28 Feb 2020

Fauna / Cattle rustling: from cultural practice to deadly organised crime

East African governments must protect their pastoralists by ratifying the protocol on cattle raiding.

Cattle rustling or raiding is no longer a cultural practice, but a form of organised crime committed by international criminal networks. It is facilitated by an increasing proliferation of weapons, according to a study by ENACT transnational organised crime researchers at the Institute for Security Studies.

‘Traditionally, small-scale stock theft was a way of balancing community wealth and power, but crime and capitalism have commercialised this practice, making it a significant economic threat,’ the researchers say. The practice has caused many deaths among rural communities and security forces in Kenya and South Sudan.

Cattle raiding in 2017 and 2018 was characterised by high-intensity conflicts that left dozens killed or maimed, and negatively affected human security and development in the region. In Kenya’s West Pokot and Elgeyo-Marakwet counties, 30 people were killed during the first five months of 2019. This followed what the authorities called conflict – but what was in fact cattle rustling carried out as a criminal enterprise.

In Uganda, authorities recovered 400 head of cattle stolen by Turkana rustlers from Kenya responsible for increased cattle rustling at the end of 2019, the death of several people and the theft of thousands of head of cattle.

Responses to the cattle raiding problem by East African countries have so far been ineffective

In South Sudan, 42 people were killed and 78 wounded in Bieh State after armed Murle tribesmen attacked cattle keepers, stealing more than 100 head of cattle at the beginning of 2019. In December, gunmen stole 400 cattle and killed 11 herdsmen and wounded seven others in Jonglei State.

Spurred by the proliferation of small weapons, criminals target small-scale pastoralists who are the backbone of the regional beef industry. Their livelihoods are threatened by criminals who supply stolen beef to growing urban meat markets worth about US$500 million in Kenya alone.

Cattle are an agricultural and cultural mainstay for millions of nomadic African pastoralists. The impact of livestock theft on marginalised communities is severe. It deprives people of their livelihoods and increases poverty. It’s often breadwinners who are injured or killed in raids, fuelling communal grievances and revenge attacks.

Cross-border criminal networks use advanced logistics and market information to continue their illicit activities. Cattle rustling as a form of organised crime is embedded in the wider cattle trade business enabled by government corruption, with state officials turning a blind eye or collaborating with criminals.

Cattle raiding in 2017 and 2018 was characterised by high-intensity conflicts that left dozens killed or maimed

The ENACT study reveals that some politicians use bribery to induce rural communities to get involved in cattle rustling networks. The motive is two-fold: to raise money to fund increasingly expensive election campaigns, and to attack, disempower and disenfranchise voters favourable to their rivals.

Cattle rustlers also exploit weak cross-border coordination between governments in the region. Cattle lords recruit and arm rural warriors to steal cattle for sale to abattoirs in towns or cross into neighbouring countries where they sell the cattle. Stolen cattle are easy to traffic as they can be disguised as a legal commodity.

Responses to the problem by East African countries have so far been ineffective. States in the region have for years responded to cattle rustling through inaction, indiscriminate force or ineffective disarmament initiatives. A key step that has not delivered on its potential is the signing of the 2008 Protocol on the Prevention, Combating and Eradication of Cattle Rustling in Eastern Africa.

The protocol seeks to address cattle rustling by, among other steps, enhancing regional cooperation, harmonising legislation and adopting livestock identification systems and records. However this hasn’t been implemented because Uganda is the only one of 13 member states of the Eastern Africa Police Chiefs Cooperation Organisation (EAPCCO) that has ratified the protocol.

Criminals target small-scale pastoralists who are the backbone of the regional beef industry

This protocol could give the region a common policy or legal framework to deal with the crisis. Its lack of support from East African states is just one of the signs that governments in the region don’t seem to consider cattle rustling a serious crime.

In many East African countries there is no specific law that requires that the source of cattle at slaughter houses be identified. The absence of anti-stock theft police units in some of the countries makes communities vulnerable to armed rustlers. Their vulnerability is heightened because the areas most affected by cattle rustling are characterised by underdevelopment, under-resourced security structures and a limited government presence.

Governments need to commit to ending the senseless killings and destitution of already marginalised pastoralists. This will involve ratifying the EAPCCO protocol and providing the legal basis for the regulation of livestock registration trade. Together with technological innovation and better controls, the protocol’s legal basis for regulating livestock trade would be strengthened.

Market controls would also ensure only honest pastoralists profit from their cattle rather than unscrupulous organised criminals. If East Africa fails to adapt to the threat, cattle rustling may expand into new geographic areas and create new organised crime cartels.

Duncan E Omondi Gumba, ENACT Regional Coordinator for East and Horn of Africa, ISS


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ENACT is implemented by the Institute for Security Studies in partnership with
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