Laikipia at the nerve centre of cattle rustling in East Africa

Police reservists, who were shot by bandits at Laikipia Nature and Conservancy on Tuesday, receive treatment at Nyahururu Charity Medical Hospital. PHOTO: JAMES MUNYEKI.

A new report has identified the county as the nerve centre of cattle rustling in East Africa, poking holes on the commitment of the security agencies to stop the vice.

The report reveals that cattle rustling has been commercialised by international criminal networks in East Africa, aided by a proliferation of small weapons, undermining 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’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. For example, in 2017 about 10,000 pastoralists with automatic rifles made off with 135,000 head of cattle  Laikipia County.

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.

Easy movement

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 slaughterhouses 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 newly 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.

According to the report, 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.

Police presence

The areas most affected by cattle rustling are characterised by underdevelopment, underresourced 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 it has been ratified by only one country Uganda.

In the report, 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.

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