High stakes for Kenya as it leads multi-national force into Haiti

Armed Haiti gang leader Jimmy "Barbecue" Cherizier and his men are seen in Port-au-Prince, on March 5,2024. [Getty Images]

As the clock ticks towards the deployment of Kenyan police officers who will lead a multi-national force that hopes to restore order in Haiti, several unanswered questions risk dampening the mission even before the first boots land in Port au Price in a few days.

With the mission set to make or break Kenya’s reputation and stature in international affairs, the fact that seven previous attempts to restore peace led by the United Nations have failed means the stakes have never been higher.

Yet the fact that many previous interveners who have better weaponry, manpower and skills (such as the US, Canada and Brazil) have chosen to stay away and convinced Kenya to lead the mission means reality is dawning that success is not assured.

“There is a very small window of opportunity for the Kenyans to show that they can, in fact, re-establish a modicum of order. If they can do that, then we will see what happens,” Robert Fatton Jr., a professor at the University of Virginia told American security think tank Responsible Statecraft this week as an advance security team from Kenya was in Haiti to access the situation.

“I don’t see how you can really re-impose a modicum of order in Haiti with 1,000 troops,” he said.

Kenya has committed to provide 1,000 officers drawn from the highly trained General Service Unit, Rapid Deployment Unit, Anti-Stock Theft Unit and Border Police Unit. They will be assisted by another 1,500 officers from Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Benin, Chad and Jamaica.

What is concerning security experts is that this combined number of just 2,500 troops will be about a third of the 6,700-strong UN force that was stationed in Haiti for 13 years up to 2017 but failed to restore security. Additionally, Haiti’s gangs have grown so big in strength and numbers that they are currently better armed than the police.

This means that the 2,500 police officers will confront a better equipped, funded, trained and unified gang force than any other mission previously deployed to the Caribbean nation.

Once largely reliant on Haiti’s political and business elite for money, some gangs have created their own financial lifelines through extortion, arms trafficking, drug trade and kidnappings since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in 2021.

The gangs’ swift ascent in power has been driven by their unparalleled access to firearms and the Haitian government’s inability to curb their expansion, professionalisation, and inclination to enforce control over increasingly vast areas. Additionally, collusion from segments of the nation’s political and economic elites has further fueled this trend.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has said in its latest report on the illegal arms trade in Haiti that the more than 200 gangs operating in Port au Prince are now armed with Russian AK-47s, US-made AR-15s and Israeli Galil assault rifles.

“Trafficked predominantly from the US, these deadly arsenals mean that gangs have firepower that exceeds that of the Haitian National Police,” said the UN.

This is the reality that awaits the elite Kenyan police officers who are no strangers to violent armed actors, having spent time fighting bandits and Islamist insurgents but not on the scale they will find in Haiti.

“In my view as a political scientist who assesses Kenya’s counter-terrorism polices and operations, the Kenyan contingent has sufficient training and the requisite expertise,” says Oscar Gakuo, an associate professor of political science at the University of Rwanda.

Gakuo’s view is similar to UN’s top expert on human rights in Haiti, William O’Neill. He thinks that many of the young gang combatants who have been sowing terror in Port-au-Prince will stand down once they see a superior fighting force.

“A lot of them are teenagers. You are talking about 15-year-olds, 16-year-olds – and there’s no ideology. It’s not like the Taliban or al-Shabaab,” wrote O’Neill in his assessment of the impending mission.

“Top gang leaders might resist but their poorly trained foot soldiers were unlikely to resist. They are not going to commit suicide defending the turf. The one thing the gangs respect is a bigger force,” he said.

President William Ruto has said that he expects the first boots to land on the ground in the coming three weeks. “I have a team already in Haiti as I speak to you. That will give us a frame of what things look like on the ground, the capabilities that are available, the infrastructure that has been set up,” Ruto told the BBC last Friday. 

Achuka is an investigations journalist and consultant at Steward Africa