A multi-pronged approach needed to end cattle rustling, banditry


Kenya Defence Forces vehicles spotted at Marigat in Baringo County on February 19, 2023. The joint security operation led by the National Police Service and the Kenya Defence Forces to flush out bandits from troubled northern Kenya is undeniably a big step in the right direction.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

The joint security operation led by the National Police Service and the Kenya Defence Forces to flush out bandits from troubled northern Kenya is undeniably a big step in the right direction.

For a long time now, many innocent Kenyans living in these regions have lost their lives, and properties and some bear painful marks of the atrocities meted out by bandits and cattle rustlers. For the operation to succeed, support from the local communities is essential.

The whole government is duty-bound to approach the problem of cattle rustling and banditry from multiple fronts to increase possibilities of long-term successes and sustained community support to the security operation.

Man, gun and livestock have been an intricate and delicate survival ecosystem in the north, predating colonialism. 

Local communities have religiously tended their livestock as the main economic activity for reasons of providence. Many parts are arid with dismal rainfall, making it less feasible for the communities to incorporate thriving sedentary livelihoods. Today, animal losses due to prolonged droughts in some of the northern counties are running into hundreds of thousands. 


In 2022, the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (Kippra) indicated that the arid and semi-arid lands (Asals) ecosystem was increasingly becoming vulnerable to shocks and stressors due to extreme weather patterns, locust invasions, conflicts, market shocks and livestock diseases. 

The Kippra report recommended a raft of measures to help the communities in the Asals build resilience to the growing shocks and stressors to livelihoods. The measures included increasing farmers’ capacity to improve livestock quality and products, building socially cohesive communities in the Asals and integrating pastoralists’ livestock value chains and associated commercial activities. 

The government has partially implemented these measures, including the revitalisation of the Kenya Meat Commission to streamline buying of animals from farmers and accelerate payouts thereto.

But though the national government and devolved units in the affected counties have mapped out or implemented some of the existing policy guides for the Asals, there are glaring poor human development indices and indicators which may impede some of the measures the government is pursuing to end the conflict in the north. 

Human Development Index (HDI) and other indicators have conventionally been used to assess the efficacy of government policies and policy priorities universally. A snapshot of the indicators shows a region requiring more concerted efforts not only to bring about lasting peace but also to inspire a change of worldview among the communities and leadership therein.

That worldview change would not occur in a vacuum, but in an environment where changes are seen in terms of improvement of livelihoods and living conditions. Such changes would be gradual and, therefore, the national government and the affected counties must be ready to implement long-term projects in the region to inspire diversified socio-economic developments and long-lasting peace. 

Knowledge is among the three key dimensions of HDI and other key indicators. 

The World Bank estimated Kenya’s national literacy rate at 82.62 per cent in 2021. Despite this impressive national gain, there are counties in northern Kenya with illiteracy levels above 70 per cent. 

In 2019, the Population and Housing Census Report indicated that Turkana County had an illiteracy rate of 68.7 per cent, Samburu 56.2 per cent, West Pokot 39.6 per cent, Marsabit 63.4 per cent, Baringo 25.8 per cent, Isiolo 46.8 per cent and Wajir 77.2 per cent. 

School completion rates 

Some of these counties had some of the lowest school and/or institutional completion rates.

Without school or training certification, chances of these populations being able to make ends meet become dismal, and without meaningful and gainful engagements, such populations of energetic youth become susceptible to being lured into criminal activities, including cattle rustling and banditry. 

The problem of higher illiteracy is compounded by other socio-economic problems, including high poverty levels, chronic food insecurity, malnutrition and under-nutrition. The Kenya Nutrition Action Plan (2018-2022) indicates the prevalence of stunted growth among children due to malnutrition in West Pokot County is 46 per cent. In Turkana County, malnutrition-related child wasting is estimated at 23 per cent, the highest in Kenya. 

As the security operation continues, the unfolding humanitarian situation in the region is reaching disquieting proportions. 

Already, the National Drought Management Authority (NDMA) is warning about the drought situation in some of the Asal counties in larger northern Kenya, with drought in Marsabit having been declared an emergency in January 2023. In the same month, the authority issued a drought alert in Laikipia, Baringo and West Pokot while Samburu’s drought situation is currently in the alarm phase. 

The emergency situation in Marsabit implies that livestock production is extremely low. 

The January 2023 NDMA drought situation reports for the region also indicate that pasture is fast diminishing across the region and there is a significant decline in milk production, estimated to be between 50 per cent and 95 per cent across the region. 

Asal counties are extraordinarily susceptible to climate change. In the past few years, cycles of drought have left many pastoralists in the region reeling from irrecoverable losses due to high livestock mortality.

Perhaps one of the questions for national policymakers is how tenable pastoral nomadism will be in future going by some of the emerging and debilitating impacts of frequent cycles of drought in the region. 

Pastoralists in the Asals supply an estimated 60 per cent of beef in the country, signifying how important the sub-sector is to employment in the beef industry value chain and to national food security. 

Kenya’s population is projected to hit 70.2 million by 2045, meaning domestic demand for beef will proportionally increase. 

Whether or not climate change and adverse climate variability would sustain the production capacity of the Asals to meet the expected growing consumption of meat will remain a subject of speculation for now. 

Climate change

The national government and the affected devolved units need to rally concerted efforts to achieve meaningful and lasting peace and recalibrate livelihoods in manners related to climate change and adverse climate variability. 

In many government policies and action plans tailored to meet the problems of the predominantly pastoral Asals, the impact of climate change and its connection to cycles of resource-based conflicts, including cattle rustling and banditry, is usually conspicuous. 

I hope that with the current security operation in the North Rift, the guns will eventually go silent. 

However, the grim HDI and other indicators will persist and this is where the rest of the government must come in to make northern Kenya sustainably productive and secure livelihoods from natural or man-made shocks and stressors. 

Mr Mugwang’a is a communications consultant and member of the Crime Journalists Association of Kenya (CJAK). [email protected]