In April 2022, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni declared a disarmament exercise in the Karamoja region of north-eastern Uganda and deployed the military to curb the problem. In June, the army declared the disarmament exercise a success after recovering 148 illicit firearms.
Kenya’s Minister for Interior announced a disarmament exercise for Marsabit County in May 2022 following increased cattle rustling that led to the killing of chiefs in the Lolmolog area. By June, the operation was reported successful, with 200 illicit firearms and over 3 000 rounds of ammunition reportedly recovered.
However, immediately after the disarmament exercises in Uganda and Kenya, banditry, cattle rustling and more guns resurfaced. In July, Karamoja bandits attacked a highly protected cattle kraal in Uganda’s Nabilatuk district. They stole over 40 heads of cattle and killed an anti-stock theft police officer. In September, 11 people, including 10 police officers, were killed in northern Kenya. President William Ruto vowed to deal with the bandits, end cattle rustling and stop illicit firearms.
Despite recognising the urgency of the situation, workable solutions and responses seem to evade policymakers and officials on the ground.
The Karamoja Cluster – a geographic area shared by Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan and Ethiopia – is arid, physically isolated from the centres of power in the four countries and historically marginalised. It receives less than 300 mm of rain annually, resulting in communities' long-standing dependence on cattle rather than rain-fed agriculture as their primary source of income.
Cattle herding in this region is accompanied by cattle raiding, a cultural practice where Karakunas (young armed men) forcefully break into kraals to steal cattle. The primary aim is to accumulate more cows as a symbol of status and pride. Cattle raiding is also undertaken to acquire the cows a Karamojong bridegroom needs to pay dowry for his bride.
However, the more recent proliferation of guns in the region is shifting the socio-cultural and economic practice of cattle raiding into cattle rustling. More deadly and violent, cattle rustling now results in injury and death, destruction of property, loss of livestock and displacement of people in and beyond the Karamoja Cluster. In a region with limited or no state presence, illicit arms are trafficked easily. Both state and non-state actors are implicated in the inflow of illicit firearms and ammunition sold to local pastoralists.
Pastoralist warriors use illegal firearms to attack villages, often driving livestock to markets in urban centres to meet the increasing demand for beef. These markets are controlled by cattle warlords who transport the meat to international markets in the Middle East, for example.
Countries in the Karamoja Cluster have tried to combat cattle rustling and the illicit flow of arms in the region. Apart from disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration exercises, the four governments have tried alternatives. These include military measures such as cordon and search operations – where the military surrounds villages to try to prevent cattle raiders from escaping with stolen livestock – and force. So too, police measures such as increased patrols and curfews. However, these efforts have been ad hoc, reactive and ultimately unproductive.
Arms embargoes have not worked either. For example, despite the 2018 embargo in South Sudan, one study estimates that 1.255 million firearms remained in civilian hands. This is more than the number of guns held by the South Sudanese law enforcement agencies and military forces or available in any other East African country.
Governments have also experimented with development measures, creating agencies to focus specifically on the needs of the area, and to offer alternative livelihoods to communities in the Karamoja Cluster. Development partners together with local civil society organisations complement government efforts in peacebuilding and conflict prevention initiatives. Some of these development approaches succeed, but most do not as they are often short-term, small scale, or not sufficiently integrated, and therefore not sustainable.
To reduce cattle rustling and the circulation of illicit firearms in the Karamoja Cluster, existing security responses should be more coherent, longer term and closely complemented by development and livelihood options.
First, the pastoralist economy needs to be recognised and reinvigorated. The 2010 African Union (AU) Policy Framework for Pastoralism in Africa outlines how this could be done. It calls for the need to fully integrate pastoralism into national and regional development programmes and plans. The East African Community and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development have incorporated some elements of this AU framework. Member states must strengthen, affirm and make these policies sustainable. They also need to invest in pastoralist lands to improve infrastructure, water, health, education and security.
Second, governments must encourage and incentivise Karamoja pastoralists to look beyond cows and guns to diversify their livelihood options.
In 2017, a Danish non-governmental organisation, in collaboration with regional governments and local faith-based groups, established Rural Initiatives for Participatory Agricultural Transformation (RIPAT).
This programme offers pastoralists in northern Tanzania, north-western Kenya and parts of north-eastern Uganda small-scale agriculture opportunities to cultivate land along seasonal riverbanks. The model gives communities more effective and sustainable farming methods designed to increase food production, address malnutrition, insecurity at the household level and reduce the singular reliance on cattle. Indications are that this showcases longer term. There has been further upscaling of alternative livelihoods interventions in the Karamoja Cluster with the introduction of the USAID funded Food for Peace Programme which seeks to enhance food sufficiency among pastoralists households through distribution of drought resistant seeds and other farm inputs to increase food production.
Third, embedding alternative livelihoods also requires improving security in the Karamoja Cluster to enhance market access and trading. Establishing water infrastructure and health services to enable crop farming and irrigation would also reduce reliance on livestock, leading to a reduction of risks and threats to human security.
Finally, countries in East Africa can use the revised East African Mifugo Protocol to combat cattle rustling in their efforts to coordinate responses. ENACT provided technical assistance in the review, adoption, endorsement and implementation of this protocol, which seeks to harmonise and strengthen police cooperation and joint strategies.
Tadesse Metekia, Senior Researcher, Horn of Africa, ENACT Project, ISS Addis Ababa, Willis Okumu, Senior Researcher, Eastern Africa, ENACT Project, ISS and Mohamed Daghar, Regional Organised Crime Observatory Coordinator, Eastern Africa