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How a Tradition Turned Violent

Cattle herders in Turkana County, Kenya often have a rifle to protect themselves from rustlers. Gwenn Dubourthoumieu/IRIN

Cattle Rustling, a rather harmless cultural practice in rural East Africa, has become increasingly deadly and developed into a regional crisis killing hundreds each year. The practice used to be a natural way to balance wealth and power between various pastoral communities. Groups of warriors would steal cattle using simple weapons such as bows and swords, rarely killing people. But the introduction of illicit small arms and light weapons (SALW) into the region, especially in Kenya, made this practice harmful and deadly, sparking conflicts between communities and ethnicities that expanded beyond the Kenyan border into Uganda, Burundi and Tanzania. In some areas, the practice has been perverted from its original purpose, becoming a form of organized crime.

Typically, groups of armed men rustle entire herds while raiding villages, terrorizing the local community and bringing instability into the region. These men are usually young, their actions a result of missing educational and financial opportunities and a need to support themselves. Just recently, the Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto called the people to “stop cattle raiding and go to school”. While education can be part of the solution, further steps toward disarming the local communities with the aid of the international community have to be taken to achieve a long-lasting solution.

A selected history of disarmament efforts

The Kenyan government recognized this issue and submitted their findings to the Reporting Template for the implementation of the Programme of Action (PoA) to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects to the First Review Conference on the PoA in 2006 and has continued to do so throughout. Those reports included a comprehensive outline of their progress and areas of weakness and, especially in the earlier supports have asked for financial assistance.

Gun violence is no news in Kenya, but the situation has significantly worsened since the early 2000s, especially after the post-election violence in 2007–2008 and Somalia’s instability that allowed for a steady influx of illicit SALW. Shortly after, a more extensive research program was launched by the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) assessing earlier efforts to provide International Assistance for Implementing the UN Programme of Action on the Illicit Trade in SALW. Among other things, the report concluded that the minor aid that Kenya received from the international community until 2006 was mostly ineffective, mainly because it paid little attention to rural areas, where assistance was most needed.

As a result of these findings, the United Nations Development Programme launched the Armed Violence Reduction Project (AVRP), the first significant international effort on this issue, which worked in cooperation with local non-governmental organizations from 2009 to 2015. Unlike prior projects that were unsuccessful due to inefficient aid allocation, this effort aimed to take on the root of the crisis by working directly to mend relations with rivaling pastoral communities in the ten most affected counties in Northern Kenya through trust building and education initiatives. When the AVRP concluded in 2015, HANDICAP International conducted a large-scale survey to assess the effectiveness of the programme in two selected counties, one of which, West Pokot, was primarily dealing with violence related to cattle raiding, ethnic rivalries, and organized crime. While some improvements, especially on the awareness of the harmful effects of SALW on the community and increased trust of government officials could be noted, most people did not feel significantly safer. Alarmingly, in West Pokot, people felt an increased need to own arms for personal and cattle protection and noted little difference in the accessibility of SALW. The Kenyan government has historically favoured a forceful disarmament approach to armed violence and leaders of West Pokot have spoken out saying “such initiatives breed distrust and fear within the community towards government security structures”, according to HANDICAP international. As correctly stated by the Institute of Security Studies (ISS), “civilians will only respond to a call for disarmament if they are guaranteed security and justice”.

The nature of disarmament efforts is diverging

There were many more efforts and projects by the international community that were of varying success, but in recent years, it became increasingly evident that the role of African Regional Organizations should be strengthened, as they have been most successful in other regions of Africa. Ms. Einas Mohammed, Head of the African Union Defense and Security Division has stressed the importance of a regional focus to successfully disarm the region at the most recent Third Review Conference on the PoA. She furthermore talked about multiple “short-term interventions which have not realized their full potential” and called for a more mature and long-term regional approach. At the conference, a more successful way of interacting with regional partners and organizations was discussed, highlighting a far more “meaningful but especially equal partnerships” to maximise a positive and sustainable impact. On a more continental level, the program Silencing the Guns (STG) by 2020 by the African Union was discussed as well. Though now admittedly unattainable, progress was made and a possible extension discussed. One of the main reasons for the failure to meet the goals, according to the ISS, was a lack of funding, structural challenges and issues with replacing personal armament with collective security efforts. According to the ISS, the project was generally too ambitious (to complete by 2020), but more than necessary to serve as a driving factor for disarmament in Africa. Even though challenges persist, the nature of disarmament efforts is evolving and the previews of future approaches and projects at the Review Conference leaves one hopeful for the future of disarmament work in Kenya and beyond.

Kenyan officials burn confiscated illicit SALW on site.

Even though the population is aware of the long-lasting effects of SALW on safety and stability of rural Kenya thanks to educational programmes by the UNDP, many still feel the need for more arms. Due to the lack of police protection in rural areas, locals are stuck with a security dilemma: if a neighboring pastoral community gets a rifle, others communities obtain rifles as well to protect their communities and cattle and vice versa. The spiral effect is in full force. Efforts to bridge these groups through structured dialogue have failed, and some, especially the ones involved in organised crime, are unwilling to compromise.

Many efforts have been taken, both by the Kenyan government and the international community including the United Nations, to disarm East Africa and the affected regions of pastoral Kenya. Solutions ranged from educational campaigns, peace councils to direct disarmament raids by the Kenyan police force and army. However, gun violence persists in these regions and continues to terrorize, displace and kill people in local communities and fuel ethnic conflicts. Still, it is recognizable that there has been progress and increasing international attention and innovative reforms in these approaches that may offer a more sustainable solution.



“Implementation status of the Programme of Action Kenya”, Programme of Action on small arms and light weapons

Engels, Michelle. “An impact assessment of the armed violence reduction project in North Western Kenya”, HANDICAP International, 2015

“Armed Violence Reduction Project (AVRP).” UNDP in Kenya,

“Cattle Theft Made Brutal by Africa’s Illicit Arms Trade.” Farmer’s Weekly, 5 June 2018,

“East Africa: Refugees and Migration [Podcast Transcript].”, 14 June 2018,

“Kenya: Stop Cattle Raids and Go to School, Ruto Warns Youth.”, 10 June 2018,

“How the African Union and African Regional Organisations lead the way in Silencing the Guns” The Third Review Conference on the PoA Panel, Permanent Mission of Germany to the United Nations, June 19, 2018

Maze, Kerry and Rhee, Hyunjoo, International Assistance for Implementing the UN Programme of Action on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects: Case Study of East Africa, UNIDIR, 2009

Langat, Anthony. “Why Kenya’s Cattle Raids Are Getting Deadlier.” Al Jazeera, 27 Dec. 2016,

“Cattle-Rustling and the Politics of Business in Kenya.” IRIN, 1 Dec. 2015,

“Reporting Template for the implementation of the Programme of Action (PoA) to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects to the First Review Conference on the PoA” UNODA, 2006

Alusala, Nelson and Paneras, Riana.“Silencing the guns by 2020 — ambitious but essential” Institute for Security Studies, 14 March 2018,

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