/ 24 March 2024

Kenya’s Haitian bind

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People burn garbage close to the bodies of the dead as at least 10 corpses of gang members lie in the streets following the exchange of gunfire between armed gangs in Petion-Ville on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti on March 18, 2024. (Photo by Guerinault Louis/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Kenyan President William Ruto has never wavered in his determination to send a force to Haiti. 

He has faced opposition outcry, international criticism, a successful court challenge and Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry’s resignation — announced only days after his visit to Nairobi, intended to confer bilateral legitimacy on the plan and push it through the fractious legal channels in which it’s stuck.

Despite the Kenyan government ostensibly hitting pause in the deployment, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said last week he had been on the phone with Ruto and was assured that the plan to send 1 000 East African policemen to lead the security operation is still live.

Ruto first put forth his country late last year to lead the mission to confront growing gang warfare that has all but overrun the capital Port-au-Prince. 

Haiti last held elections in 2016 and has been without an elected president since Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in 2021. 

The plot that killed him — which saw Colombian mercenaries storm his residence and reportedly drop grenades from drones — is still unravelling, with his wife and the man who succeeded him as president among those indicted. 

According to a United Nations report, nearly 4 000 people were killed in the violence last year and that figure has gone rapidly northward in the past three months. 

There is no question that Haiti is in a dire situation. But Ruto’s hasty — some might say unilateral — pledge to come to its aid has raised a number of ethical and legal geopolitical questions.

“We believe the idea is constitutionally wrong, it is legally unsound, it is politically unstrategic and it is morally bankrupt in its entirety,” Otiende Amollo, an MP and member of the Orange Democratic Movement, a centre-left party in Kenya, told the Mail & Guardian.

Chief among the multiple issues that Amollo, other opposition parties and the constitutional court have raised is the abstruse decision to volunteer the civilian police force instead of the military. 

The worry is that not only are its members inadequately trained for a foreign deployment but their inability to speak Spanish has the potential to turn their peacekeeping efforts into a bloodbath.

“They are going to be in a country where the figures of loss of life are just harrowing. We fear that they are just going to be sitting ducks,” Amollo said. 

“And we fear that many of them will come back in body bags. No insurance has been given to us in terms of how they will be protected. 

“It leads one to suggest that all these other countries that are urging Kenya to send their troops — and are not willing to send their own citizens — are behaving as if the loss of Kenyan life is less important than any life in any other country.”

In the time since Nairobi’s plans were grounded, a handful of other countries have tentatively held up their hands to supplement the mission. But the question remains on many Kenyan lips: “Why us?” 

Kenya perpetually faces security concerns within its own borders; threats that already drain limited resources. Outside of those borders, there is no shortage of nearby causes that could benefit from some form of deployment. Human atrocities are unfolding in the civil war in Sudan every day; the Democratic Republic of the Congo rarely knows peace and conflict has spread across the length of the Sahel in recent years.

Haiti strikes many as little more than an arbitrary destination. 

Compounding that sentiment is the Haitian government’s struggle to cling to any threads of legitimacy. Violence in the country has become untenable largely because its leaders lost the perception of democratic authority. Similarly, from an international perspective, questions are being asked about the right protocols and how such a government should be assisted.

Henry travelled to Kenya hoping that establishing a bilateral treaty would replace any sense of arbitrariness with formality and legality. But the gang coalition ultimately blocked his re-entry into Port-au-Prince and he never returned home as leader.

The suspicion spoken aloud in Kenya is that any allegiance to Haiti is strictly secondary to Ruto’s ambitions of currying favour with the US.

“We want to clearly ask: ‘Why is the US trying to push us?’” Kenyan researcher Catherine Amayi said in an interview with the M&G. 

“The US claims to be a democracy but then why does it want the Kenyan government to subvert the court ruling? That’s a contradiction and it warrants questioning. 

“[Ruto] definitely wants to endear himself to the US. His entire strategy is one that looks to appeal to the West,” she said. 

Haiti’s troubles, and its position as the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, are inseparable from its historical context. 

The Caribbean nation is the only sovereign state in history to have been successfully formed from an uprising of black slaves. But that distinction has come at a heavy cost. 

Before the Haitian Revolution (1791 to 1804), colonial France operated what was arguably the most heinous slavery apparatus. Sugar and coffee plantation owners extracted every bead of sweat they could from their slaves, content that any that fell could be replaced cheaply with new bodies from the transatlantic trade. 

The work was so onerous Haiti’s death rate overtook its birth rate.  

In 1791, nearly 90% of a population of 520 000 were enslaved, making the uprising the biggest slave revolt since the legend of Spartacus was born almost two millennia earlier.

But the French returned in 1825. With warships anchored in Port-Au-Prince, a gun was held to the collective Haitian head and indemnity of 150 million francs demanded. 

So began a debt that incapacitated the economy for the next century and was only settled in 1947. The American group that would become Citibank serviced predatory loans to pay it and established a significant presence in the country, assuming de facto control of its central bank.

A seminal New York Times investigation published in 2022 canvassed 15 senior economists and found the payments to France, and the associated interest, removed anywhere between $21 billion and $115 billion from Haiti. The latter number is eight times the size of its modern economy.

The former number, incidentally, is the amount former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide dared to demand of France in 2003 for reparations. His ousting and subsequent exile played out under the gaze of the US and France — with the exact nature of their involvement still disputed. What is certain is no leader has raised the question of reparations again.

Now, once more, American efforts to intervene are being perceived as pernicious by those against Kenyan intervention.

“The history of — and I’m speaking here as a US American — the American relationship to Haiti is a long history of intervention, sanction and sabotage,” said David Adler, a political economist and co-general co-ordinator of multinational collective Progressive International.

“And the latest intervention, which of course comes after this disastrous assassination and multiple years of propping up an unelected and illegitimate government, as perceived by Haiti and the international community, is one of the more cynical, racist, colonial interventions that we could have possibly designed.

“The United States of America doesn’t want to send its people, its soldiers, its police, to be boots on the ground in a country that we desire to control politically, economically. 

“And so because of that we are hoping to launder that intervention through a faraway nation in Kenya, through a recently elected government, with whom we’ve established very close ties.” 

Haiti’s standing as a symbol of colonial resistance — and the fact that it is home to African descendants — still carries cachet in the Global South. 

Benin, as one example, has volunteered its own force, citing historical and cultural connections that date back to the Dahomey empire

But American interests and the fargone illegitimacy of Haitian governance have made it impossible to see a clear path amid the sugarcane.