Why are Kenyan forces set to intervene in Haiti and how is the US involved?

When William Ruto meets Joe Biden in Washington, a Kenyan-led police mission to Haiti will be at the top of the presidents’ agenda.

Kenyan police
Kenyan police and paramilitary forces will be part of a planned mission to tackle gang violence in Haiti [File: Monicah Mwangi/Reuters]

Kenyan President William Ruto is in the United States for a three-day state visit in the first such trip for an African leader since 2008.

When Ruto meets his counterpart Joe Biden at the White House on Thursday, at the top of their agenda will be a multinational security intervention in the troubled Caribbean nation of Haiti – a mission that Kenya is leading and Washington is backing.

While the US has refused to contribute forces to the United Nations-backed initiative, Washington has nonetheless become Kenya’s loudest supporter and the mission’s biggest funder even as Nairobi faces domestic challenges over the strategy.

The planned deployment of police to Haiti – a first for the East African country outside the continent – has sparked fierce debates in Kenya’s Parliament and in its courts.

Here’s what we know about the planned mission, how Kenya got involved and why some are fiercely against it:

Kenyan President William Ruto speaks during an interview
Kenyan President William Ruto [File: Monicah Mwangi/Reuters]

What’s the backdrop to the Haiti crisis?

The Caribbean nation has been racked by violence in recent months after gangs declared war on the government of former Prime Minister Ariel Henry in February.

The UN says more than 2,500 people were killed or injured across the country from January to March while at least 95,000 people have fled the capital, Port-au-Prince.

Henry had pleaded with the UN Security Council last year to deploy a mission that would bolster Haiti’s fragile security forces and help clamp down on rampant gang violence. For months, the Security Council failed to find a country to step up and lead such a mission after a previous UN mission to Haiti was beset by controversies.

By mid-2023, it emerged that the US was considering backing a Nairobi-led police mission and Kenyan officials were weighing the proposal. It came as a surprise to many: Kenya has sent troops on missions inside and outside Africa, but no African country has ever led a security mission outside the continent, and an army deployment is more traditional, rather than a police mission.

Kenyan officials highlighted historic connections between Haiti and Africa.

“Kenya stands with persons of African descent across the world,” then-Foreign Minister Alfred Mutua said.

Residents carry their belongings as they flee their homes due to gang violence in Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Residents of the Lower Delmas area carry their belongings as they flee their homes due to gang violence in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on May 2, 2024 [Ralph Tedy Erol/Reuters]

What is the MSS?

On October 2, the UN Security Council voted in favour of motions by the US and Ecuador to deploy the Multinational Security Support Mission (MSS) in Haiti. It is not a UN mission but is being referred to as a “UN-backed initiative”.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the mission “pivotal”. Washington has pledged $300m in funding while Canada has pledged $123m to Haiti with $80.5m allocated to the mission.

The 2,500-strong force will be led by 1,000 Kenyans from the Administrative Police Unit and the battle-trained paramilitary General Service Unit, called the Recce commandos. The commandos were previously tasked with quelling domestic riots and participating in operations against al-Shabab in neighbouring Somalia.

Several other countries have also pledged police, including Benin, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Guyana, Barbados, Antigua and Barbuda, Bangladesh and Chad.

Hundreds of Kenyan police have reportedly been undergoing training and taking French classes in preparation for their deployment. Kenyans speak English, Swahili and other Indigenous languages while Haitian French and Creole are the official languages of Haiti.

This week, an advance team of Kenyan forces touched down in Haiti, according to Kenyan media reports, coinciding with Ruto’s meeting with Biden.

The MSS will work in collaboration with Haiti’s police. They will look to rapidly wrest back key government infrastructure from the control of gangs. High-ranking Kenyan police commander Noor Gabow will reportedly lead the mission.

Why is Kenya getting involved in Haiti and who opposes the MSS?

The deployment faces fierce pushback from Kenya’s opposition lawmakers, human rights groups and lawyers, but Ruto has pressed ahead with it. In January, he told reporters it is because the mission was “a bigger calling to humanity”.

 

Opposition legislators accuse Ruto’s government of failing to secure Kenya and say the country is part of the initiative only for monetary gains. They also say authorities are deploying police in contradiction to the constitution, which allows only military deployments.

After one lawmaker challenged the mission in the courts, a judge declared in January that the government did not have the jurisdiction to deploy the police and a special security arrangement with Haiti would be required. It was that agreement that Henry was in Nairobi to sign in February when the gangs declared war in the then-Haitian prime minister’s absence, forcing him to resign and remain in exile in Puerto Rico.

Ruto’s government temporarily paused the MSS deployment in March after Henry’s resignation but resumed plans after the recent appointment of a new transitional governing council in Haiti under new Prime Minister Fritz Belizaire.

Despite Ruto’s manoeuvring, however, opposition lawmakers in Kenya filed another lawsuit to be heard in June.

Meanwhile, human rights activists point out that Kenya’s police force has long been accused of extrajudicial killings and torture. In July, the police opened fire on people protesting higher taxes and rising living costs, killing at least 35.

Many in Haiti are also wary of foreign interventions. The 15-year-long UN mission there has a tainted legacy, dogged with sexual abuse allegations against peacekeepers and accusations they introduced cholera to the country.

Henry in Nairobi
Former Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry, second from left, after giving a lecture at United States International University in Nairobi, Kenya, on March 1, 2024 [Anrew Kasuku/AP]

Why did the US nominate Kenya and why is it not in the MSS?

Washington has been adamant about not sending troops to Haiti although officials have not given reasons. Despite “frantic” exchanges from Haitian leaders for Washington to send in an emergency unit at the peak of the recent violence in the country, the US refused, promising to move quickly on the MSS deployment instead, according to US media.

However, US contractors have been in Haiti for weeks now, building the operations base the MSS will use and securing supplies for the incoming police force. US officials have reportedly also been training personnel in Kenya for their deployment for months .

It is unclear how the US came to back Kenya for the Haiti mission – one official said “Kenya raised its hands” – but Washington has increasingly grown reliant on Nairobi for its security interests in the Horn of Africa in recent years. Kenya has a US base in Lamu county and cooperates with US forces fighting al-Shabab in Somalia.

While Washington’s friendly relations with Ethiopia have grown sour after the latter’s two-year-long war and Washington has criticised Uganda under President Yoweri Museveni over alleged human rights abuses, Nairobi has remained a steadfast ally in the region.

However, there are disagreements on the Haiti mission, analysts point out.

Kenya is “demanding the US do more to rally financial support for the UN basket fund that will cover the mission’s costs”, Meron Elias, a researcher at the International Crisis Group, said.

“Kenya also wants the US to commit greater backing to stemming the flow of arms into Haiti, including from US ports in Florida.”

What else will be on the agenda for Biden and Ruto?

Ruto’s state visit comes at a time when the US is looking to counter the expanding influence of China and Russia in Africa. Washington is eager to show that it is still in the game, despite being recently on the back foot in the Sahel region. Niger and Chad recently sent US troops stationed there packing.

Ruto, meanwhile, is seeking more foreign investment to offset Kenya’s debts. The country has barely avoided default on a $2bn debt that was due in June. Most of Kenya’s external debt is owed to China. It has borrowed immensely to prop up big infrastructure projects, including a railway line between Nairobi and the port city of Mombasa.

“Kenya means business,” Ruto tweeted after meeting US business leaders in Atlanta, Georgia, on Wednesday. Atlanta is home to companies like Delta Air Lines, which is considering acquiring a major stake in national carrier Kenya Airways.

Climate financing for African countries, a cornerstone of Ruto’s foreign engagements, will also be in sharp focus as Kenya and other East African countries have dealt with deadly floods in the past month.

Source: Al Jazeera