Haiti protests

A man holds a tree branch and marches by burning tires during a protest against insecurity, on August 7, 2023.

| Richard Pierrin | AFP

Hell on earth: Violent details of Kenya’s new war zone in Haiti

As Kenyan police officers prepare to lead a multinational mission in Haiti, they will be entering into a country that has reached its breaking point – and where other nations have chickened out.

When mercenaries assassinated Haitian President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021, the country spiralled into violence. Today, armed gangs control over 80 per cent of the capital, Port-au-Prince, and Kenyan police are being asked to step in. Other nations are afraid of being a US-front in Haiti and due to the risky nature of the mission. Haiti has reached its breaking point.

President Ruto meets with Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry for bilateral talks in New York

President William Ruto, the new African ally of the US, has opened diplomatic relations with Haiti and agreed to send 1000 officers to beef up Haiti’s 10,000 policemen who have been overpowered by the gangs.

The Kenyans will lead a United Nations unit to stabilise a country that has been left at the mercy of unruly mobs. While the US sponsored the UN Security Council resolution on peacekeeping in Haiti, the request for an international mission stalled because no country had agreed to lead.

Haiti has a long history. In 1791, the enslaved blacks ousted the French masters and founded the world’s first black-independent nation. For that, it was punished and impoverished. First, France reacted with brutality and forced the young nation to take loans from French banks to compensate slave owners for loss of slaves.

Haiti protests

Residents protest the killing of six police officers by armed gangs in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on January 26. The officers died in the town of Liancourt on January 25 after a fierce battle with gunmen who had tried to take over a police station.

Photo credit: Richard Pierrin| AFP

Thus, for violently demanding its independence, and burning down the slave plantations and other symbols of slavery, the black nation was slapped with a fine. In 1824, the French King, Charles X, sent an armed flotilla of warships to Haiti with the message that the young nation would have to pay France 150 million francs to secure its independence or suffer the consequences.

French blockade

 For the next 122 years, until 1947, Haiti is estimated to have paid an equivalent of $28 billion in today’s dollars following the 1824 Franco-Haitian Agreement that ended the French blockade.

Haitian historian Beaubrun Ardouin says the first payment was about six times the government’s income that year and cemented the country’s path towards poverty. Haiti has never recovered from the impact of that ransom.

Two years ago, a French economist, Thomas Piketty, resurrected the issue and demanded that France return the $28 billion it extorted from Haiti. Similarly, when former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide demanded the same in 2004, he was overthrown and taken out of the capital by US troops.

He later escaped to South Africa. Later, the former US ambassador to Haiti, Thierry Burkhard, told The New York Times that one benefit of the coup was that it ended Aristide’s campaign demanding that France pay financial reparations to Haiti.

Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

A man wears a werewolf mask during a protest against insecurity, on August 7, 2023, near the Prime Minister’s official house in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Some 300 women and minors were kidnapped in Haiti by criminal gangs in the first half of this year.

Photo credit: AFP

This history kept Haiti in constant debt and poverty and placed France in a position of power over the country’s trade and finances. Again, the US invaded the independent nation in 1915, assassinated the president, and installed its puppets. Haiti was forced to sign the Haitian-American Treaty of 1915 following this invasion. Under this treaty, the US formed its police force in Haiti – composed of Americans and Haitians.

One of the clauses gave Washington the right to intervene in Haiti whenever it (the US) deemed necessary. Usually, it forces the election of pro-American presidents starting in 1915 when the Haitian legislature picked the unpopular Philippe Sudré Dartiguenave, triggering unrest. The political tradition has always persisted, though now Washington uses proxies.

During that period of occupation, the US seized $500,000 from the Haitian National Bank “for safekeeping” in New York, thus giving the United States control of the country’s central bank. It only left in 1934 but has often intervened to safeguard its security interests in the West Indies.

From 1957 until 1971, Washington worked through Haiti dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his private military force. It provided him with military assistance until his death in 1971, when his 20-year-old son inherited the presidency. The US further supported Jean Claude Duvalier, known as “Baby Doc”, who forced his opponents into exile or executed them. Haiti has always been caught between US power play, French debts, earthquakes, militants, coups, and hurricanes.

President William Ruto and Haiti Prime Minister Ariel Henry in New York, United States.

President William Ruto and Haiti Prime Minister Ariel Henry in New York, United States.

Photo credit: PCS

After President Aristide was overthrown in 2004, the UN deployed a peacekeeping mission under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which authorises the use of force even though there is no active conflict. However, the Brazil-led mission ended in embarrassment after the peacekeepers were accused of bringing cholera and sexually assaulting the locals.

As the mission came to an end, some US officials, as captured in their cables, argued that a “premature departure of MINUSTAH (as the mission was known) would leave the (Haitian) government... vulnerable to... resurgent populist and anti-market economy political forces”. One of the cables described MINUSTAH as “an indispensable tool in realising core US policy interests in Haiti”.

Thus, if the Kenyan mission to Haiti succeeds, it will be the second time in history that the UN will have deployed such a mission. The questions being asked are which other countries will be willing to send their police, and the mandate of such a mission.

Raging violence

There are concerns that mistakes of past interventions might be repeated. While Haiti’s Prime Minister Ariel Henry has been in touch with President Ruto, the first handicap the Kenyans will face is that besides the raging violence, Haiti is French-speaking and the second is that the Kenyan police have no international experience.

The only experience they have is in quelling violent demonstrations – an issue taken by human rights groups who argue that Kenyans are unfit for a UN mission for engaging in extra-judicial killings.

With no elected government in place and with all the elected senators having abandoned their seats, Haiti is now a failed state. The caretaker government of Henry is facing pressure from gang leader Jimmy ‘Barbecue’ Cherizier who last week called for an armed rebellion to overthrow the government.

President William Ruto

President William Ruto and Haiti Prime Minister Ariel Henry witnessing the signing of an agreement at the Kenyan Mission in New York, United States.

Photo credit: PCS

Kenyan police, if they head to Haiti, will be facing Cherizier’s group known as the “G9 Family and Allies” and entering one of West Indies trouble spots. “Haiti is the ultimate test of international solidarity and collective action. The international community has failed this test so far, and let down a people very badly,” Dr Ruto told the UN General Assembly.

The current turmoil is tied to a long history of Western sabotage, legacies of slavery, and bitterness. While the Security Council has imposed sanctions on Cherizier, he has fronted himself as a revolutionary who wants to change Haiti: “We are fighting for another society – another Haiti that is not only for the five per cent of the people who keep all the wealth, but a new Haiti where everyone can have food and clean water, so they can have a decent house to live, another Haiti where we don’t have to leave the country.”

In 2021, Cherizer told Al Jazeera that the media portrayed him as a gangster. “I’m not a gangster. I never will be a gangster. It’s the system I’m fighting against today. The system has a lot of money; they own the media. Now they try to make me look like a gangster.”

Human Rights groups

Interestingly, it is the US that is drafting the UN Security Council resolution authorising the UN-backed force. For Ruto, Haiti offers him an opportunity to get the right contacts with Washington and to solidify his place in the geopolitics. Human Rights groups have warned that Haiti is now a dangerous territory since the gangs “have more guns, more power, more money and access to technology”.

That is according to Gédéon Jean, director of the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights in Port-au-Prince. So volatile is the situation that nations are frightened to send troops to Port-au-Prince, described as the global capital of kidnappings, murders, car-jackings, rapes, and robberies. 

Keith Mines, the director of an American think-tank, US Institute of Peace, says that only a mission with 10,000 personnel would make a difference. “There’s a danger that’s always looming that if the forces aren’t large enough, if they’re not robust enough, that makes everything harder,” he observes.

 “They wouldn’t have the ability to establish upfront that intimidating presence that would be needed to push back the gangs and re-establish security.” Whether Kenyan police will make a difference in an island with a long history of resisting Western hegemony remains to be seen. But it is marching to Haiti’s conundrum.

[email protected] @johnkamau1