Why Kenya wants to send police to Haiti and prospects of success

By Kristine Höglund, Patrick Mutahi, and Emma Elfversson

October 9, 2023

On 2 October, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) authorized Kenya to lead an international mission and dispatch 1,000 of its police officers to combat gangs in Haiti that are causing mayhem and instability in the country. Haitian officials have welcomed the move. The Western nations led by U.S. President Joe Biden have commended Kenya and promised 100 million USD to restore normalcy in the Caribbean country. Citizens of Haiti have, however, expressed mixed reactions over the intended deployment. What drives Kenya in this international intervention, and what are the prospects of success?

The critique

Critics have raised concerns that the Kenyan police have insufficient experience with international missions and are not French-speaking. The Kenya Defence Forces, under a U.N. command, have regularly carried out most of Kenya’s international peacekeeping missions.  Although Kenyan police have participated in the AU-led mission in Somalia and received training in counter-terrorism measures from the U.S., these experiences are very different from the challenges they would meet in Haiti.

Even more concerning is the critique about the dismal human rights record of the Kenyan police. The police organization remains highly influenced by colonial legacies and a long period of authoritarian rule. While efforts have been made to move towards more responsive and democratic policing, the police continue to transgress human rights and have used excessive force against Kenyan citizens. In 2022, Amnesty International reported at least 128 deaths due to extrajudicial police killings. The Independent Medico-Legal Unit (IMLU) recently revealed that it had recorded at least 128 cases of extrajudicial killings between October 2022 and August 2023. Over the summer of 2023, at least 30 people were killed as a result of a security crackdown by police on anti-government protests in Nairobi and other urban centres. In addition, corruption is widespread and normalised within the Kenyan police.  

Deep-rooted mistrust in Kenyan police

Unsurprisingly, Kenyans have limited trust in the police. Our research –  based on data from Afrobarometer –  demonstrates that citizens’ faith in the police has been consistently low between 2011 and 2019. Despite efforts to reform the police, in four rounds of survey results, more than 60% of the population reported no or just a little trust in the police.

Kenyan police cordon off Uhuru Park, Nairobi, to prevent a mass protest in 2008.
Credit: DEMOSH

We also find that urban and rural residents perceive the police differently; those in cities and urban centres have lower trust in the police than the rural population. Partly, we link this pattern to the challenging context of urban environments in general, where the police operate in a more heterogeneous and densely populated setting and where challenges are compounded by rapid urban growth. In Kenya and Haiti, nearly 50 per cent of the urban population resides in slums, as defined by UNHABITAT’s World Cities Report (2022).

Negative perceptions and low trust in police are in part due to the insecurity facing many urban residents in Kenya: it is in the informal settlements in cities where police have become notorious for arbitrary arrests and use of excessive force, disproportionally targeting young men in already disadvantaged and insecure areas. These practices have negative spillover effects on the urban population and make citizens in urban areas more likely to form negative understandings of the police than the rural population. In Haiti, gangs are the core source of insecurity in urban areas, where they control territory and resources and use indiscriminate violence against each other and civilians. While the situation in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, has reached an alarming level, criminal gangs in Kenya have, in a similar way, taken control over service delivery and important economic sectors in the urban centres, providing a pretext for the police to crack down with excessive force in these areas.   

What motivates Kenya?

So why does the Kenyan government invest in an international police mission? The move flows from geopolitical concerns. Kenya strives to position itself as a country promoting the values of Pan-Africanism and resisting neocolonialism globally. President Uhuru Kenyatta took steps to recast Kenya’s foreign policy while in office, and the current government under William Ruto has continued in the same direction. Motivated also by economic interest and regional stability, Kenya has contributed to peace efforts, including as a mediator in the peace deal in Ethiopia’s conflict with the Tigray region, in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). A series of high-level meetings have been hosted in Nairobi, most recently the Africa Climate Summit in early September.

Kenya is currently filling a gap in a situation where the demand is high, but the supply is limited. Many countries are wary of intervening in Haiti, where foreign meddling and a series of international interventions – the most recent being the U.N. operations in the wake of a devastating earthquake in 2010 – have mainly failed and been marred by scandals. In this context, the U.S. and other powerful actors are cheering Kenya on, while the human rights community is cautioning against intervention by a police force that already grapples with a lack of accountability and legitimacy on its home turf.

The Formed Police Unit of the Nigerian contingent of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) assist national police in containing student protests. Port au Prince, 2009. Credit: UN Photo/Logan Abassi

Looking forward

The violence by the G-Pep and G9 gangs and others fighting for control in Haiti’s capital city has spiralled out of control with devastating consequences for the population. The world needs to react. But the track record of the Kenyan police domestically – in particular regarding accountability for their operations in urban areas to combat criminal gangs – offers slight evidence for expecting the Kenyan police to perform better in Haiti. While the UNSC resolution has strong language on accountability and the international community has promised to keep a close watch on the mission, including to engage these concerns “very, very aggressively” as related by U.S. officials, question marks remain. The misuse of force, arbitrary policing practices and deep-rooted mistrust from the population raise serious doubts about the Kenyan police’s capacity to both reduce violence in crisis-ridden Haiti and to gain the trust of the Haitian people.

Kristine Höglund is Professor at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, Sweden, where she also received her PhD in 2004. Her research focuses on issues related to the causes and consequences of electoral violence; urban-rural dimensions of conflict and policing; and the dynamics of peace processes, peacebuilding and transitional justice.

Patrick Mutahi is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Human Rights and Policy Studies, Nairobi, Kenya. He received his PhD titled “Statehood, Sovereignty and Identities: Exploring Policing in Kenya’s Informal Settlements of Mathare and Kaptembwo” from the University of Edinburgh in 2022. His research interests are on policing, violence, crime and insecurity.

Emma Elfversson is Associate Professor at the Department of Government, Uppsala University. She received her PhD in Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University in 2017. Her research concerns urban/rural dimensions of organized violence, ethnic politics and communal conflict, and the role of state and non-state actors in addressing conflicts.

Header image: MINUSTAH police stand guard in front of the National Palace, Haiti, 2008. UN Photo/Logan Abassi.

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