The assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise, who governed for more than four years amid increasing political instability and surging gang violence, has shaken the Caribbean nation and drawn condemnation around the world.
Moise, 53, was killed in the early hours of Wednesday at his private home in the capital, Port-au-Prince, in what Prime Minister Claude Joseph said was “a highly coordinated attack by a highly trained and heavily armed group”.
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“Haiti has lost a true statesman,” Joseph said. “We will ensure that those responsible for this heinous act are swiftly brought to justice.”
Moise’s killing has been widely condemned by world leaders as well as United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who called on all Haitians “to preserve the constitutional order, remain united in the face of this abhorrent act and reject all violence”.
Joseph has sought to reassure people in the aftermath of the attack, with the Haitian authorities saying a countrywide “state of siege” first announced after Moise’s killing would last 15 days as they investigate and seek out the perpetrators.
Le Chef du gouvernement veut rassurer les partenaires de la communauté internationale qu'il a le contrôle de la situation et que, sous sa présidence, le Conseil des Ministre assure la continuité de l'Etat. 2/2#Haïti #Primature
— Primature de la République d’Haïti (@PrimatureHT) July 7, 2021
Later published in an official gazette, the “state of siege” notice signed by Joseph and other Haitian ministers gives authorities the power to enter peoples’ homes, ban meetings that they believe could cause disorder, and “generally take all measures” deemed necessary to arrest the attackers.
Joseph’s office also said on Wednesday evening that he was meeting with the Core Group of the Organization of American States (OAS) to discuss the political fallout of Moise’s death and wanted to reassure the international community “that he has control of the situation”.
Amnesty International condemned Moise’s killing, urging an immediate and impartial investigation into the assassination “alongside the grave human rights violations and chronic impunity that ordinary people have suffered under his watch”.
“This is a wake-up call for the international community, and for the Haitian authorities who have overseen chronic impunity and ignored the calls of human rights defenders that has paved the way for such a serious crisis,” Erika Guevara-Rosas, the group’s Americas Director, said in a statement.
Moise’s time in office was marked by numerous controversies, including the disputed length of his presidential term, a contentious plan to hold a constitutional referendum later this year, as well as accusations that his government was “complicit” in gang violence.
The president was a virtual unknown to the general public before he won a first round of Haitian elections in October 2015.
But the vote was marred by widespread voter fraud and a presidential runoff was pushed back several times. A vote was held again in November 2016 and Moise won 55.6 percent support amid 18.1 percent voter turnout – nearly 591,000 votes out of a possible 6.1 million. He officially took office on February 7, 2017.
A former entrepreneur who had set up a string of businesses in the north of the country, he burst onto the political stage with a populist message of building up the country, which suffers from widespread poverty.
His past ventures included water treatment, the energy sector and agricultural production, the latter of which earned him his nickname, “Neg Bannan nan” or “The Banana Man” in Creole.
He had been handpicked by former President Michel Martelly in 2015 as the PHTK candidate to succeed him.
Moise’s focus on agriculture and his provincial home became key campaign themes in the following election. Backed by a communications team that was more advanced than those of his rivals, Moise visited all 145 of Haiti’s communes.
Contentious presidential term
He had been ruling by presidential decree for more than a year after dissolving a majority of parliament in January 2020, amid a delay in legislative elections due to political gridlock and protests that paralysed the country in 2019.
Rights groups had condemned his use of decrees, including ones that effectively removed judges from the supreme court (Cour de Cassation) in violation of the Haitian Constitution. Moise then appointed replacements to the court, also without following constitutional guidelines.
The length of his term also has been a major point of contention over the past year.
Moise said his five-year term began in 2017 – and therefore would end in February 2022 – but Haitian opposition groups, civil society organisations as well as the country’s leading jurists all said his term expired this past February, urging him to step down.
The president insisted he had one more year, however, and said he would step down in 2022. “Democracy works when we all agree to play by the rules of the game … Today marks the first day of my fifth year,” he said on February 7.
That same day, Haitian government officials said they had foiled an attempt to overthrow Moise. Nearly two dozen people were arrested at that time, including a Supreme Court judge, whose detention was denounced by top legal experts as “illegal”.
Surging gang violence
Political instability and gang violence have increased in recent months, as well.
Thousands of women and children were displaced by gang violence in the Haitian capital last month, the United Nations’ child rights agency said in mid-June, warning that a growing number of families in Port-au-Prince now lack clean water and other necessities.
Just last week, journalist Diego Charles and political activist Antoinette Duclair were shot dead amid a spate of overnight shootings in Port-au-Prince, drawing calls for the Haitian government to do more to stem rising attacks.
The uptick in violence is linked to changing gang alliances and territorial disputes, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) had said.
In May, Haitian rights group National Human Rights Defense Network (RNDDH) said “people have been burned alive, houses have been set on fire with the meagre possessions of the victims. Vehicles have been hijacked and at least one woman has been raped.
“The silence of the state authorities proves their total disinterest in the massive and systematic violations of the rights to life and physical security, the private property of the people who live in these deprived neighbourhoods where heinous crimes have been perpetrated,” the group said.
Under Moise, kidnappings for ransom also surged, reflecting the growing influence of armed gangs in the country – such as the abduction in April targeting 10 people including seven Catholic clergy.