Cattle rustling is a growing and increasingly violent threat across Africa, including on the island state of Madagascar.
Malagasy Prime Minister Olivier Mahafaly Solonandrasana has confirmed that a network of cattle traffickers is active in the country, and updates from local media and the National Gendarmerie Communication Department Facebook page have reported regular incidents of cattle theft. These thefts have occurred in the south and southwest of the country, as well as the regions of Betsiboka and Alaotra Mangoro in central Madagascar. Bandits have been terrorising villages – stealing, killing victims and taking cattle owners hostage in bloody attacks.
The zebu thieves, locally known as ‘dahalos’ (Malagasy for ‘bandits’) are better equipped and more organised than the police and the army. The dahalos use assault weapons, like Kalachnikovs and MAS-36 rifles, with brutality, and behave like armed rebel or guerrilla groups.
The Secretary of State of the Gendarmerie, Girard Randriamahavalisoa, blames 60% of insecurity in the country on ‘black sheep’ in the force. Gendarmerie Commander Herilalatiana Andrianarisaona has spoken out strongly against ‘bad apples in the force,’ and confirmed that there have also been cases where arms trafficking, among other ills, is linked to cattle theft. However, Army Chief Lieutenant General Razafindrakoto Lanto Arinjaka has denied the existence of ‘guerrillas’ anywhere in the country.
The problem of cattle theft, however, remains real. ‘The cattle population has sharply declined in Madagascar, and the main cause is rural insecurity,’ Prime Minister Solonandrasana told journalists on 28 February in Antananarivo. The actual impact of these activities is difficult to judge, and in March, the country’s Ministry of Livestock revealed that it did not have updated figures.
Civil society organisations, business groups and politicians agree with the Prime Minister that judges, local leaders and law enforcement officers are involved in the cattle theft racket. On 15 March, the groups protested the ‘inertia and inability of the authorities to contain the country’s runaway insecurity characterised by increasingly violent livestock thefts, especially in rural areas’. A cacophony of car horns, cooking pans and whistles marked a five-minute peaceful protest dubbed ‘Let’s mobilise against insecurity.’
According to the Gendarmerie, assailants take advantage of ‘understaffing’ in some villages to attack and steal cattle. For instance, on 10 March, hundreds of armed livestock thieves attacked Ambohimiera village in south eastern Madagascar. Although the gendarmes resisted the attack and arrested one of the attackers, local MP Lova Paupil Razafindrafito expressed concern over this type of insecurity.
According to oral tradition among the ethnic Bara who live in southern Madagascar, cattle theft is part of the cultural identity of the semi-nomadic pastoral community. Traditionally, young men would steal cattle to demonstrate their prowess to their family and the girls they sought to marry. The practice was socially accepted, with the proviso that the theft took place in different communities. It was strictly forbidden to steal cattle from villages in one’s own community.
Now, it appears that political and socio-economic drivers motivate the rural youth to become dahalos far more than tradition. This is leading to an increased demand for arms, and law enforcement agencies are ill equipped to respond. For instance, in 2016, 161 people – including 12 soldiers – were reportedly killed. In addition, between 2015 and 2017, 25 army officers were killed in ambushes by cattle thieves. The Gendarmerie said in a press release on 11 February that 16 gendarmes had been killed in 2017.
It appears that the profits associated with the illicit export of stolen cattle has attracted more violent and organised criminal groups. For instance, in Amoron'iMania in central Madagascar, 24 arms traffickers supplying the dahalos were reportedly arrested between 10 February and 7 March 2018.
‘For now, everything seems to point to China or Arab countries as the export destination of the stolen cattle,’ Paolo Emilio Raholinarivo Solonavalona told ENACT Observer in an interview in Antanimora on 11 March.
Solonavalona, a native Bara and special adviser to the Prime Minister, confirms the existence of ‘cattle mafias’ in the pastoralist sector. He echoes others in condemning the involvement of the country’s national leaders and high-level officials in corruption, laundering of stolen cattle and arms trafficking.
Corruption has been cited among the factors that enable cattle theft, which has been evidenced by political interference seen in cases against dahalos. This has resulted in a lack of trust from the local population in the justice and criminal investigation system, and there have been cases of extrajudicial killings of dahalos. According to 2016 National Gendarmerie statistics, there were 44 cases of extrajudicial killings in the country.
With a third of the country now considered ‘a redzone’ out of state control, cattle rustling holds severe implications for the stability of Madagascar. Not least of these is the apparent decline in public confidence in the key institutions of the state – the police, the military and the courts of law.
This is likely to impact on the legitimacy of the state as people look to others, even those involved in criminal activities, for safety and security. The Malagasy authorities and their development partners need to craft innovative, urgent responses to these issue, as any further escalation could prove even more costly for future peace and security in the country.
Deo Gumba, ENACT Regional organised crime observatory coordinator – East and Horn of Africa, ISS, and Riana Raymonde Randrianarisoa, Executive Editor, Mada24