No silver bullet to stop cattle rustling in East Africa

Disarmament operations provide only temporary relief for pastoralists in the marginalised Karamoja border region.

In April, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni launched a disarmament exercise in north-eastern Uganda and deployed the military to carry it out. The region is part of the Karamoja Cluster that straddles Uganda, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya – and which is beset by cattle rustling and banditry. Two months after the gun control operation started, the Ugandan army declared a success after recovering 148 illicit firearms.

Around the same time, Kenya’s Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i announced a disarmament exercise for Marsabit County, east of Lake Turkana, after increased cattle rustling led to the killing of chiefs in the Lolmolog area. By June, that operation, too was reported effective, with 200 illicit firearms and over 3 000 rounds of ammunition recovered. 

Karamoja Cluster in East Africa

Karamoja Cluster in East Africa

(click on the map for the full size image)

However, immediately after the operations 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 head of cattle and killed an anti-stock theft police officer. In September, 11 people, including 10 police officers, were killed in northern Kenya.

Kenya's President William Ruto vowed to deal with the bandits, end cattle rustling and cut down on illicit firearms. But despite recognising the urgency of the situation, workable solutions seem to evade policymakers and officials on the ground.

The Karamoja Cluster is arid, physically isolated from its four constituent countries’ centres of power and historically marginalised. It receives less than 300 mm of rain annually, making communities dependent on cattle rather than rain-fed agriculture as their primary source of income.

Cattle herding in the 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 cows as a symbol of status and pride. Cattle raiding is also undertaken to acquire the cows a Karamojong bridegroom needs to pay the dowry for his bride. 

However, the proliferation of guns in the area is shifting the socio-cultural and economic practice of cattle raiding into cattle rustling. The latter is more violent, resulting in injury and death, property destruction, livestock loss and displacement of people in and beyond the Karamoja Cluster. In a region with limited or no government presence, illegal arms are trafficked easily. Both state and non-state actors are implicated in gun running and ammunition sales to locals.

Despite recognising the urgency of the situation, workable solutions seem to evade the region’s governments

Pastoralist warriors use illicit 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 illicit arms flows to the region. Apart from disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration exercises, the four governments have attempted cordon and search operations – in which soldiers surround villages to prevent cattle raiders from escaping with stolen livestock. Police have also increased patrols and curfews. But these efforts have been ad hoc, reactive and ultimately unproductive.

Arms embargoes have also not done enough. For example, despite the 2018 UN Security Council embargo in South Sudan, guns continue to flow into the country to be used in political conflicts, human rights abuses and community clashes.

Governments have also experimented with developmental measures, creating agencies focused on the area and offering alternative livelihoods to those living in the Karamoja Cluster. And development partners and local civil society organisations have complemented government peacebuilding initiatives. Some of these approaches have worked, but most fail because they are short-term, small-scale, poorly integrated, and thus unsustainable.

Military and police actions in the Karamoja Cluster have been ad hoc, reactive and unproductive

To reduce cattle rustling and gun running in the Karamoja Cluster, security responses should be more coherent, longer term and harmonised with development and livelihood options.

First, the pastoralist economy needs to be reinvigorated. The 2010 African Union (AU) Policy Framework for Pastoralism in Africa outlines how this could be done, including by integrating pastoralism into national and regional development programmes. The East African Community and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development have incorporated some elements of this AU framework. Member states must make these policies sustainable and improve infrastructure, water, health, education and security for pastoralists.

Second, governments must incentivise Karamoja pastoralists to look for livelihoods beyond cows and guns. In 2017, a Danish non-profit established Rural Initiatives for Participatory Agricultural Transformation in collaboration with governments and local faith-based groups. The programme offers pastoralists in northern Tanzania, north-western Kenya and north-eastern Uganda opportunities to cultivate land along seasonal riverbanks. Giving communities effective and sustainable farming methods increases food production, addresses malnutrition, and reduces the reliance on cattle.

Governments must incentivise Karamoja pastoralists to look for livelihoods beyond cows and guns

In the Karamoja Cluster, alternative livelihood projects have been introduced by the United States Agency for International Development-funded Food for Peace Programme. The aim is to enhance food sufficiency among pastoralist households by distributing drought-resistant seeds and other farm inputs that increase food production.

Third, security and infrastructure must be enhanced to allow locals to access markets and trade. Water infrastructure for example, would enable crop farming and irrigation, and reduce reliance on livestock. 

Finally, East African countries should use the revised Mifugo Protocol against cattle rustling – which seeks to harmonise and strengthen police cooperation and joint strategies – to coordinate their responses.

Tadesse Simie Metekia, Senior Researcher, Willis Okumu, Senior Researcher and Mohamed Daghar, Regional Organised Crime Observatory Coordinator, ENACT, ISS

This article was first published by ENACT.

Image: © Alan Gignoux/Alamy Stock Photo

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ENACT is implemented by the Institute for Security Studies in partnership with INTERPOL and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime. The ISS is grateful for support from the members of the ISS Partnership Forum: the Hanns Seidel Foundation, the European Union, the Open Society Foundations and the governments of Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.
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