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Re-thinking forceful civilian disarmament in the Horn of Africa


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The approach used in combating cattle rustling and the related illicit proliferation of small arms and light weapons in the borderlands of the Horn of Africa (HoA) calls for a re-think. The need for such a review can be best understood by examining the complex web of socio-economic factors that characterise the lives of inhabitants of the borderlands in the region, as well as the approach used in mitigating the problem. The review will allow policy makers in the region to evolve sustainable measures for curbing insecurity (and therefore cattle rustling and arms proliferation) by providing alternative livelihoods to the affected populations.



Culturally cattle have had a wider range of symbolic as well as social value to the pastoral groups in the HoA region. However in modern days the demand for cattle products, especially meat, has narrowed the traditional aims of cattle ownership (such as wealth, status, dowry) into largely an economic engagement for pastoralists. This has led to increased insecurity thereby creating a demand for sophisticated weapons to guard against the would-be cattle rustlers. The illegal acquisition of guns, especially AK-47s by pastoralists, has for several decades irked governments in the HoA, thereby leading to approaches such as forceful disarmament of civilians (especially pastoralists) found with guns. While the concept of civilian disarmament is a noble one, the methodology used raises many concerns especially because very dismal success has been achieved. This applies to for instance countries such as Kenya and Uganda where military forces have been used severely to disarm civilians.

A reflection on forceful disarmament processes in the HoA reveals a series of failures. Lessons drawn from Kenya and Uganda, the two countries with a long history of forceful civilian disarmament, underscore this problematic approach. A case in point is a cross-border altercation between Ugandan military forces and Kenyan Pokot pastoralists, which left at least six people dead when the Ugandan soldiers tried to disarm the pastoralists along the border of the two countries in May 2009. Historically, examples abound. For instance in 1984, a forceful operation code-named Operation Nyundo (Operation Hammer) was conducted jointly by Kenyan and Ugandan armies with the aim of disarming pastoral groups along the border of the two countries. In the process the affected communities resisted, leading to a catastrophic confrontation with the military forces that lasted several days.



The urgency to retrieve illegal guns from civilian possession has tended to override the need to understand the demand side of the weapons. Worse still, the use of small arms in pastoral conflicts has led policy makers to focus on weapons as the primary source of armed violence rather than as a symptom of some of the deeper social, political and economic factors. Similarly, interventions by states have tended to focus primarily on disarmament, thereby failing to adopt a holistic approach aimed at reducing the demand; effective policing and ensuring comprehensive supply-side measures are in place so as to stem the movement of weapons into these communities.


Ongoing studies point to the fact that there may be better alternatives of dealing with this endemic problem of cattle rustling and the spread of arms in the HoA. A recent report by Chatham House indicates that a booming trade in livestock has thrived for more than two decades along the borderlands of Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya despite rampant insecurity in the former and drought in the latter two - a testimony to resilience in extreme circumstances. In the same vein, an analysis by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs shows that despite political and security problems in Somalia over the past twenty years, the Kenya-Somalia-Ethiopia borderlands constitute a dynamic livestock trading zone that supports the livelihoods of thousands of people. Most of the livestock ends up in cities such as Nairobi and Mombasa.


The role of livestock as a critical source of livelihood for pastoral communities in the HoA has therefore continued to thrive even amidst the most insecure political settings such as the one prevailing in Somalia. The increase in demand for cattle has led to a corresponding increase in its economic value and therefore a rise in levels of insecurity as cattle rustlers seek to steal the cattle. The end result is the dramatic increase in the demand for small arms in the region as individuals seek to take charge of their security owing to weak state security apparatus in the borderland regions. The demand for arms by civilians for self protection is further fuelled by the ever-impending military operations aimed at forcefully disarming the civilians. This results in a cat-and-mouse game in which civilians equip themselves with more than one illegal weapon so that in the event that one is confiscated during military operations, there would always a spare weapon to fall back to.


The resistance with which forceful disarmament is met amongst pastoral communities in the HoA has its basis largely in the improper approaches and policies applied. This has contributed to, and exacerbated insecurity in the region while at the same time disintegrating further the security environment, with deleterious effects on the lives and livelihoods of the affected populations. Even in periods when the rate of incidents of raids or attacks is low, the threat of insecurity remains pervasive, limiting the active pursuit of alternative livelihood strategies.


An alternative approach in addressing this complex situation would be for the regional governments to appreciate, firstly, the central role that cattle play as a source of livelihood for the pastoral communities in the HoA and the nature of insecurity the people face. This will underscore the apparent need for arms both for self-protection as well as for the protection of property (including livestock) in an event of armed attack by invading cattle rustlers. Secondly, the realisation that trade in cattle continues to thrive in the borderlands despite lack of effective government controls in such areas provides a need for concerned governments to explore ways in which this economic network, which thrives against weak (or absence of) governance structures, could be used as a conduit for gradual inducement of confidence-building measures. This would aim at transforming the negative (hostile) perceptions that the affected populations may be having about state security. Eventually, the concerned governments should seek to provide security and alternative means of livelihoods to the residents of these areas. This will gradually abate the demand for arms, thereby opening a way for peace building programmes such as voluntary community arms collection projects. This could be followed by a range of other communal projects based on a needs analysis of each setting.


If the status quo on disarmament is not transformed, the situation of pastoralists and the nature of cross-border activities they are involved in will continue posing challenges to national and local-level authorities, both in terms of development and revenue collection and for border security management.

Written by: Nelson Alusala, Senior Researcher, Arms Management Programme, ISS Pretoria




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