March 9, 2024 - 8:00am

It has become insidiously normal to witness Haiti, among the most corrupt political basket cases in the world, veer from crisis to crisis amid coups, natural disasters, assassinations, gangsterism and failed governments. But the current crisis, which has been ongoing since 2021 when then-President Jovenel MoĂŻse was killed by Colombian mercenaries (who gave the orders remains unknown), has reached new catastrophic levels this week, as the country seemingly hurtles towards civil war.

Where does one start? The government is effectively non-existent, as Haiti still has no elected officials. Millions are facing hunger. Cholera has surged. Fuel is scarce. There is no civic peace as armed gangs attached to demagogues and political movements practically rule the streets. Just a few days ago, gangs seized the airport and attacked several prisons, instigating a huge jailbreak and leading to a state of emergency being declared.

The head honcho of the gang alliance G9, Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier, declared that if current Prime Minister Ariel Henry didn’t resign and “if the international community continues to support him, we’ll be heading straight for a civil war that will lead to genocide.”

Why Haiti has been a Hobbesian basket case for a long time is a very intricate question, one influenced by multiple historical and social factors weaved together to create a perfect storm.

Firstly, right after its independence in 1804, the country had to pay an indemnity of 150 million francs to its former colonial master France. In return, it received diplomatic recognition to compensate for the slave owner’s loss of “property” — which it only stopped paying in 1947 — that severely deformed its economic development by encumbering the use of domestic funds to kickstart development projects. Secondly, like many postcolonial states, Haiti has been cursed with an oligarchic ruling elite which plunders the country for its own gain and dictatorially rules over an incredibly pauperised majority.

What’s more, it has been a victim of frequent interventions. The United States has treated Haiti like a semi-colony and supported many of the various regimes that have ruined the country, most notoriously that of Papa Doc Duvalier. The UN’s 2004 occupation was ostensibly geared towards “stabilisation”, yet it created the perfect environment for NGOs and international donors to go wild, thus creating a situation in which Haiti is barely sustained by external donations, rather than by domestic growth.

This process went into overdrive after the 2010 earthquake shattered the already exiguous state capacity and led to even more aid money flooding in, making Haiti less a sovereign state and more a dependency of the “international community”.

This void provides fertile soil for the reign of gangsterism the nation now endures. Politicians and oligarchs use gangs to intimidate opposition, impose their authority on communities, and extort money and votes. Their firepower has been bolstered by weaponry mainly smuggled in from the United States, often making them more powerful than the Haitian state’s security forces. Gang warfare has become the means of doing politics, which will only be to the detriment of the Haitian people.

Haiti — or Saint Domingue, as it was known back then — was in 1804 the site of surely one of the greatest moments in human history. For the first time ever, an enslaved people organised a revolution, emancipated themselves, beat off multiple great powers and created a new independent state — the first black republic — where slavery was abolished in toto. Which makes its current history of ruin and dependency even more tragic.

Ralph Leonard is a British-Nigerian writer on international politics, religion, culture and humanism.