Police Diplomacy: Is Kenyan police trying to take a knife into a gunfight in Haiti?

Members of the G9 gang coalition in Haiti talk to reporters near the perimeter wall that encloses Terminal Varreux, the port owned by the Mevs family, in Port-au-Prince on Oct. 6, 2021. [AP Photo]

The recent announcement by Foreign and Diaspora Affairs Minister, Alfred Mutua, that Kenya will lead a “multinational police force” in crisis-hit Haiti has ignited a wave of speculation and skepticism about the motivation behind this decision.  

A Kenyan police delegation led by Deputy Inspector General of Police Noor Gabow returned from Haiti on Wednesday after landing in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince a week ago for a reconnaissance mission. 

The 10-person delegation met senior police staff early on Monday and was housed at the US embassy in Haiti. 

While supporters argue that such an intervention is crucial to address the worsening insecurity, gang violence, and humanitarian crisis in the Caribbean Island nation, dissecting the strings being pulled from the shadows of geopolitics is imperative. 

At the centre of this deployment is the United States, seemingly the orchestrator of the idea. However, what raises eyebrows is the fact that while the US is keen on this intervention, it’s not ready to take on the leadership role itself despite being militarily well-equipped.

Instead, Washington has put Kenya in the spotlight, raising concerns about whether Nairobi’s involvement is a voluntary commitment or a result of external pressure. 

The catch becomes evident when considering the recent back-and-forth between the US and Canada. Washington initially pushed for Canada to lead the force early this year, citing its linguistic and geographical advantage in the Western Hemisphere. However, Ottawa pushed back, refusing to be dragged into what they perceived as a ‘Haitian quagmire’ according to Canadian public broadcaster, CBC. 

French is one of the two official languages of Canada and Haiti is a French-speaking country. 

In March, the Canadian Chief of the Defence Staff General Wayne Eyre said he doubted Canada could pull off such a mission right now, given its commitments in Europe especially the support directed to Ukraine. 

Their refusal raises a pertinent question: If Canada, with its linguistic advantage, is hesitant, what makes Kenya, with its language barrier, the right fit for Haiti’s historical gang violence problem?  The language barrier is not the only obstacle Kenya faces. Leading an international police mission requires a nuanced understanding of the local context, culture, and dynamics. They need to be well-prepared and equipped. 

A Kenyan military veteran who spoke to this writer on condition of anonymity said the mission is exactly the kind that professional militaries or police try to avoid. It involves shadowy enemies who don’t wear uniform and mix freely with a civilian population. He says the fighting almost certainly would take place in densely populated slums. 

The retired Kenyan colonel with over 30 years of service and who has served three international missions, shares a sobering perspective on the implications of this venture. His assertion that the intervention is not “homegrown” is concerning. 

He shares that the success of any foreign mission lies in understanding the intricacies of the local context, and a mission undertaken solely due to external pressure could lead to unexpected consequences. 

Drawing on his experiences in Sierra Leone, the Iraq-Iran border, and Yugoslavia, the colonel’s skepticism challenges Kenyan to reflect on whether taking part in the Haiti mission is stepping onto a minefield without adequate knowledge of the internal security problems facing the Island nation.    

He also raises the specter of an ill-equipped Kenyan police force entering a volatile situation. His dire warning that Kenyan officers might return in body bags casts a shadow of doubt over the feasibility of this mission.

Inadequate resources and training could place our officers in harm’s way, raising questions about the government’s readiness to safeguard their lives in a foreign theatre. 

The foreign policy decision-makers must understand Haiti’s complex history and intricate socio-political landscape and demand a thorough comprehension beyond mere tactical operations. The potential for miscommunication and cultural dissonance cannot be understated.  

Moreover, the suddenness of this announcement which was made in late July by Mutua leaves Kenyans pondering whether Nairobi has been offered a true leadership role or is merely tasked with shouldering responsibilities that others wish to evade.  

Kenyans need to understand that this is not a peacekeeping mission but an offensive intervention. The United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres visited Haiti in July and was appalled by the level of insecurity in the Caribbean country and asked the international community to act “immediately” to form a multinational force. 

Guterres said this force would not have a political or military mission like the Blue Helmets but would be at the service of the Haitian Police to restore normalcy and dismantle the gangs. 

According to analysts, many in the US are wary of Washington’s history of occupation and intervention in the Caribbean nation. In 1915, the US invaded Haiti and occupied it for nearly two decades, ostensibly to restore order. But it left behind more chaos. 

Jonathan M Katz, author of The Big Truck That Went By; How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster, criticises the US for backing a “democratic vacuum” in Haiti since President Jovenel Moise was assassinated in July 2021 without supporting a plan to restore democracy. 

In 1994, President Bill Clinton in what they called ‘Operation Uphold Democracy’ sent in more than 20,000 troops to restore ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power after a 1991 military coup. The move worked, and the junta backed down. But this was short-lived.  

Ten years later, the United States in 2004 led another international intervention when President Aristide’s government was again overthrown. All these interventions by the States never worked. They failed to democratise Haiti. 

Violence by gangs connected to the State is not new in Haiti, but several factors have contributed to the gangs’ power at the present moment. Political leaders as far back as Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Haiti’s populist leader-turned-dictator from 1957 through 1971, have formed and utilised armed groups external to national security forces for protection or to enforce their agenda and self-interest, according to an October 2022 report from the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime. 

The current gangs are affiliated with two groups, G-Pep and G9, which fight for control of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. An estimated 60 per cent of the capital is under the control of these groups, which terrorise civilians not only with threats of murder, but also abduction for ransom, extortion, and sexual violence. 

Jovenel Moise, who came to power in 2017 after a controversial election, allegedly operated in concert with the gangs, with members of his government “allegedly assisting in massacres by providing gangs with government support in attacks in the capital,” according to the Global Initiative against Organised Crime.  

The former leader is accused of aligning with the G9 gang, which worked as a security force for him until his assassination. Afterward, the US imposed a de facto prime minister Ariel Henry, who seemingly lacked political power and independence.  

Haitian civil society groups have widely opposed the multinational force intervention, however, citing past problems caused by foreign intervention and fears that the international community would be propping up Haitian officials seen as partially responsible for the country’s crises. 

The G9 gang leader, a former police officer, Jimmy ‘Barbecue’ Cherizier has warned any potential foreign force sent to Haiti against committing human rights abuses in the nation, promising to “fight against them until our last breath”. 

The pledge has raised questions as watchdog groups expressed alarm about the human rights track record of police in Kenya and warned that the force may export its abuse. 

The police have been long accused of killings and torture, including gunning down civilians during the Covid-19 curfew. Reliable information shared by rights groups in the country has indicated that at least 30 people were killed during recent opposition protests. 

The credibility and effectiveness of such an intervention hinge on the willingness and capability of the leading nation to commit wholeheartedly to the cause. Is Kenya ready to take on such a responsibility? Asked about all these concerns, Foreign and diaspora CS, Alfred Mutua, remained mum by the time of going to press.