Haiti mission: Is Kenya being set up by big boys in troubled nation?

Soldiers patrol Petion Ville, the neighbourhood where assassinated Haitian President Jovenel Moise lived in Port-au-Prince, July 2021. [File, Standard]

President William Ruto Tuesday welcomed the UN Security Council decision authorising a multinational police force led by Kenya to help Haiti quell gang violence.

The mission seeks to restore normalcy in the troubled Caribbean country. The US-drafted resolution received overwhelming support on Monday evening, 11pm East Africa time to be exact, with thirteen council members voting in favour of the deployment, with only Russia and China abstaining. 

This endorsement underscores the international community’s recognition of the urgency and significance of intervening in Haiti’s deteriorating security situation. The country has been grappling with a series of crises, including gang violence, kidnappings and political instability. 

President Ruto, in his statement Tuesday, emphasized that this multinational security support mission aims to reinforce the Haiti Police, enhance its institutional capacity, and increase its effectiveness in combatting criminal gangs, violent crime, human and arms trafficking and other atrocities. 

This mission also has a mandate to secure the country’s critical infrastructure including air and seaports, vital transit routes and intersections. 

President Ruto, whose Pan-African credibility, has been taking a beating owing perhaps to shifting from traditional Kenyan approach, insisted the approval affirmed the “Pan-African commitment to our continent’s unity together with the African Union’s policy of solidarity with the African Diaspora in observance of our sacred duty towards our own flesh and blood, carried into captivity to suffer in chains, in a world far away from home, and punished most severely over the centuries for claiming for themselves freedom- the most basic right of every human being”. 

He highlighted Kenya’s international peace-mediating and peacekeeping credentials, citing previous missions in East Timor, the former Yugoslavia, Eritrea, and Angola, among others. 

However, it’s essential to note that while these were UN-sanctioned peacekeeping missions with non-offensive mandates, the Haiti mission is not a UN mission. 

Kenya has pledged 1,000 police to spearhead the mission. Several other Caribbean nations, including Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, and Jamaica - have also offered support. 

The force will have a 12-month mandate in Haiti. Foreign and Diaspora Affairs Cabinet Secretary Alfred Mutua said last week that Kenya anticipates to have deployed fully by January 2024. 

Critics of the mission have previously pointed to scandals associated with UN peacekeeping missions in Haiti, including allegations of sexual abuse and spread of a deadly cholera epidemic, which killed nearly 10,000 people. 

Some Haitians have also questioned the mandate of Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who took leadership after President Jovenel Moise was assassinated in 2021.

Unique challenges

Former police officer Jimmy "Barbecue" Cherizier, leader of the 'G9' coalition, gives a press tour of the La Saline shanty area of Port-au-Prince, Haiti November 3, 2021. [Reuters]

Kenya’s government has assured the public that its personnel are well-prepared for the task. However, experts in foreign affairs and military operations have noted that this mission differs significantly from traditional peacekeeping efforts and presents unique challenges, given the complex and entrenched gang violence in Haiti

Boaz Mbaya, a former Kenyan foreign affairs PS, emphasized that this mission cannot be equated with traditional peacekeeping efforts, such as those in East Timor and the former Yugoslavia. 

Mbaya, speaking to The Standard, expressed deep concern for the Kenyan troops, citing Haiti’s long-standing history of challenges and complex issues. 

He noted that the country has been a source of apprehension for many nations, making the mission significantly high-risk. 

In his analysis, the Kibaki-administration PS, raised questions about public involvement in the decision to deploy Kenyan police, highlighting lack of consultation with people and associations in the know. This gap in public participation raises questions about constitutional provisions governing such missions. 

In his book, “Kenya’s Foreign Policy and Diplomacy”, Mbaya provides insights into Kenya’s history of regional relations, security challenges, and involvement in mediation and conflict resolution efforts. He underlined Kenya’s previous international peacekeeping missions which he said were strictly peacekeeping in nature and lacked an offensive mandate. 

Kenya, which has a history of participating in such missions, said in July that it would consider leading a force. But the police have their own record of corruption and abuse, and analysts worry that English- and Swahili-speaking personnel will struggle to find their way in a country that speaks Haitian Creole or French. 

A Kenyan veteran, Brigadier General (Rtd) Emilio Tonui, who heads the military veterans at the Kenya Veterans for Peace said language was a significant hurdle during international missions. 

In such cases, interpreters are often required, adding complexity to communication and coordination. 

Washington has committed to support the Kenyan-led mission and would work with Congress to secure $100 million (Sh14 billion). However, critics suggest that financial incentives may be a driving force for Kenya. 

General Service Unit (GSU) officers mount a guard of honor during a past pass-out parade at Embakasi Training School. [Pius Cheruiyot, Standard]

Kenya’s former Military intelligence boss, Maj. General (Rtd) Charles Mwanzia recommended that “the US should pay the contingent directly, expressing concerns about potential misappropriation of funds”. 

Mwanzia, who was directly involved in the South Sudanese peace process, called on Washington to provide essential equipment and kits for the contingents deploying to Haiti. 

He emphasized that Kenya’s experience lies primarily in UN peacekeeping operations and not offensive missions. He noted that missions undertaken by Kenyan contingents under the African Union, and the East African Community have faced significant challenges in terms of logistical support. 

The former military spy chief expressed skepticism about the feasibility of a purely police mission and its potential for success in Haiti’s complex environment. 

Kenya’s internal security obligations are significant, and this decision continues to raise eyebrows. 

While advocates believe such intervention is necessary to address the Caribbean nation’s rising instability, gang violence, and humanitarian crises, unraveling the strings being pulled from the shadows of geopolitics is critical. 

At the center of this deployment is the US, which is the orchestrator of the deployment 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 equipped. 

Instead, Washington has put Kenya in the spotlight. 

The Biden administration pushed Canada to take the helm, and Ottawa deployed a delegation to Haiti last year to assess needs. But Canada’s top soldier expressed doubts that the military had the capacity to lead a mission while also aiding Ukraine. 

The reluctance among several countries stemmed from the failures of past international interventions in Haiti, many of which have failed to bring long-lasting stability. 

The Canadian refusal raised a pertinent question; If Ottawa, with its linguistic advantage, is hesitant, what makes Kenya, with its language barrier, the right fit? 

Leading an international police mission requires a nuanced understanding of the local context, culture, and dynamics.