Cattle rustling, drought and conflict: is regional policy the missing link?

2018-03-29

On 12 February this year, Chadian militia shot dead seven people and stole about 500 head of cattle in neighbouring Sudan’s West Darfur region. In February alone, about 50 people were killed and 10 850 head of cattle, sheep and goats stolen in just three separate clashes between Sudan’s Misseriya and South Sudan’s Dinka tribes.

These incidents give a glimpse into the devastating nature of cattle rustling in Eastern African countries and across their largely porous borders. State responses appear reactive, and often a case of too little, too late. The region would benefit from a proactive bilateral or multilateral response.

Unilateral state measures to curb cattle rustling may be successful within the national jurisdictions, but not beyond. Late last year, Tanzania auctioned cattle that Kenyan pastoralists had driven across the border in search of grazing ground. The move points to a need for a regional policy.

State responses to cattle rustling are often a case of too little, too late

Uganda has been quite successful in protecting its Karamoja region against livestock theft from Kenya’s Turkana and Pokot herders. However, this has not stopped raids across its northern border with South Sudan. In Kenya, police reservists and local businessmen have been linked to banditry attacks, which resulted in thousands of livestock being stolen and over 100 people killed in the north-western counties of Elgeyo Marakwet, West Pokot and Baringo. They also stole hundreds of animals from private ranches in neighbouring counties.

Devastating drought has worsened the situation in the region, especially in Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya, which are set to face the fourth consecutive year of drought. The UN humanitarian outlook for the Horn of Africa for January to June 2018 identifies persistent drought and complex conflicts as the drivers behind humanitarian need in the region. The World Meteorological Organisation ominously forecasts ‘depressed rainfall, with far-reaching socio-economic and humanitarian implications’ for the next couple of months.  

In some countries, pastoralists have given up their livestock and turned to irrigated agriculture instead. Large herds of cattle place additional pressure on the land and contribute to the worsening cycle of drought and cattle rustling. However, irrigation relies on river basins that often transcend regional borders. In the absence of a regional policy to manage such bodies of water, irrigation could lead to further conflict.

Devastating drought has worsened the situation in the region, especially in Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya

However, technology promises new solutions for effectively managing drought and cattle rustling. For instance, Kenya and Tanzania have adopted elaborate livestock tagging and branding campaigns that could help control theft through verifiable ownership records. But while tagging and branding may work within a country, the absence of regional tracking systems means that these strategies are likely to fail when livestock cross borders.

A mobile phone application called AfriScout has enabled pastoralists in Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania to find pasture and water for their animals using satellite and mobile technologies. According to the developers, Project Concern International, pastoralists who use the app have registered a 48% decline in livestock mortality.

Such innovation can prove even more successful when backed by national and regional policy that would enable pastoralists to collaborate across borders. Such policy would ensure the effective management of water points, pasture, vegetation, diseases, wildlife and other circumstances that would favour better livestock management.

Deo Gumba, ENACT Regional organised crime observatory coordinator – East and Horn of Africa, ISS

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