhoods prone to gang activity,” she said.

Unfortunately, the Haiti National Police is severely understaffed, with only 15,498 officers. This translates to a police-to-population ratio of 1.3 officers per 1000 citizens, falling far short of the UN benchmark of one officer for every 450 individuals. In stark contrast, there are over 30,000 gang members spread across the country, belonging to approximately 200-300 different gangs, with nearly half of them operating in Port-au-Prince. 

Achuka writes for NativNews, a security reporting project of Steward Africa. [email protected]