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On 18 May, an NGO called MUDJJ (Movement Unforgettable Dessalines Jean-Jacques) wrote a letter to Dr Ekuru Aukot, founder of the Thirdway Alliance party, thanking him for defending the rights of the Haitian people. Dr Aukot had legally challenged the decision by President William Ruto to send 1,000 Kenyan police officers to Haiti to deal with gangs harassing and murdering civilians there. A High Court ruled in January that this decision – which has the support of US President Joe Biden – was “unconstitutional, illegal and invalid”. Biden has promised US$100,000 to help Kenya lead the Multinational Security Support Mission for Haiti.

Part of the problem with this deal is that one of the parties involved – the now exiled Prime Minister Henry Ariel – was not democratically elected and so had no authority to sign any deal with any government;   President Ruto had essentially made a deal with an illegitimate government. Nor has he made a deal with the transitional government now in place, which most Haitians also consider illegitimate. 

Ariel was illegally appointed as prime minister after President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in July 2021. Moïse had extended his term without holding an election. In the letter to Dr Aukot, MUDJJ argued that the deal was not only unconstitutional but was also “misaligned with the interests of the Haitian people”. It also stated that “the actions of President William Ruto, which appear to align more with external influences than with the principle of African solidarity and self-determination, are particularly troubling”. 

As with all court orders that challenge his decisions, President Ruto has decided to ignore the court’s ruling and go ahead with sending an advance team of 200 police officers to Haiti to lead a mission that supposedly will deal with the gangs that are making life difficult for Haitians. But no Haitian and no legitimate Haitian government asked for this help. And even though the United Nations Security Council authorised the deployment of a stabilisation mission for Haiti headed by Kenya, the details of the deal remain secret, which in itself is problematic. 

There is also the question of why police officers, and not soldiers, are being dispatched there. And what can 1,000 police officers achieve in a country where hardened gang members with sophisticated weapons roam the streets? Yes, maybe Kenya, as Ruto suggested, needs to do something for its African brothers across the Atlantic. But at what cost? And why isn’t the US, which is only 700 miles from Haiti, not sending its own forces to deal with the gangs? 

Moreover, as MUDJJ argued, the root cause of Haiti’s instability is not that it is prone to produce violent gangs, but that these gangs are the outcome of decades of foreign meddling and influence that has led to more, not less, instability and violence, and has had disastrous consequences for the Haitian people. “These interventions have, unfortunately, frequently served to undermine our nation’s autonomy and impede our progress. The current aspiration of the Haitian people is to see leadership that genuinely reflects its will,” stated the MUDLL letter.

Foreign interference rooted in imperialism

Indeed, Haiti has remained one of the poorest and most unstable countries in the Western hemisphere because foreign forces – mostly French and American – have not left it alone to flourish or grow. Haiti was the first country where African slaves carried out a successful insurrection against French slave owners and declared themselves free in 1804. This slave-led revolution, however, did not gain the world’s first black republic economic independence or recognition from its former coloniser. 

In 1825, France declared it would only recognise Haiti as an independent nation if it paid 150 million francs (ten times Haiti’s annual budget) as compensation to French slave and landowners for the loss of their revenue from the colony, an absurd and highly exploitative form of blackmail – which has been described as “the greatest heist in history” – that left Haiti in a state of indebtedness for more than a century. Haiti was forced to borrow the money from French banks to pay this ransom and only managed to pay the full amount with interest in 1947. It was as if to punish slaves for daring to set themselves free, the French ensured that the country would never achieve true independence. Punitive indebtedness had a crushing impact on the country’s ability to develop its infrastructure and improve services for its people, which often caused political unrest. “Haiti is Black, and we have not yet forgiven Haiti for being Black,” said the African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass more than a century ago.

Haiti’s sovereignty was challenged again in 1915, when the US invaded Haiti following the assassination of its president. The US occupied Haiti untill 1934 on the pretext of restoring political stability. All these historical factors have contributed to Haiti’s lack of agency in its own development. 

The US has also been installing leaders in Haiti who have brought only pain to Haitians. A clear example is the US-backed President François Duvalier, also known as Papa Doc, who between 1957 and 1971 terrorised the Haitian people through his death squads known as “Tonton Makout”. Writing in the Guardian, Pooja Bhatia says, “In Haiti, foreign intervention and humanitarian disaster have become so intertwined that it is hard to tell one from the other… More subtly, over the past decade, intervention – or the threat of it – has been used to prop up leaders who do not represent the will of the Haitian people… Broadly speaking, intervention hollows out the state, kneecaps Haiti’s chances of democracy and legalises official impunity – all of which lay the groundwork for more disaster.” 

As the celebrated Kenyan author Ngugi was Thiong’o commented recently in a tearful YouTube video, sending black people to kill black people in a country like Haiti is “incredible” because it is being ignorant of Haiti’s history. In another video, he described Ruto’s decision to send police to Haiti as: “Hyenas taking our kids to Haiti for dollars… He is burying their bodies in a way that will stink as he smiles with white teeth that are only washed with dollars.” The Pan-Africanist Sobukwe Shukura called the Kenyan mission to Haiti “an imperialist charade”. 

“A poster child for the inadequacies of aid”

Despite the large presence of NGOs and aid agencies, Haiti, with a population of nearly 12 million people, remains one of the most impoverished nations on the planet, with more than half of its population living below the poverty line. Human development reports have consistently ranked this Caribbean nation alongside some of the poorest countries in Africa and Asia. 

Despite huge pledges to help and develop Haiti, the country remains, as one Western journalist put it, “a poster child for the inadequacies of aid”. The worst example of this is the January 2010 devastating earthquake in Haiti, which left thousands of people homeless. The scale of the destruction was so immense that a global appeal was launched to help those who had lost their homes and livelihoods. The United States and other rich countries, as well as private foundations and individuals, raised billions of dollars in aid to support Haiti’s reconstruction efforts. 

But many believe that most of the more than US$6 billion raised in the name of Haiti in the aftermath of the catastrophic earthquake never reached the intended beneficiaries. Vijaya Ramachandran of the Center for Global Development, and her research assistant, Julie Walz, conducted an investigation that found that more than 90 per cent of humanitarian aid raised for Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake went to intermediaries, such as UN agencies, international NGOs, and private contractors. Yet, there was little or no information on how the money was spent. In fact, their investigation showed that out of the thousands of organisations and projects that received funds for the relief effort, only four submitted reports on expenditure.

One joint investigation in 2015 by National Public Radio (NPR) and ProPublica found that despite having raised US$500 million for Haiti’s earthquake victims who had lost their homes, the American Red Cross had only managed to build six permanent houses. Yet the organisation claimed that it had built permanent houses for more than 130,000 people. Is this why thousands of Haitians still live in tents today, and large sections of the country still lack good roads and reliable electricity and water supply?

Sexual abuse 

Attempts by the UN and other agencies to help Haiti have also resulted in more, not less, pain for the Haitian people. After the US-backed removal of the popular democratically elected Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004, the UN sent peacekeepers under the auspices of the UN Stabilisation Mission (MINUSTAH) to Haiti, which stayed in the country till 2019. But the mission was marred by several scandals. Peacekeepers were known to target civilians in the poorest parts of the capital Port-au-Prince, which led to a lot of resentment against them.  

The presence of large numbers of mostly young and sexually active foreign peacekeepers had also created an environment where vulnerable women and children were being sexually exploited or abused by the very people who were supposed to be protecting them. According to an internal UN report obtained by Associated Press in 2017, at least 134 Sri Lankan UN peacekeepers had exploited nine Haitian children in a sex ring from 2004 to 2007. One of the victims said that the soldiers would pass her number along to incoming contingents, who would then call her for sex. One boy claimed that he had had sex with more than 20 Sri Lankan soldiers. Another teenage boy claimed that he had been gang-raped by Uruguayan soldiers who even had the audacity to film the attack on a cell phone. Although 114 of these peacekeepers were sent home after the report came out, none of them were prosecuted or court-martialled in their countries. 

There have even been cases where UN peacekeepers have contributed directly to massive loss of life, but even in such cases, the UN is reluctant to take responsibility for them or to compensate the victims. In a scandalous case in 2010, for example, UN peacekeepers from Nepal were implicated in spreading cholera in Haiti which killed about 10,000 people. It is widely believed that sewage from a UN peacekeeping mission’s base in Haiti had contaminated a major water supply, resulting in the spread of the disease. Despite investigations that showed that the strain of cholera in Haiti matched the one prevalent in Nepal at the time, the UN failed to take responsibility for the deaths – ironically, Haiti had not experienced a cholera outbreak for decades until the Nepalese peacekeepers arrived.

To add insult to injury, a class-action suit filed against the UN by the affected victims and their families was dismissed by a US court on the grounds that the UN and its employees enjoyed immunity from prosecution. Although then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon later expressed regret about the role UN peacekeepers had played in spreading the deadly disease in Haiti, describing it as “a lasting stain on the UN’s reputation”, none of the victims or their families have so far received any compensation for their loss or suffering. This is simply unacceptable because, as one legal expert put it, even if the UN invoked immunity in this particular case, it still had a moral responsibility to compensate the victims. These and other examples make it easy to understand why Haitians fear foreign troops on their soil so much. 

I shudder at the thought of what might not just happen to the Kenyan police officers who are being dispatched to Haiti, where they will be outnumbered by gang members with sophisticated weapons (the gang leader Jimmy Chérizier, aka Barbecue, has already threatened to massacre the Kenyan police officers, whom he refers to as “invaders”) but also to the Haitian people, who will now be hunted down by a police force well known for its penchant for extrajudicial killings. I also worry about the Haitian women and children in Haiti who may become targets of sexually exploitation by the multinational force, as they were by UN peacekeepers.  

The Haitian people deserve to determine their own destiny. Enough of the more than two centuries of foreign interference that has caused much pain, hindered Haiti’s development and undermined its sovereignty. Kenya should find other ways to help Haiti, for example, by setting up mechanisms to dialogue with the gang leaders, hearing their grievances, and coming up with an amicable truce that is acceptable to the majority of the Haitian people and that leads to the election of a democratic government (which is what some gang leaders say they want). But sending police officers there to quell violence that is structural and has its roots in a painful history is not the way to go. The Haitian people may never forgive Kenya for siding with their oppressors.