Rise of East Africa’s cattle cartels


Nairobi, Kenya – Cattle rustling has been commercialised by international criminal networks in East Africa, aided by a proliferation of small weapons. This undermines development and has caused multiple deaths among rural communities and security forces.

Small-scale farmers are the backbone of the regional beef industry but find their livelihoods threatened by criminals who supply stolen beef to growing urban meat markets.

‘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 in East African and the Horn,’ says Deo Gumba, a Researcher in the ENACT transnational organised crime programme at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Nairobi.

ENACT is funded by the European Union (EU) and implemented by the ISS, INTERPOL and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime.

ENACT’s research findings are documented in a new report, Vanishing herds: cattle rustling in East Africa and the Horn. It shows how cattle rustling characterised by high-intensity conflicts has left dozens killed or maimed in 2017 and 2018. The report outlines the impact of these crimes on human security and development in the region, and how the problem can be mitigated.

Cross-border criminal networks use advanced logistics and market information to inform their illicit activities. In one 2017 incident in Kenya’s Laikipia County for example, about 10 000 pastoralists with automatic rifles made off with 135 000 head of cattle.

Cattle rustling has become a form of organised crime embedded in the wider business of cattle trade. It is enabled by government corruption, with state officials turning a blind eye or collaborating with criminals.

Cattle rustlers also exploit weak cross-border coordination between governments in the region. Fieldwork conducted for the ENACT study in Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, Tanzania, Uganda and South Sudan revealed allegations that some politicians used bribery to induce rural communities to get involved in cattle rustling networks.

Stolen cattle are easy to traffic as they can be disguised as a legal commodity. Gumba says ‘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. Because most countries in the region lack specific laws requiring the source of cattle at slaughter houses to be identified, the butchered meat then enters the legitimate market.

Authorities in the region don’t seem to consider cattle rustling a serious crime. A failure of security and justice systems to adapt to the threat means it may expand into new geographic areas and create new organised crime cartels.

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 drives up poverty. It is often breadwinners who are injured or killed in raids, fuelling communal grievances and revenge attacks. 

The East Africa and Horn regions have no common political or legal framework to deal with the crisis, and the absence of anti-stock theft police units in some of the countries makes communities vulnerable to armed rustlers.

The areas most affected by cattle rustling are characterised by underdevelopment, under-resourced security structures and a limited government presence. National responses have so far been characterised by inaction, indiscriminate force or ineffective disarmament initiatives.

In 2008 the Eastern Africa Police Chiefs Cooperation Organisation (EAPCCO) took the important step of adopting the Protocol on the Prevention, Combating and Eradication of Cattle Rustling in Eastern Africa. It aims to harmonise legislation amongst the 13 EAPCCO member states and adopt livestock identification systems. The protocol cannot yet be implemented however, as only one country – Uganda – has ratified it.

ENACT urged governments to criminalise cattle rustling, ratify the EAPCCO protocol, increase cross-border cooperation and involve communities in finding solutions. The livestock trade also needs more technology innovation and government control, the researchers found.


ENACT is funded by the European Union. The project builds knowledge and skills to enhance Africa’s response to transnational organised crime. It analyses how organised crime affects stability, governance, the rule of law and development in Africa, and works to mitigate its impact. ENACT is implemented by the Institute for Security Studies and INTERPOL, in affiliation with the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. 

The contents of this press release can in no way be taken to reflect the views or position of the European Union.

For further information and interviews:

Rumbi Nyoni, Communication Officer, ENACT, ISS: +27 83 574 0347; rnyoni@issafrica.org

Read the ENACT report by Nelson Alusala, Deo Gumba and Andrew Kimani – Vanishing herds: Cattle rustling in East Africa and the Horn

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ENACT is funded by the European Union
ENACT is implemented by the Institute for Security Studies and INTERPOL, in
affiliation with the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime
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