Livestock theft as an organised criminal activity in Mali has risen rapidly since 2012, the same year the country’s security crisis began. This has resulted in, and been exacerbated by, arms trafficking, which is linked to the same 2012 crisis and the Libyan conflict, which started in 2011.
Mali’s complex crisis began when armed rebel groups challenged the government for possession of the country’s north. Jihadist groups with ties to the rebels took advantage of the instability, moving into the north to impose sharia law, often fuelling ethnic conflict by setting one community against the other. They have been accused of not engaging in an ideological fight as such but a struggle for the control of trafficking routes against armed groups and the Malian army.
Most of the rebel groups signed a peace agreement and are currently part of the government. However, jihadist groups that keep mutating continue to pursue their agenda, extending their deadly terror attacks to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger. Mali’s armed forces, in collaboration with regional and international forces, continue to fight these terror groups.
Bandits have taken profitable adventage of this gap in security to increase their age-old crime of stealing cattle from pastoralists. Livestock theft represents a direct and immediate threat to Mali’s livestock sector, a key pillar of the country’s economy and the third largest sector after gold and cotton.
Mali is West Africa’s second largest livestock producer after Nigeria and the Sahel region’s largest. This availability and ready market make cattle theft an attractive option for armed groups and terrorists seeking to fund their operations. Stocktheft may also be exacerbated as Mali’s economy is weakened by the ongoing conflict. The crime is mostly perpetrated by young people, who have limited job prospects and hope in the situation of ongoing instability, especially in central and northern Mali.
Here, in the Mopti Region’s Bankass and Koro districts, pastoralism is one of the most important economic activities for local communities. Livestock theft is common in this region, which alone accounts for more than half the country’s livestock. With no protection from the government, residents and cattle owners have had to arm themselves with weapons, set up vigilante groups or rely on organised armed groups to defend their families and their livestock. This increases the demand for illicit weapons, especially military-type munitions.
Other regions badly affected are Gao, Bourem in Timbuktu and Ansongo in Menaka. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Gao was the most affected region in November 2019 with 87 000 animals stolen, while Mopti reported 78 000. Other hard-hit areas include Bamako, Segou and Kayes.
The illegal trade is aggravated by porous borders with neighbouring countries through various informal trafficking routes for exporting stolen livestock, drugs and contraband goods inlcuding cigarettes, motorcycles, tea, juices, fabrics, and clothing.
Livestock theft has a highly structured export market using a chain of intermediaries and thus avoiding long trips that would draw the attention of either security forces or armed groups operating in the area.
Mody Diallo, president of the Kayes Cattle Breeders Association, told ENACT that one of the latest strategies used by thieves is to unload stolen livestock from vehicles en route to Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire. These animals are then herded overland to neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso.
Apart from these external insecurities, there’s also conflict between communities. While the Bambara, Dogon, Dafi, Samoko and Bozo communities are sedentary in their lifestyle, the Fulani are nomadic and move seasonally with their livestock, across central and northern Mali, and across the border to and from Burkina Faso. This has caused conflict over resources between the Fulani and other communities, especially the Dogon.
These conflicts intensified in 2016 when jihadist groups began stoking inter-community tensions to destabilise the area. Jihadists continue regular attacks in Mali and neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso, despite the presence the French Operation Barkhane and G5 Sahel Joint Force in the region to fight Islamists and Tuareg rebel groups, which have taken over northern Mali.
Communities face further problems in that the self-defence groups they’ve created are themselves attacking villages and stealing cattle. A recent Interpeace-Malian Institute for Research-Action for Peace report noted that the groups are leading to ‘longer-term concerns.’
The armed groups include traditional hunting societies, but unlike traditional hunters, these fighters have military weapons – mainly hand-made guns. These groups oppose the Fulani, whom they view as pro-jihadist and whose semi-nomadic, pastoral way of life sometimes brings them into conflict with sedentary groups like the Dogon. The Fulanis have formed the Sekou Bolly armed group, named after a Fulani businessman.
‘The limited delivery of public services along border regions has constrained the government’s ability to control armed violence and respond to concerns of local communities in this area,’ says the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue. This is a diplomatic organisation helping to mediate between the different actors in pastoralism.
This mediation relies on traditional mechanisms that the affected communities have had in place for decades and which, to ensure sustainability in securing the region, need to happen in tandem with state efforts.
‘It’s no longer [just] theft, but rather the rustling of herds. They simply herd away hundreds and thousands of heads of cattle to sell them in neighbouring countries,’ Sanoussi Bouya Sylla, president of the Bamako District Regional Chamber of Agriculture, told the media.
Sylla recalled initiating a process to pass a law that would criminalise these activities, however these efforts have been frustrated by the constant change of government. The instability also frustrates efforts by neighbouring countries to work with Mali to resolve the problem. Livestock theft is unlikely to decrease unless Mali’s government improves security, enhances its border policing and works with neighbouring countries to regulate livestock movement and trade.
Many Malians invest in the livestock sector and livestock theft may also discourage local investment and undermine Mali’s livestock production and consequently the country’s economy more broadly. Despite the importance of this sector and the urgent need to change the situation, this seems unlikely to happen in the near future in context of persistent insecurity. As with the conflicts, it is the cattle owners who are most at risk and least able to defend their livelihoods.
Deo Gumba, Research Consultant, ENACT Project, and Diakaria Traore, Malian Independent Consultant