The US Plan to Outsource Its Imperialism in Haiti to Kenya

The US has long outsourced meddling in Haiti to Global South countries. Recently Kenya has agreed to take over leading a US-backed multinational police intervention there — justifying its own “stabilization” mission with Pan-Africanist rhetoric.

President of Kenya William Ruto speaks at the United Nations headquarters on September 21, 2023 in New York City. (Kena Betancur / Getty Images)

On May 23, President Joe Biden will host Kenyan president William Ruto at the White House for a state visit that marks the sixtieth anniversary of US-Kenyan diplomatic relations. This gathering (the first such visit by an African head of state since 2008) is expected to coincide with the formal launch of the US-backed, Kenyan-led multinational police intervention in Haiti, signaling — in the words of White House press secretary Karine Jeanne-Pierre — that “African leadership is essential to addressing global priorities.”

As far as the plan to “stabilize” Haiti is concerned, the US-Kenya alliance represents a convergence of strategic interests between the United States as an imperial power and Kenya as an increasingly assertive player in the Global South. Given the widely criticized history of imperial meddling in Haiti, the Biden administration has sought to avoid being seen to play a direct role in the most recent plan to intervene in the country (a plan that is dominated by US concerns about migration rather than the well-being of Haiti’s people).

By outsourcing the mission to Kenya, the Biden administration hopes to convince the American public that the United States is not committing itself in yet another foreign military occupation, and to persuade Haitian citizens — much as it did in 2004 when Brazil agreed to lead the UN stabilization mission known as MINUSTAH — that the interveners are comrades rather than colonizers. Strategically downplayed is the fact that (along with at least $300 million in financial backing) the United States will be providing logistical support to the mission in Haiti, including intelligence sharing, communications, and air power — meaning that this is as much a US-led mission as it is a Kenyan-led one.

The Biden administration has already rewarded Kenya with a five-year defense cooperation agreement designed to bolster the country’s security capabilities in East Africa, including its ongoing military campaign against the Somali militant group al-Shabaab. But Kenya’s calculations extend beyond crass materialism and a desire to please its more powerful ally. Like other Global South leaders, including his own predecessor Uhuru Kenyatta, President Ruto has recognized that security is a terrain on which to showcase Kenyan leadership more broadly.

In 2021, for example, the Kenyan military established an office of strategic communications with the explicit goal of shaping public opinion of the Kenya Defence Forces, whose collusion with al-Shabaab in the illicit trade of charcoal and sugar had garnered critical scrutiny. That same year, Kenyan visual production company Foxton Media released its first full-length feature film, a military action thriller called Mission to Rescue. In line with the company’s objective of highlighting the successes of the country’s security bodies, the film extols the bravery and sacrifice of Kenyan special operations forces in this fictionalized account of a mission to rescue a group of hostages from the hands of al-Shabaab. Garnering millions of online viewers in Kenya and beyond, the film won the ZIFF (Zanzibar International Film Festival) award as the best feature film in East Africa and was Kenya’s submission to the Academy Awards in 2022.

Kenya’s rise as the nominal leader of the Haitian mission therefore constitutes part of a wider effort to brand itself as an exceptional black nation that stands poised to help others rather than the more stereotypical “failed” state that exists at the mercy of (white) liberal interventionism. It is also symbolically suggestive of a less hierarchical, racially stratified world order wherein the image of the Euro-American “savior” is replaced with that of the black African “comrade.” Noteworthy here is that Kenyan leaders frame their decision to become involved in Haiti in the language of Pan-African solidarity rather than as a charitable offer of support — a reminder that invocations of Pan-Africanism, particularly when wielded by state officials, often work to obfuscate rather than center questions of power.

Kenya has been keen to “help” since at least September 2021, when Kenya’s former president Uhuru Kenyatta chaired the first ever Africa–Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Summit. Soon thereafter, during Kenya’s tenure as a nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council, it hosted an Arria Formula meeting on the situation in Haiti. At that gathering, Kenya offered to train up to two thousand Haitian security personnel, health workers, teachers, and any other professions deemed vital to efforts to rebuild the country’s institutions.

Hidden behind the Kenyan government’s Pan-Africanist rhetoric is what will soon be the direct subjugation of the Haitian population at the hands of the Kenyan state, aided and abetted by the United States. Meanwhile, President Ruto is hoping to sideline growing frustrations among his own citizenry about spiraling debt and the skyrocketing costs of fuel and food, which in 2023 triggered mass protests where police arrested hundreds of protestors and killed thirty. Going forward, outside observers who might otherwise draw critical attention to the Kenyan state’s excessively violent attempts to manage the country’s troubling economic situation are likely to be more preoccupied with its new role in Haiti.

It is precisely the embrace of militarized solutions at home in Kenya that should inform our understanding of what to expect in Haiti. In the past two decades, the Kenyan state has capitalized on its role as a key US partner in the “war on terror” to train and equip — with US support — elite paramilitary units that are both ideologically oriented and materially equipped for war. The mainstream media’s generalized references to “the Kenyan police” when discussing the planned Haiti deployment entirely obscures Kenya’s ties to US empire. More concretely, it glosses over the turn to counterinsurgency strategy in places where the United States has not officially declared war. Analysts who have questioned whether the Kenyan police are capable of defeating Haiti’s “fearsome gangs” must also ask what constitutes success, given the large number of Kenyan Muslim families who have lost relatives to the deadly practices of Kenya’s combat-trained “rapid response” units in Somalia and within Kenya itself.

Indeed, in the context of ongoing efforts to quell al-Shabaab in East Africa, US military strategists conceive of Kenya — much like Haiti itself — as a “gray zone,” or a complex, volatile political environment that is in need of “stabilization.” It is precisely because the US military command for Africa (AFRICOM) has invested years of time and money to cultivate trusted partners within the Kenyan security establishment that the US Institute of Peace proclaimed that the country “has extensive experience in these kinds of gray-area operations and their personnel will be a quick study on what is required to succeed.” Put simply, Kenya’s brutal policing at home and in its own backyard has served as an apprenticeship for its interventions abroad.

Let us be clear: the seemingly innocuous language of “stabilization” is designed to distract our attention from the fact that Kenyan police (likely in direct communication with US military and intelligence operatives) will soon launch mass pacification efforts with potentially deadly consequences for the people of Haiti. Strategic analysts following the situation on the ground speak openly about the need for a militarized response to combat what they characterize as a full-blown insurgency.

Much like the ongoing — undeclared — war against al-Shabaab in East Africa, the human impact of this intervention will undoubtedly extend beyond the geography of Haiti itself. Indeed, given the very real economic challenges that Ruto faces back home in Kenya along with his continued thirst for international support and acclaim, there is a very real possibility that the Kenyan state — like Brazil before it — intends to use Haiti as a laboratory for its own future pacification efforts at home and abroad.

Global South states like Haiti have historically served as laboratories for Euro-American imperial powers to test new techniques of control. But the United States’ cynical embrace of Kenya as the purported Pan-African “face” of intervention is a sign of the changing nature of imperialism. To understand these transformations, we must be attentive to both the domestic politics of countries in the Global South, and the transactional relationships they are able to form with the United States in order to advance their own agendas.