Cattle theft in Madagascar is becoming an increasingly violent crime, with bandits terrorising villages by stealing, killing victims and taking cattle owners hostage in bloody attacks. This isn't limited to Madagascar though - it is a rising threat across Africa.
Malagasy Prime Minister Olivier Mahafaly Solonandrasana has confirmed that a network of cattle traffickers is active in the country, and local media updates and the Gendarmerie Nationale (paramilitary police) Facebook page show regular incidents of cattle theft. These have occurred in the country's south and south-west, as well as the regions of Betsiboka and Alaotra-Mangoro in central Madagascar.
Profits from the export of stolen cattle have attracted more violent and organised criminal groups
Those who steal zebu cattle are locally known as 'dahalos' (Malagasy for 'bandits') and are better equipped and more organised than the police and army. The dahalos use assault weapons such as Kalachnikovs and MAS-36 rifles with brutality, and behave like armed rebel or guerrilla groups.
The Secretary of State of the gendarmerie, Girard Randriamahavalisoa, blames 60% of insecurity in the country on 'black sheep' in the force. Gendarmerie Commander Herilalatiana Andrianarisaona has spoken out strongly against 'bad apples in the force', and said there had been cases where arms trafficking, among other ills, was linked to cattle theft. However army chief Lieutenant-General Razafindrakoto Lanto Arinjaka has denied the existence of 'guerrillas' anywhere in the country.
The problem of cattle theft, however, remains real. 'The cattle population has sharply declined in Madagascar, and the main cause is rural insecurity,' Solonandrasana told journalists in Antananarivo in February. The actual impact of these activities is hard to judge, and in March, the country's Ministry of Livestock said it didn't have updated figures.
Civil society organisations, business groups and politicians agree with Solonandrasana that judges, local leaders and law enforcement officers are involved in the theft of cattle. On 15 March, the groups protested against the 'inertia and inability of the authorities to contain the country's runaway insecurity characterised by increasingly violent livestock thefts, especially in rural areas'. A cacophony of car horns, cooking pans and whistles marked a five-minute peaceful protest dubbed: 'Let's mobilise against insecurity.'
China and Arab countries appear to be the export destination for Madagascar's cattle robbery trade
According to the gendarmerie, assailants take advantage of 'understaffing' in some villages to attack and steal cattle. For instance on 10 March, hundreds of armed livestock thieves attacked Ambohimiera village in south-eastern Madagascar. Although the paramilitary police resisted the assault and arrested one of the attackers, local parliamentarian Lova Paupil Razafindrafito expressed concern over this type of threat.
According to oral tradition among the ethnic Bara who live in southern Madagascar, cattle theft is part of the cultural identity of the semi-nomadic pastoral community. Traditionally, young men would steal cattle to demonstrate their prowess to their family and the girls they sought to marry. The practice was socially accepted, with the proviso that the theft took place in different communities. It was strictly forbidden to steal cattle from villages in one's own community.
Now it appears that political and socio-economic drivers motivate the rural youth to become dahalos for reasons other than tradition. This is leading to an increased demand for arms, and law enforcement agencies aren't sufficiently equipped to respond.
In 2016, 161 people - including 12 soldiers - were reportedly killed. Between 2015 and 2017, 25 army officers were killed in ambushes by cattle thieves. The gendarmerie said in a press release on 11 February that 16 gendarmes had been killed in 2017.
It appears that the profits associated with the illicit export of stolen cattle have attracted more violent and organised criminal groups. In Amoron'iMania in central Madagascar, 24 arms traffickers supplying the dahalos were reportedly arrested between 10 February and 7 March 2018.
Political and socio-economic drivers motivate the rural youth to become cattle thieves
'For now, everything seems to point to China or Arab countries as the export destination of the stolen cattle,' Paolo Emilio Raholinarivo Solonavalona told ENACT Observer in an interview in Antanimora in March. Solonavalona, a native Bara and special adviser to the prime minister, says 'cattle mafias' exist in the pastoralist sector. He echoes others in condemning the involvement of the country's national leaders and high-level officials in corruption, laundering of stolen cattle and arms trafficking.
Corruption has been cited among the factors that enable cattle theft, evidenced by political interference seen in cases against dahalos. This has resulted in a lack of trust by the local population in the justice and criminal investigation system, and there have been cases of extrajudicial killings of dahalos. According to Gendarmerie Nationale statistics, there were 44 cases of extrajudicial killings in the country in 2016.
With a third of the country now considered a red zone - out of state control - cattle raiding has severe implications for Madagascar's stability. Not least of these is the apparent decline in public confidence in the key institutions of the state - the police, the military and the courts of law.
This is likely to impact on the legitimacy of the state as people look to others, even those involved in criminal activities, for safety and security. The Malagasy authorities and their development partners need to craft innovative, urgent responses to these issues, as any further escalation could prove even more costly for peace and security in the country.
Duncan E Omondi Gumba, Regional Coordinator East and Horn of Africa, ENACT project, ISS Nairobi and Riana Raymonde Randrianarisoa, Executive Editor, Mada24
This article was first published by the ENACT project. ENACT is funded by the European Union (EU). The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of the author and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the EU.