First batch of 200 Kenya police head to Haiti

National Police Service parade during a past event. [File, Standard]

Barring any further unforeseen roadblocks, Kenyan police officers are set to arrive in Port-au-Prince this week as part of the Multinational Security Support (MSS) mission to Haiti. The final thumbs-up for Kenya’s deployment comes after months of legal battles. 

Parliament and Cabinet had approved the mission to deploy 1,000 officers to the gang-ravaged Caribbean country in November 2023, but the envisaged deployment stuttered following a court ruling that opposed it on judicial grounds and the resignation in April of Haiti’s acting prime minister, Ariel Henry, which put the deployment on hold.

The first group of 200 police officers is now expected to arrive in Haiti on May 23/24, timed to coincide with a state visit by President William Ruto and his delegation to the United States. The deployment comes seven months after the Security Council gave the go-ahead for Kenya to lead the multinational mission.

“Expect the first boots to hit the ground in Haiti. This time we are serious,” a senior official in the Ministry of Interior and Administration of National Government told the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (GITOC).

The elite officers are drawn from Recce Squad, Rapid Deployment Force, and Special Operation Group. The latter have been fighting Al-Shabaab insurgents along the Kenya–Somalia border. They are no strangers to violent armed actors.

Half of the contingent is expected to secure critical installations, including the airport, while the rest will be involved in close-quarter combat against the gangs, which have taken control of over 80 per cent of Port-au-Prince. An advance team of Kenyan reconnaissance officers and top police personnel were sent for special training in the US late last year to prepare them for the mission.

Torn apart by gang violence that has caused an estimated 2,500 deaths in the first three months of this year and an ensuing humanitarian crisis, Haiti appealed for international assistance in 2023, which prompted the UN Security Council to adopt the mission in October 2023. The police contingent volunteered by Kenya will lead the mission, which aims to stabilise the country.

News about the deployment caused initial excitement within the Kenyan security sector but was later almost scampered by a court ruling in Nairobi in January that declared the envisaged deployment of Kenyan police officers unconstitutional.

Justice Chaacha Mwita said the two countries lacked the requisite reciprocal agreement, and that the president did not have the constitutional mandate to deploy police abroad. President Ruto and Ariel Henry had to sign a bilateral agreement on March 1, 2024, to circumvent the court’s ruling.

On the eve of the signing of the agreement, Haitian gangs launched coordinated attacks targeting crucial infrastructure, including the airport. The gangs freed thousands of prisoners after overrunning two jails. Henry resigned, and a state of emergency was declared.

A Transitional Presidential Council (TPC) has since been put in place in readiness for the mission. The Kenyan police deployment initially faced opposition from many sides. It was described as a “multilateral invasion,” and the Communist Party of Kenya likened it to a ‘betrayal of principles and a dance with imperialism.’

Opposition leader Raila Odinga asked MPs not to approve the deployment in the National Assembly. There was also public opposition and scepticism in the media.

“There have been issues to do with the inherent risks of the deployment, State-sanctioned secrecy about the mission, and the behind-the-scenes role of the Americans. This hasn’t been looked at as a Kenyan initiative,” says George Musamali, a Nairobi-based security analyst.

But now, sentiment seems to be shifting from the initial scepticism. There are several possible reasons for this change. The politics of the country have become less conflictual since the 2022 presidential elections. The Government has declared support for Raila’s candidature for the chair of the African Union Commission.

This gesture has thawed the icy relations between Raila and Ruto following the disputed 2022 presidential election. For his part, the opposition leader seems to have mellowed his stance on government policies, including the divisive police deployment to Haiti.

The government has meanwhile discarded its usual bellicosity for more reconciliatory messaging, emphasising how the Haiti mission should be seen as a noble cause – and a viable one, according to a fact-finding mission.

The senior government official explained how Kenya’s position should be seen as part of a multinational collective effort: “It isn’t just Kenya. A number of African countries have expressed their willingness and are ready to deploy to Haiti. Kenya took the lead.”

Several other non-African countries have also pledged support for the Haiti mission. Now, with the cabinet and parliamentary approval sealed and the reciprocal agreement signed, the final piece in the deployment jigsaw is in place, and an elite, trained squad is ready for action. There is, however, one thorn lingering in Kenya’s side – the Kenyan police force’s record of corruption and human rights violations, cited by activists and human rights groups.

A survey by the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) found that 80 per cent of Kenyans believe the police service is corrupt. Meanwhile, a civil justice advocacy group documented 1,264 cases of executions and 237 enforced disappearances from 2017 to 2022 at the hands of the police.

Amnesty International Kenya has called for human rights, accountability, and the safety and dignity of the Haitian people to be at the forefront of the mission. The issues of corruption and human rights have been central in the pre-deployment training of police officers.

The contingent has been warned that officers risk deportation and/or jail if they engage in acts that jeopardise their terms of engagement. “For two weeks we were taken through the laws and constitution of Haiti, as well as discipline and rules of operations while in the field. Any breach would lead to deportation and prison, we were told,” one of the officers said.

The Haiti mission potentially augurs a new international approach to how organised crime actors are tackled. Ensuring international tools are effective in mitigating harm caused by gangs in Haiti is therefore vitally important for the country and the international community.

At this stage, it is unclear, however, under which terms of engagement joint operations between the Kenyan force and Haitian police will take place, and how compliance with human rights obligations and other international requirements will be achieved during the mission, whose duration also remains imprecise.

These operational uncertainties require a response from the Haitian authorities, the Kenyan government, and the international community. While the security situation in Port-au-Prince is still catastrophic and the gangs’ response to the arrival of the police is uncertain, the mission is arousing enormous expectations in Haitian society, as well as scepticism and fears about its ability to resolve the crisis.

According to Musamali, “It is important that the intervention is perceived by the Haitians as truly African or truly Kenyan.”

While it is impossible to predict the success or failure of the Kenyan mission, clear and transparent communication is the essential foundation for cooperation between the local authorities, the Haiti National Police, and the international forces.