Some call cattle rustling one of the oldest crimes in human history. In Africa, cattle rustling dates back centuries and once was considered a cultural practice, sanctioned and organized by tribal elders and traditional leaders.
Today, it has become a major security issue across the continent.
“We have tried to criminalize this activity,” Kenyan member of Parliament Mark Lomunokol told KTN News network. “It is not supported anywhere by law, so it is a practice we will fight day and night to ensure that it’s eradicated forever.”
In recent years, livestock-related crime has grown in size and violence, morphing into interethnic and intercommunal conflicts.
It has left people displaced, destitute and dead in Cameroon, Kenya, Madagascar, Nigeria, South Sudan and Uganda, among others.
It is a multifaceted problem driven and exacerbated by cultural traditions, the proliferation of weapons, the growing specter of organized crime, a lack of police or military presence, and an increasing lack of natural resources.
Cattle rustling, particularly in East Africa, used to be an accepted way to acquire livestock or to restock herds decimated by drought.
Young men who showed bravery in defending community livestock and territory became known as warriors. Raiding also was a method of acquiring livestock for dowries.
“It was a livelihood strategy,” Professor Kennedy Mkutu Agade said during a June 23 webinar hosted by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS). “Because of frequent droughts, pastoralists had to move from one area to another.
“It was basically a redistribution of wealth system.”
The use of weapons such as AK-47s ushered the traditional practice of cattle raiding into a new era of cattle rustling, a violent organized crime for commercial and societal gain.
Of late, weapons have poured into East Africa; many are smuggled into war zones in Ethiopia, South Sudan and Somalia but then are sold to other regions.
“Now we see the emergence of warlords who arm young chaps. Young people do not have money to go to school but have an AK-47,” Agade said.
A February 18 attack prompted Kenyan cabinet secretary for the Ministry of Interior Fred Matiang’i to direct blame at a wider criminal network.
Cattle rustlers opened fire on a school bus in Elgeyo Marakwet County, killing the driver and injuring 15 students and two teachers.
“It’s no longer a matter of cattle rustling because there were no cattle on the school bus,” he told reporters. “It’s clear that this is a criminal organization that is disguised as cattle rustlers. We are going to apply a new level of force and fire to end the menace in Kerio Valley.”
In recent years, cattle rustling has become a form of organized crime embedded within the wider business of cattle trade.
Experts like Martin Ewi, technical coordinator of the ENACT Project, say cattle rustling has become “professionalized.”
In Nigeria, cattle rustling is rising as a source of income for bandits and violent extremist groups such as Boko Haram.
Drought always has been a problem throughout vast stretches of Africa, but economic development also has caused a scarcity of resources.
“I call this phase [of cattle rustling] de-evolution,” Agade said. “Roads are coming in. Elites are now going for minerals and land. There is territorialization and conflicts over resources.”
Kenyans say drought has worsened livestock-related attacks because herders are forced to move near or into neighboring communities in search of water and land.
More than 1 million livestock died in one month in Kenya due to drought, according to the National Drought Management Authority. In its May 16 assessment report, it warned that deaths will continue to increase as the drought worsens.
Areas most often affected by cattle rustling are underdeveloped and under-resourced with limited government presence and little to no security apparatus.
“Cattle rustling has historically been marginalized and often referred to as a rural crime,” Agade said.
In Kenya’s Rift Valley, Regional Commissioner Maalim Mohammed hopes to bring peace and security to local citizens.
That was his pledge in March after a spate of violence. He said police patrols will be increased, and meetings will be organized between neighboring communities to resolve conflicts.
“We have made a resolution that [National Police Reservists] will now be community-based in areas of Ol Ng’arua where the banditry menace from Laikipia Nature Conservancy have been rampant,” he told reporters on March 22.
In October 2021, ministers and police chiefs from 11 East African countries signed an updated Mifugo Protocol to address cattle rustling and strengthen joint strategies. It aims to standardize legislation among member states and adopt livestock identification systems such as microchipping.
The African Union launched its Strategy for Better Integrated Border Governance in 2020 to put in place similar security initiatives and border collaboration.
“Mifugo and the AU strategy complement each other,” Ewi said during the webinar. “Enhancement of cross-border cooperation is critical for the region [East Africa]. The Mifugo Protocol brings states together to address cattle rustling, which is intertwined with other crimes, trafficking and smuggling.”
According to Agade, organization and collaboration are the best approaches to tackling violence.
“The moment we give people security and development, there is no need for the gun,” Agade said.
In May, Kenyan authorities touted a vocational training program that enrolled more than 500 young men from the Samburu indigenous group, teaching them skills in carpentry and motorcycle repair as a means of steering them away from cattle rustling and gun smuggling.
Disarmament programs are another approach that have produced uneven results. But Uganda recently reported some success.
During a June 13 meeting in the Karamoja subregion bordering Kenya, an area where cattle rustling has been rampant, President Yoweri Museveni vowed to end the violence with joint forces.
Over a three-week period, joint security forces worked with local leaders to recover 106 illegal weapons and more than 600 head of cattle, with hundreds of rustlers killed or arrested.
Catherine Kelly, ACSS associate professor of Justice and Rule of Law, believes there are “good bones” in both the updated Mifugo Protocol and the AU strategy that could be replicated in other regions of Africa.
“It’s not just a security response, it’s a holistic response,” she told ADF. “It’s dealing not just with customs and border protection or immigration but taking the communities involved — that may span across borders — and thinking about the full range of development and governance in addition to security issues.
“All of that could feed into a border governance solution, dealing with cattle rustling or trans-national organized crime and other threats.”