Haiti transitional council sworn in as gunshots ring out

Haiti's acting Prime Minister Michel Patrick Boivert speaks during the swearing in of a new transitional council in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on April 25, 2024 (Clarens SIFFROY)
Haiti's acting Prime Minister Michel Patrick Boivert speaks during the swearing in of a new transitional council in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on April 25, 2024 (Clarens SIFFROY)

A long-awaited transitional ruling council was sworn in Thursday in Haiti, marking a critical step forward in restoring functional government in a country rocked by months of gang violence.

The Caribbean nation's embattled, unpopular and unelected prime minister Ariel Henry submitted his formal resignation as the new nine-member governing body was tasked with restoring a semblance of order.

"This morning's ceremony confers on you the reins of the destiny of the nation and of the people," Michel Patrick Boisvert, until now the economy minister and now the acting prime minister in this transitional phase, told the eight men and one woman who make up the new governing body.

Bursts of automatic gunfire from gang members echoed through central Port-au-Prince and Delmas in the suburbs as the ceremony unfolded, a sign of just how much work lies ahead for the new authorities.

Images shared on social media showed the council members greeted with fanfare at the presidential palace, where they took the oath of office. They were later sworn in at the prime minister's office.

Henry -- who had promised in March to step down once a council was installed, as gangs rose up and demanded his ouster -- thanked the Haitian people "for the opportunity to serve our country with integrity, wisdom and honor."

"Haiti will be reborn," he wrote in his resignation letter, which was released Thursday but dated Wednesday, from Los Angeles.

One of the council's first tasks will be to appoint a new full-fledged prime minister.

Haiti has no functioning parliament and hasn't had a president since the assassination of Jovenel Moise in 2021. Elections were last held in 2016.

The new transitional body is scheduled to lead the country until fresh polls, with an elected government to take over by February 6, 2026.

- Violent uprising -

A country of 11.6 million, Haiti has suffered from poverty, political instability and natural disasters for decades.

But things took a turn for the worse in late February as powerful and well-armed gangs that control most of the capital went on a rampage they said was aimed at toppling Henry.

They assaulted police stations, prisons, government buildings and the airport, triggering a social breakdown so acute that the head of UNICEF likened life in Haiti to a scene out of "Mad Max."

Today gangs control 80 percent of the capital and commit frequent random violence including murders, rape, looting and kidnappings.

"This is the task to which you are called, ladies and gentlemen, members of the presidential council," Boisvert said at the swearing in.

"To lead the country to peace, to economic and social recovery, to sacred unity, to participation for everyone, so as to address the challenge of the development and wellbeing of the country," he added.

Boisvert had already taken over some official communications in recent weeks, with Henry stuck outside the country and unable to return after the the gangs rose up while he was abroad, on a trip to Kenya.

- Gangs excluded -

It is unknown how the gangs will respond to the new council, made up of figures from across Haiti's political spectrum, after voicing anger at their exclusion from transitional talks.

Gang leader Jimmy "Barbecue" Cherizier, whose 1,000-member G9 alliance controls parts of Port-au-Prince, was among those excluded.

The violence, exacerbated by prison breaks, has sparked a worsening humanitarian crisis, with aid agencies pleading for help amid growing hunger, surging poverty and a lack of health care.

The United States welcomed the swearing in of the new council.

"Today marks a critical step towards free and fair elections," White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.

The United Nations says some 360,000 Haitians are internally displaced, with the gang violence forcing 95,000 people to flee the capital and pushing five million into "acute hunger."

Last year, a UN-backed multinational force -- to be led by Kenya -- was tasked with deploying to the country and helping its beleaguered police rein in criminal gangs.

But Kenya then said it had to put the mission on hold until the transitional council took power.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called Thursday for its swift deployment.