In the recent past, incidents of cattle rustling and banditry have been on the rise in arid and semi-arid lands (ASALs). This has led to unwarranted loss of lives, property (livestock), disruption of businesses, and closure of learning institutions.
North Rift and Upper Eastern regions have been the most affected by these vices, forcing politicians and communities from these regions to pressure the government to label cattle rustlers and bandits as terrorists and cattle rustling as terrorism.
The argument behind this is that the terrorist tag will eventually allow the government and even international community to use maximum force to rein in these bandits.
During a recent security meeting in Samburu County, Interior Cabinet Secretary Prof Kindiki Kithure succumbed to this pressure and stated that cattle rustling and banditry were equivalent to terrorism and that there was no much difference between them and Al Shabaab.
There is no doubt that cattle rustlers have caused untold suffering to innocent people especially in the ASALs. This is why Kenyans have welcomed the government’s renewed commitment to end this menace once and for all. However, labelling cattle rustlers as terrorists is not appropriate.
The problem with labelling cattle rustling as terrorism starts with the definition of terrorism. Globally, there is no universally agreed legal definition of terrorism.
Our own Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) of 2012 does not define terrorism or a terrorist. It defines a terrorist act, group or property. The Act goes ahead to describe “radicalisation” from an ideological and belief perspective.
The National Strategy to Counter Violent Extremism has defined terrorism by restating the “terrorist acts” as defined by POTA. The strategy also defines a “terrorist organisation or group” as amongst others as groups with “disguised command-and-control hierarchy for propaganda, ideological indoctrination, and mass mobilisation”.
Using these definitions, it is clear that cattle rustlers and or bandits do not ascribe or promote, through violence and propaganda, a known extreme ideological or belief narrative.
Today’s cattle rustlers no longer seek the blessings of elders before raiding a neighbouring ethnic group or community. The modern-day cattle rustlers/bandits have abandoned the known traditional command and control hierarchies.
So conflating rustling/banditry with terrorism is not necessarily the solution to this menace.
If the government cannot fight rag-tag cattle rustlers or bandits, how can it fight hardcore, ideologically inspired terrorists like Al-Shabaab or Islamic State that is increasingly finding new spaces in East Africa to regroup, radicalise and recruit?
Again, if we succeed in labelling cattle rustlers as “terrorists”, then the next thing we may do is to label any other crime that can be easily handled by the Penal Code as “terrorist acts”.
Cattle rustlers and bandits can be tamed using the available legal, policy and administrative tools. What has been missing is political goodwill at the national and county government level to address this problem.
Research has found that most of the time, police officers deployed to flush out bandits, recover stolen livestock and mop up illicit arms are prevailed upon by the political civilian leadership not to fully undertake such operations.
Allowing the security formations to do their work without hindrance, enforcing compulsory basic education, integrating the ASALs economies to the national economy remains the long-term solutions to this menace.