Picture: Ralph Tedy Erol/REUTERS/March 3, 2023 – A Haitian resident and his son flee during gang violence in Port-au-Prince, in March this year. Kenya’s mission to Haiti has nothing to do with pan-Africanism. It is a purely strategic decision in the context of its bilateral relationship with the US, the writer says.
By Sizo Nkala
In his seminal work, Leviathan, the 17th-century English political philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, conceptualised what he called the state of nature – a hypothetical arrangement in which people lived without a government, public laws or sovereign authority. Hobbes argued that the state of nature soon turned into a state of war, a war of all against all, where people lived in “continuous fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.
The Caribbean island nation of Haiti has turned into a real life modern-day Hobbesian nightmare. Since the assassination of Haitian president Jovenel Moise in July 2021, the government has lost control of significant swathes of Haitian territory amid a deteriorating security situation. The country is under a reign of terror as violent gangs have taken over whole neighbourhoods, leading to forced displacements, killings, rape, kidnappings, arson and disappearance.
While the second half of last year saw 1,250 deaths related to gang violence, the first half of this year recorded 2,094 deaths and 1,014 abductions, including that of women and children. The latest reports indicate that the number of lives claimed by gang violence stands at a distressing 2,400. The figures understate the extent of the crisis as many deaths are not reported. The violence is perpetrated by about 150 gangs based mainly in the capital, Port-au-Prince, and other provinces across the country.
Most of the gangs work under the G-Pep Federation or its rival, the G-9 Alliance. Their fight for territorial control is the main driver of the violence. The national police force does not have the capacity to stem the violence. Haiti has a total of just over 14,000 police officers, which translates into a ratio of just about 1.2 police officers per 1,000 citizens, which is far from adequate.
Scores of police officers have been killed and injured by the heavily armed gangs. Realising they are no match for the well-armed gangs, more police officers have retired or abandoned their posts, thus further eroding the capacity of the police force. Without police protection, citizens have taken matters into their own hands by forming vigilante groups to confront gang members.
The vigilante organisation, Bwa Kwale, has mobilised members across the country and has reportedly lynched more than 300 suspected gang members. The gangs have responded by forming their own movement, Zam Pale, which has led to a cycle of extreme violence that may escalate if not addressed.
Having failed to control the violence, the Haitian leaders requested the deployment of international support for its police, a request that was seconded by the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres. As a result, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution, sponsored by the US and Ecuador, to deploy a Kenyan-led multinational force to combat the prevalence of violent gangs in Haiti.
The resolution was supported by 13 members of the UN Security Council. China and Russia, two of the five permanent members, abstained, citing doubts over the efficacy of sending a force to Haiti without a legitimate and functional government. Kenya, which pledged to send 1,000 police personnel, will be joined by the Bahamas, Jamaica, and Antigua and Barbuda, who have also pledged to send undisclosed numbers of their police.
Under the resolution, the Multinational Security Support mission will be deployed for a year, with $200 million (R4 billion) in funding from the US. The MSS will work with the Haitian police in gathering intelligence on the gang networks and how they operate, as well as guarding sensitive areas like ports.
What is perhaps surprising in all this is Kenya’s decision to lead the MSS. It is not obvious how gang violence in one of the Caribbean’s poorest countries affects Kenya. In explaining Kenya’s decision, the country’s foreign minister at the time the decision was made, Alfred Mutua, was quoted as saying: “Kenya stands with persons of African descent across the world, including those in the Caribbean, and aligns with the African Union’s diaspora policy and our own commitment to pan-Africanism, and in this case, to ‘reclaiming of the Atlantic crossing’.”
But why would Kenya go to the trouble of putting out fires in a country on the other side of the Atlantic to demonstrate its pan-African credentials? It’s not like there is a shortage of trouble spots in its own neighbourhood. The answer is that Kenya’s mission to Haiti has nothing to do with pan-Africanism. It is a purely strategic decision in the context of its bilateral relationship with the US.
Just days before the approval of the mission to Haiti, Kenya and the US entered into a five-year defence agreement that will facilitate military technology transfers and joint counter-terrorism and counter-extreme violence initiatives, and enhance Kenya’s military capabilities. This is important as Kenya fights the terrorist outfit al-Shabaab, one of Kenya’s biggest security threats. As such, Kenya’s acceptance of the US request to contribute personnel to the Haiti intervention should be seen as a strategic calculation meant to enhance its own interests.
Dr Sizo Nkala is a Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies