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Kenya's problem is now Haiti's, too

You'll never guess which superpower is responsible for a big piece of both

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After nearly two years of negotiations and fierce debate, the day finally arrived: On Tuesday, hundreds of Kenyan police landed in Haiti to launch a long-promised, U.S.-sponsored “multinational security support mission.” The militarized officers, dressed in green camouflage and gray helmets, and carrying automatic rifles, filed out of a white Kenya Airways jet (“The Pride of Africa”) at Port-au-Prince’s Toussaint Louvertrue International Airport, before heading to their still-under-construction base. In a welcome speech, Haiti’s new acting prime minister, Gary Conille, pledged the force would allow his shell of a government to “regain power” from gangs and paramilitaries who have filled the vacuum left by the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, nearly three years ago.

But at the exact same moment, over 7,400 miles away in Nairobi, those Kenyan officers’ comrades were showing the limitations of both their training and iron-fisted approach. For weeks, youth protests against this rising cost of living — which has been soaring in Kenya, like almost everywhere else, thanks to supply chain problems, global wars, and the lingering effects of the pandemic shutdown — and a proposed tax hike had been subjected to an increasingly brutal police crackdown. Days earlier, an independent police oversight board alleges, a Kenyan cop shot a protester dead.

Which is why, on Tuesday, just as the long-awaited Kenyan mission arrived in Haiti — a mission that Kenyan President William Ruto had promised would fulfill his country’s “moral, Pan-African, multilateral, and humanitarian obligation as a people and a nation” — enraged protesters were storming his own parliament in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. Kenyan police opened fire, using live ammunition, as well as unleashing tear gas and dyed water cannons. At least 22 people were killed, the Associated Press reported.

Ruto, who had just weeks before been feted by President Biden in a state dinner at the White House, found himself in the most dire crisis of his presidency, all thanks to a spasm of uncontrolled police violence — just as his Haitian counterpart was welcoming hundreds of those same cops to his Caribbean republic.

Kenyan police spray protesters with pink-dyed water in downtown Nairobi, on June 25, 2024. (Photo by LUIS TATO/AFP via Getty Images)

Indeed, skeptics (I’m one of them) have warned for years that this is pretty much exactly the sort of chaos and repression a militarized response is likely to bring to Haiti. How, we keep asking, will a contingent that has never been to Haiti before, that doesn’t speak the language or know the culture or history, carry out any kind of delicate policework, much less navigate the complex lattices of corruption and shifting alliances within and between the Haitian National Police and Haitian street gangs? (As I’ve written before, there are many former — and likely current — HNP officers within the gangs. The most notorious of the current paramilitary leaders, Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier, was a former member of the HNP’s elite anti-riot and anti-gang task force.)

And Haiti’s situation is probably dicier than Kenya’s, at least in terms of politics. Ruto was, for a time at least, the popular president of a relatively booming East African state. He came to power on a pro-poor platform, only to get caught between his campaign promises and the realities of negotiating with the real powers in his neck of the decolonizing world: the International Monetary Fund and the superpowers. The World Bank, based in Washington, is by far Kenya’s largest foreign creditor, followed by its own bondholders, China, the U.S. and European Union, and the African Development Bank. In 2021, before Ruto came to office, the Kenyan government entered into a bailout agreement with the IMF, aimed at lessening its debt burden. (Over a quarter of Kenyan tax revenues go toward covering the interest on its loans alone.) The tax bill, which would have included steep increases in sales taxes on food staples and construction, was in large part an effort to meet those IMF requirements.

Haiti’s Conille on the other hand has no constituency at all — he is a longtime bureaucrat, most prominently as Bill Clinton’s chief of staff in his days as U.N. Special Envoy to Haiti1 before and after the 2010 earthquake — who has never been elected to any office. He was installed by a transitional council formed, very publicly, by Secretary of State Antony Blinken. As bad as Haiti’s situation had gotten under Moïse, and as dire as it was in the immediate aftermath of his still-largely unsolved assassination in July 2021, it became immeasurably worse over the ensuing three years, as the U.S.-and-allies’ chosen caretaker prime minister, Ariel Henry, refused to hold new elections or resurrect any semblance of a democratic or even administrative structure.2 That is the system the new Kenyan force is tasked with standing up, from the barrel of a gun.

Behind both ends of this partnership stands the United States. For nearly three years after Moïse’s assassination, the Biden administration’s solution for Haiti was the only solution both American and allied Haitian elites ever come up with: an armed force to put down bandits and create an “opening” for a U.S.-backed transitional government to “restore order” and with it the balance of trade, always with the promise of democratic elections sometime in the near term. (Other solutions, including a broad-based, widely endorsed Haitian plan to restore governance through a partnership between independent political parties and civil society went entirely ignored.)

In this case, the mission was doubly outsourced: After nearly a century of direct U.S. interventions in Haiti, the U.S. started outsourcing the role to United Nations peacekeepers in the 1990s and 2000s. But the main U.N. peacekeeping mission, MINUSTAH, which lasted until 2017, was such a debacle — sowing cholera, fathering out-of-wedlock children, killing protesters — that the U.N. wasn’t going to take on such a role again under its own aegis. The U.N. and U.S. thus went looking for a third-party nation to lead the mission. After Canada, and possibly a few other countries, passed on the honor, the Kenyans — eager for a superpower alliance, prestige, and possibly some debt relief — bit. It was no coincidence that, after President Ruto agreed to lead the U.S.-sponsored mission, he was rewarded with “non-NATO major ally” status and the aforementioned White House state dinner.

In other words, the newfound Nairobi-Port-au-Prince axis runs straight down Pennsylvania Avenue NW, with stops along the way at the World Bank and the Oval Office. So outsourcing or no, whatever this new Kenyan force does in the First Black Republic, we will own a large piece of it.

Haitian Prime Minister Garry Conille with Kenyan and Haitian officials pose for a picture today, June 26, with the freshly arrived Kenyan contingent. (Photo by CLARENS SIFFROY/AFP via Getty Images)

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1  Conille was briefly prime minister under President Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly, widely seen as a U.S.-appointed babysitter for the unpredictable pop-star-turned-right-wing/pro-business leader. Martelly fired him within months and appointed his own former business partner instead.

2  Haiti’s current debt burden is less than Kenya’s, thanks to an earthquake-era debt forgiveness push (though it has since risen again thanks to petroleum-linked loans from Veneuzela, and a COVID-era boost from the IMF), but that’s the short-term picture. The historical story is one of Haiti being ravaged by world-historically predatory creditors, primarily France and the United States, who started out by punishing the country for having overthrown slavery in 1804, then just keep ravaging it for their own ends.

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