23 Nov 2017

Cattle rustling on the rise across Africa

Cattle rustling is becoming increasingly violent and transnational, and requires more coordinated regional responses.

Cattle rustling in Africa has, in recent years, grown both in scale and violence and is increasingly linked to organised criminal and terrorist groups as a source of income. The crime is also transnational in that cattle are moved across borders. This means that increased regional cooperation is required if this crime is to be addressed.

Cattle rustling occurs when a group of individuals plan, organise and steal livestock forcefully from another person or from the grazing field or kraal for the purpose of commercial gain.’ Journalists, academics and practitioners increasingly refer to it as a form of organised crime. Further, with the involvement of actors such as Boko Haram and the movement of cattle across national boundaries, cattle rustling is also being recognised as a form of transnational organised crime. Categorising it in this way could help to ensure better responses.

East Africa has a long history of cattle rustling. However, the crime is also increasingly being reported in West and Central Africa, particularly in countries like Nigeria and Cameroon. It is also a challenge in the island state of Madagascar.

Cattle rustling in Africa is increasingly linked to terrorist groups like Boko Haram as a source of income

Research on cattle rustling typically focuses on the cultural and ethnic drivers of the phenomenon, such as its role in initiation practices, funding dowries and as a form of reciprocal violence between ethnic groups. In Kenya, cattle raiding often has political undertones, as grazing and farming rights are affected by democritisation and decentralisation. One study describes the rising role of local politicians and businessmen in organised crime in Kenya and the raiders as ‘hired foot soldiers.’

‘Communities looking for pasture for cattle can be used by local politicians to move into new territories, where they need more voters. Cattle rustling is then used by the new tenants as a displacement tactic for voters and political control,’ Francis Wairagu of the Small Arms Survey in Nairobi told ENACT.

Since the 1990s, there has been a surge in cattle rustling incidents in East Africa; and the actors and weaponry involved are becoming increasingly sophisticated largely, as a result of the proliferation of small arms on the continent. In Kenya, for example, the majority of cattle raiders’ guns originate in Somalia and South Sudan.

Categorising cattle rustling as a type of transnational organised crime can ensure better responses

Similar trends are observed elsewhere. ‘The progressive occurrence of cattle rustling involving armed bandits in Nigeria has been a trigger in attacks by herders in farming communities. At the moment, Zamfara State in the northwest region of Nigeria remains a major hotspot for cattle rustling activities, despite the amnesty programme granted by the state governor in 2017 for cattle rustlers to lay up their weapons,’ says Osariemen Amas-Edobor, Programme Officer for the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding-Nigeria.

Northeastern Nigeria’s experience with cattle rustling, now extending throughout the Lake Chad Basin, also involves Boko Haram. The extremist group has begun to rely on the activity as a major source of financing. Militants frequently raid cattle in northern Cameroon and transport them via middle men to markets in northern Nigeria. The group’s activities in this regard have had a drastic impact, such that major cattle markets in Borno state have been temporarily shut down to ensure that Boko Haram does not exploit the livestock trade.

This follows a pattern of restrictive state of emergency measures in the Lake Chad Basin region. Limitations on local trades have been put in place to prevent terrorist financing, but this has adversely affected local livelihoods.

East Africa has a long history of cattle rustling, but the crime is also increasingly seen in Nigeria, Cameroon and Madagascar

In January 2016, the chairman of a local cattle association in Borno State, Nigeria estimated that 200 000 head of cattle had been stolen, though not all could be attributed to Boko Haram. Overall estimates of Boko Haram’s accumulation vary from a few million dollars to upwards of US$20 million. A 2016 Financial Action Task Force noted that the group stole €13 million worth of cattle during two-large scale incidents in northern Cameroon alone, although this is on the high end of estimates.

Methods of cattle rustling have evolved in other ways, too. Raids have increased in scale; commercial farms are approached in a more predatory, organised manner; and cattle rustling is marked by high levels of violence. An Al Jazeera report from August 2017 stated that, since late 2016, Baringo County in Kenya has witnessed ‘thousands of livestock stolen and dozens of people shot or killed.’

Madagascar serves as another example of these evolving and continental dynamics. Here, banditry linked to the raids of zebu cattle became increasingly problematic as the island suffered political instability and economic decline after President Marc Ravalomanana was ousted in 2009. The rise of cattle rustling and casualties has been magnified by the introduction of modern weaponry, and criminal groups that have become increasingly professional. This shift shows how easily linkages with organised crime can become formalised.  

Major cattle markets in Borno state have temporarily been shut down to protect traders from Boko Haram

In January 2016, the Madagascan army announced that 161 people had been killed in clashes between the army and cattle rustlers over the year. To address this, the army launched a five-month pacification campaign. The army refers to large swathes of territory as ‘zones rouges,’ where limited government presence has allowed cattle rustlers to thrive. This, together with the reported complicity of some government officials, means that cattle rustlers often operate with a sense of impunity.

Across Africa, a first step towards in curbing cattle rustling would be greater acknowledgement of the key role played by pastoralism as a source of household economic livelihoods; and national and regional economic growth in a number of regions. A second would be increased protections in national and regional-level policies for pastoralists and other cattle herders against the threat of transnational organised crime.

Ciara Aucoin, Researcher, ENACT, and Omar S Mahmood, Researcher, ISS, Addis Ababa

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