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Nations’ failure to apply East Africa’s Mifugo Protocol keeps regional violence boiling over  

Nations’ failure to apply East Africa’s Mifugo Protocol keeps regional violence boiling over  
Cattle rustling and banditry have become a widespread problem in East Africa. (Photo: Jeff Turner via Flickr)

The protocol provides the means to tackle cattle rustling and related crimes, but no countries have ratified it. 

At least 20 million people live in the Karamoja Cluster where Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan and Ethiopia meet. The area is home to about 14 pastoralist communities whose livelihoods depend on livestock, with herders constantly searching for water and pasture, and conducting inter-communal trade. Sporadic conflicts over scarce resources often ensue, especially during times of drought.

The free flow of small arms and light weapons in the area, over-reliance on the pastoralist economy, outdated culture of cattle rustling, and uncoordinated disarmament exercises also drive instability among the border communities.

Various interventions by governments and others have not yielded sustainable peace. Kobebe Dam, jointly commissioned by Uganda and Kenya’s presidents in 2018, was part of a cross-border peace initiative to promote access to water for Uganda’s Karamojong and Kenya’s Turkana pastoralists. In 2019 the two presidents signed a memorandum of understanding to foster peace and development in the border area.

But clashes have continued. Most attempts to quell violence in the Karamoja Cluster have taken the form of military-led disarmaments that have largely failed. Traditional peace structures also don’t work as they should, allowing local bandits to terrorise communities in the region.

Karamoja Cluster, Mifugo Protocol

Karamoja Cluster, East Africa (Source: ISS)

In March 2022, three Ugandan geologists and their two Ugandan army officer escorts, were killed while on a mineral mapping mission in north-east Uganda. A ‘targeted operation’ led to the arrest, military trial and imprisonment of 32 Kenyan herders for 20 years. Military officials suspected the attackers were cattle rustlers.

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni issued an order barring Kenya’s Turkana herders from entering Uganda with guns — failing which they would be charged with terrorism and face military trials. Turkana residents were also ordered to return all 2,245 livestock stolen near Kobebe Dam, or risk being permanently barred from grazing their livestock in Uganda.

Uganda’s emphatic and unilateral response has curtailed the movement of people and hindered cross-border trade among Karamoja Cluster communities, contrary to the spirit of the East African Community Common Market. Uganda’s crackdown also goes against the decision between Kenya and Uganda to open a one-stop border post at Lokiriama in north-west Kenya to enhance surveillance and improve cross-border security.

Protocol unratified

East Africa’s Mifugo Protocol, signed in 2021, specifically targets cattle rustling and related crimes that are destabilising the region. But three years on, none of the 14 member states of the Eastern Africa Police Chiefs Cooperation Organization (Eapcco) has ratified the protocol. This is a significant missed opportunity to tackle a long-standing problem that no single country can deal with alone.

When Eapcco police chiefs met in Bujumbura in October 2023 to review the region’s security, they discussed the lack of progress in ratifying the protocol. The Chiefs of Police Committee noted South Sudan and Uganda’s efforts to fast-track ratification. In both countries, the protocol has been tabled before cabinet for discussion, after which it goes to parliament for adoption.

Eapcco countries attributed the lack of ratification to Article 26 (b) of the protocol. The article stipulates that the protocol would come into force immediately (provisionally) after Chiefs of Police and Ministers of Security signed it in October 2021.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Cattle rustling: from cultural practice to deadly organised crime

Ratification delays stem from a disagreement between the Eapcco police chiefs who, in 2021, accepted that implementation would run concurrently with the ratification process — while the 2023 police chiefs meeting saw article 26 (b) as an anomaly. They argued that no work could start before parliament had ratified the protocol.

The killing of the geologists and security officials is just one case pointing to the need for a regional legal framework like the Mifugo Protocol that governs the movement of people and livestock in the Karamoja Cluster. Had the protocol been in place, military trials would not have been necessary, as the protocol stipulates procedures for prosecuting cross-border cattle rustlers.

The Mifugo Protocol defines cattle rustling as theft, banditry, stealing or planning, organising, attempting, aiding or abetting the stealing of livestock by any person or groups of persons, for commercial or private purposes.

According to Martin Ewi, Southern Africa Organised Crime Coordinator for the Enact project at the Institute for Security Studies, by redefining cattle rustling as a transnational organised crime, the protocol covers the entire value chain of activities. Some countries have defined cattle rustling as a cultural practice, but the protocol now enables a unified approach that facilitates prosecutions and more consistent sentences than those provided for in each country’s national laws.

Ratification of the protocol would enable police in each of the four countries to share information on cattle rustlers, quickly get authorisation for cross-border pursuits, and approach investigations from a transnational organised crime perspective, covering related offences such as illicit arms flows.

The protocol would also facilitate coordinated disarmament exercises by the four governments in the Karamoja Cluster, and the deployment of security forces along common borders to curb firearms smuggling.

Eapcco member states — especially Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan and Ethiopia — must work through the organisation’s secretariat to draw up an action plan for amending and then ratifying the protocol, as discussed at the October 2023 meeting.

Removing Article 26 (b) could take some time. Meanwhile, member states should develop the Mifugo Strategy Paper, as proposed by the Eapcco secretariat, to guide collective efforts on tackling cattle rustling in the region while ratifications are in process. DM

Guyo Chepe Turi, Research Officer, East Africa Peace and Security Governance and Willis Okumu, Senior Researcher, Enact, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Nairobi.

First published by ISS Today.

Enact is funded by the European Union and implemented by the Institute for Security Studies in partnership with Interpol and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime. 

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