Pastoralism is increasingly referenced in policy and programming discussions of transboundary crime and armed group activity, as pastoralists are often presented as potential vectors for violent crime and/or transnational terrorism. While grounded in valid concerns about the activities of some pastoralists, this lens is also used to justify discriminatory or abusive practices by government forces and local communities.
All over the world, livestock production has been a focal point for criminal activity when the demand for meat and animal products skyrockets, as has been the case in the Sudano-Sahel. Livestock are among the most valuable things people can own in rural areas, and pastoral migration routes frequently cross through the remote territories where criminal groups thrive. Cattle rustling or extortion of livestock owners is not a new practice, but in recent years the proliferation of arms and growing strength of criminal and insurgent groups has led to more frequent and deadly clashes between professional rustlers and armed cattle guards. Policing borderlands and rural territories is a challenge even outside of active conflict zones and many states lack the resources to protect against the increasing banditry.
To protect their livelihoods, pastoralists have adapted in different ways. Wealthier livestock owners hire more armed guards when they need to move their livestock through insecure territory, while many subsistence pastoralists are forced to move to new regions or routes where they may end up in conflict with local farmers. Some pastoralists have formed alliances with local armed groups, acting as conduits for supplies or communication. For instance, some Mbororo pastoralists in the northern DRC have been accused of providing support to the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), although the Mbororo themselves are often victims of violence from the LRA.
Though pastoralists are common targets of theft or exploitation, some also engage in trafficking or poaching. Pastoral migration routes that cross through remote territories and across borders outside of state supervision can be ideal for moving drugs, guns, or other illicit goods. Though the pastoralists who engage in violence or criminal activity are only a minority, their behavior has often been invoked to stoke fear of pastoralists or specific pastoralist ethnic groups (see Module – Conflict Management). The perception that pastoralists generally are a security threat is seemingly justified because of the tactics they use to survive – arming themselves to protect against bandits, avoiding state authorities when crossing the border, or traveling along routes that have been co-opted for smuggling. In the public eye, these nuances are diluted into a black and white depiction of pastoralist groups as criminals, a simplification unchallenged by national law enforcement and counterterrorism officials.
Community leaders are often the first to identify and respond to violent threats, particularly in remote rangelands where security forces are thinly deployed. These local leaders can serve as eyes and ears for security forces to help focus their interventions on high-risk areas for cattle rustling, smuggling, kidnapping, or reprisal killings. In addition, civilian-operated early warning systems (EWSs) in remote regions can provide overstretched security providers with critical information on where to focus their limited resources (see also Strategy – Regional Security Coordination). Community-oriented security in contested or stateless areas, though, requires a careful balancing of interests and substantial trust-building. Fostering collaboration with pastoralist groups may be particularly challenging as trust in state authorities may be very low after a long history of neglect.
Programs pilot opportunities for collaboration between civilians and security forces to build trust.
Effective community-led security solutions are not possible when local citizens fear security forces. The latter can subject citizens to racketeering, perform rent-seeking behaviors, or openly collude with criminals. Where pastoralists have had similar experiences, they will avoid state security forces. Rebuilding this trust requires increasing the frequency and depth of positive interactions between civilians and security actors. In Niger, for example, Search created opportunities for contact and connection between security forces and local citizens through shared participation in camel races Open lines of trust and communication can enable pastoralists and local security forces to work together in recovering stolen livestock, even across national borders. Practical forms of local cooperation (e.g., neighborhood watch committees) should be reinforced by advocacy activities that hold duty-bearer accountable for rights abuses committed against pastoralist (or other rural) groups.
Security forces open the space for humanitarian services and local peacebuilding.
Across the Sudano-Sahel, many of the key hot spots of pastoralism-related violence are insecure regions where peacebuilding and development programs cannot operate. Peacekeeping missions or other security forces can provide “safe spaces” where program staff and beneficiaries can meet for dialogues on transhumance routes, mobile field schools, or local commerce.
Participatory risk analysis allows citizens to inform law enforcement in high-risk areas.
In remote contexts where law enforcement is under-resourced and poorly staffed, rural banditry can become a serious public menace, interrupting local livelihoods and putting cattle holdings at risk. Local communities often have valuable knowledge about how criminal actors operate in their environment, often more than the state security forces who are generally outsiders. This advantage puts the community on equal footing with law enforcement and creates an opening for joint problem solving with the community as a partner, not just as a victim, information source, or suspect. Redefining public safety through community partnerships can help law enforcement prioritize specific public threats that matter most to citizens.
Communities mobilize into self-defense groups.
Vigilante activity is a major source of instability in the remote areas of the Sudano-Sahel where civilians do not have access to justice from state institutions. Communities under direct threat from NSAGs or rival groups cannot count on state protection and may take up arms in self-defense. Pastoralist or farming communities may form self-defense militias to protect livestock or crops or to seek retribution in response to attacks or property damage. Interventions focused on community-led solutions to security should be careful to avoid creating opportunities for vigilante violence or reinforcing the credibility of militia groups. Programmatic interventions that are well managed and establish mutually agreed-upon roles and responsibilities for civilians and security forces can be a valuable measure to prevent reliance on vigilante protection or justice.
Local or national authorities see community-oriented approaches to security as threatening.
The institutional structure of law enforcement varies across the Sudano-Sahel, and there is no one-size-fits-all model that works across the region. Interventions to strengthen the role of community leaders in local security can be seen as challenging to local or national authorities, particularly in regions where state authority is already challenged by NSAGs.
Along the border between Mali and Niger, law enforcement responses to cattle theft have been hindered by the movement of stolen livestock across borders. Nigerien authorities who come across stolen cattle from Mali have no way to know how to get in touch with the owners. And the victims of theft have no channel to reach authorities and have to take it upon themselves to wander out in search of their livestock. Beginning in 2017, Search led an intervention to build trust and coordination between authorities and local communities in border areas. This included inter-command dialogue between security forces, the establishment of an early warning network, and organizing forums for pastoralists to speak with security forces directly. The result has been stronger channels for information sharing. Victims of theft could report critical information, such as the time and location that their animals were taken, rather than feeling the need to take justice into their own hands.
In the contested border region of Abyei between Sudan and South Sudan, access to grazing and farming land has been a key point of conflict between the Misseriya and Dinka Ngok communities. Misseriya pastoralists from the north have long migrated their livestock south to Abyei to access pasture and water during the dry season, and traders from both communities would rendezvous in local markets to sell livestock and other goods. Amid civil violence and South Sudanese independence, however, these interactions broke down. Economic ties were partially revitalized in 2016 with the Amiet market, which was established following a series of trust-building efforts between communities facilitated by third party organizations like Concordis International and the FAO. Due to continued insecurity on the border, the UN Interim Security Force for Abyei stepped in to provide protection for the traders. Without the coordinated approach between civilian peacebuilding interventions that could reestablish intercommunal relations and the presence of international security forces that could provide an element of security, this trade venue would not have been feasible given the ongoing strife.
The open rangelands and porous borders that pastoralists inhabit are ripe for armed groups to engage in smuggling, cattle rustling, or other illicit trade. As easy targets for theft or extortion, pastoralists have responded by aligning with militia groups, hiring private security, or removing livestock from recognized routes and official border checkpoints. Reinforcing security in these remote territories and guaranteeing safe transhumance would reduce violence and cut off revenue to insurgent groups and criminal syndicates. In some states, these areas are monitored by specialized security forces (as in the Nomadic Guard in Chad or the Agro-Rangers in Nigeria). In theory, these types of forces fill a critical gap in law enforcement as a light, easily mobile force that has the capacity to engage with communities in more remote areas. However, such forces are often under-resourced compared to local criminal groups. Specialized law enforcement and border security struggle with a lack of resources and technical capacity, challenges which are compounded by a lack of public trust and accountability. Any security sector reform agenda aimed at addressing rural banditry and insurgent activity should be adapted to address potential tensions between security forces and pastoralist populations or other inhabitants of remote territories.
The mandate of relevant security forces is revised to include pastoralism-related violence.
Pastoralist participation in insurgencies or violent crime presents unique challenges for law enforcement and the wider security sector – such as tracking cross border movement, building access and trust with remote communities, and distinguishing between armed citizen herders and part-time combatants. There is a clear need for security providers who have the skills, expertise, and mandate to address cattle rustling and related violence in pastoral areas. However, pastoralism has not been consistently integrated into the mandate and mission of the military, counterterrorism, or peacekeeping forces that are dealing with these issues. One review of UN peacekeeping missions in the Sudano-Sahel found that only one – the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the CAR (MINUSCA) – of the six missions that deal with pastoralism in their operations made any reference to it within their 2019 mandate. Without a more explicit focus on pastoralist-related violence, collaboration with citizen groups working to address root causes will remain ad hoc.
Rights monitoring and reporting mechanisms are mobile and well-adapted to the specific needs of pastoral communities.
Pastoralist ethnic groups have suffered abuse and atrocities not only from intercommunal attacks, but also through state-sanctioned violence. In 2020, for example, the revelation of mass graves of predominantly Fulani victims found in Burkina Faso led citizens to accuse government forces of targeted executions. Rights monitoring for pastoralist communities face any number of challenges, first and foremost lack of access and trust. Highly networked, mobile strategies are required to reach pastoral groups on the move. Alternatively, civilian monitors may embed with state security forces patrolling remote pastoral areas where cattle raiding, smuggling, and armed crime flourish. Rights monitors can also operate through intermediary institutions (veterinary services, mosques) to track reports and confirm secondary accounts through settled family relations, or other indirect forms of research and verification.
Cross-border pastoralism is included within the scope of anti-corruption and security sector reform initiatives.
Tracking and monitoring cross-border transhumance presents state security forces with unique opportunities for extortion, collusion with trafficking networks, and racketeering. State authorities, similar to armed groups, have been known to impose right-of-passage taxes on passing livestock or demand kickbacks in exchange for facilitating smuggling or illicit trafficking. Pastoralists whose entire livelihood is tied up in taking cattle to market have little choice but to comply. The absence of legal oversight means impunity for security agents operating far from central authority. Training for security forces or border agents on human rights, public accountability, community-driven security, and anti-corruption measures should include specialized content on pastoralism.
Programs familiarize security forces with transhumance rights, laws, and customs.
Policies and multilateral agreements governing resource access and cross-border movement are often ambiguous or unclear about how they should be applied in practice (see Module – Governance & Rule of Law). This leads to situations where security forces and pastoralists harbor different assumptions about what is permissible. Refresher trainings for personnel responsible for policing borders or livestock movements can improve application of the laws in force.
Programs facilitate greater coordination between border agents, law enforcement agencies, and judiciary across national jurisdictions.
Cross-border transhumance is a concern shared by government agencies that may not otherwise collaborate – from national military forces monitoring arms trafficking to park rangers dealing with poaching to border agents watching for stolen cattle. The ideal vision for securing these borderlands will involve balancing the distinct capacities and mandates of different security forces. Military forces may be well-suited to secure the border from attack but should not be used to substitute for the border guards who are responsible for verifying that passing herds are properly registered. An effective system will involve a clear delineation of responsibilities and strong mechanisms for collaboration between different security forces on both sides of a given border.
Programs expand access to new technologies for tracking cattle movements. The ability to monitor cattle on a mass scale is invaluable in preventing theft, regulating herd size on public lands, and tracking the spread of diseases. Technologies like GPS collars, already adopted by some livestock owners in Nigeria, can reduce the burden on under-resourced border and security personnel. Drones and other aerial surveillance can also be critical tools to monitor herd movements in vast and insecure rangelands, as MONUSCO has done in some areas of the DRC. Implementing new technologies is not just a matter of investment in new tools, knowledge, and infrastructure; it requires buy-in from pastoralists who have little contact with authorities. The rollout of new tracking tools should be part of a wider trust-building and partnership strategy involving reliable intermediaries such as vaccinators or trade associations.
Existing laws and policies permit punitive tactics.
Many of the extortionist or punitive tactics that create hostility between pastoralists and security forces – fees for passage, prohibitions against grazing in public land, or fines for cutting tree branches to make shelter – are not signs of corruption, but are sanctioned or required by law. Trust-building between pastoralists and the security sector may struggle to gain traction when official policies are hostile to pastoral livelihoods.
Security forces discriminate in the protection of citizens.
Citizen’s relations with security actors are influenced by the same prejudices and identity divisions that drive dynamics between pastoralists and host communities. The lack of equal protection from security forces in the Sahel, for example, has helped to fuel the growth of ethno-nationalist militias, including among pastoralist populations. As outsiders, pastoralists migrating their livestock into other countries can be vulnerable to extortion and abuse. Strengthening the presence or capacity of security forces without accounting for these dynamics will only exacerbate existing conflict.
Intervention strategies that are driven by security interests will undermine civilian peacebuilding.
Conflicts relating to cross-border pastoralism often require some blend of both securitized and non-securitized responses. Large-scale cattle raiding, mass killing, and the involvement of pastoralists in armed insurgencies may be tackled by some combination of law enforcement, peacekeeping, or military operations. However, these forms of violence are often linked to everyday resource disputes or polarization between ethnic groups. Relying on military, counterterrorism, or law enforcement to handle every form of pastoralism-related conflict contributes to the reputation of pastoralists as “security threats.” “Right-sizing” and aligning the mandate and reach of security forces and those of civil society peacebuilders should be a priority.
The National and Nomadic Guard of Chad (GNNT) (originally the Territorial Guard) is a domestic Chadian security force formed in the 1960s to provide security for officials, protect government buildings and prisons, and maintain order in rural areas. Officers operating on horseback or camel are adapted to negotiate the terrain in nomadic regions. As the ones responsible for maintaining rural order, they are the agency that often deals with monitoring transhumance routes and activity in national parks and addressing cattle theft. Though the GNNT represents an example of an law enforcement agency adapted to a context of nomadic pastoralists, they have faced accusations of discrimination, excessive punishment, and poor coordination with other security forces. In October of 2018, for example, GNNT General Saleh Brahim arrested 15 village chiefs for refusing to sign a document to renounce their right of land ownership and subjected them to degrading treatment.
Photo: Camel guards patrol on the Sudan-Chad border in Abulu Kore (Darfur), Eastern Chad. Credit: Thomas Coex/AFP via Getty Images.
Various public officials and security agencies who are responsible for securing borderlands and pastoral rangelands have raised concerns about the comparatively small percentage of the pastoralist population that engages in criminal activity and insurgency, described by the UN Economic Commission for Africa as “fringe pastoralism.” There are valid reasons to be concerned that there is a connection between pastoral livelihoods and illicit activity, as outlined in this Module. However, the activities of fringe pastoralists are often cited to legitimize suspicion of pastoralist practices writ large or to demonize pastoralist ethnic groups. The perception that pastoralists (or members of pastoralist ethnic groups) are violent criminals has fueled discrimination and intercommunal violence. It is the responsibility of both media outlets and public officials to shape the narrative in a positive way and present a balanced and accurate picture of the actions of fringe pastoralists. Training on conflict sensitivity can help reporters and officials challenge their own prejudices about pastoralist groups and craft communications that are not incendiary.
Communications are precise in distinguishing armed actors.
Not all pastoralists who engage in violence or criminal activity are part of an organized insurgency or criminal syndicate. If every violent incident involving a Fulani or Mbororo is treated like an act of terrorism or national security threat, armed forces will respond indiscriminately or with excessive force. Officials should be precise in noting differences between ethno-nationalist militias, criminal groups, mob violence, and lone actors.
Communications describe events, causes, and outcomes without reference to ethnic, religious, or racial identity.
Various NSAGs are identified with a specific ethnic or religious group, and that identity tends to dominate how they are described in media and public discourse. When public officials repeat phrases like “Fulani terrorist,” they legitimize partisan bias and collective blame of a wider community. Media headlines and especially statements from public officials should focus on condemning behaviors and avoid demonizing specific identity groups.
Incentivize good reporting practices.
Much of the available information on pastoralism-related conflict is filtered through local media sources, which can skew public narratives. Even locally, observers may associate resource disputes with terrorism, for example, because the parties involved are based in insurgent-controlled areas. Language barriers and physical remoteness can make pastoralists less accessible to journalists and researchers. At the same time, intercommunal hostility often leads to rumors and misinformation about which group is responsibility for an attack or crime. Training programs on conflict-sensitive journalism can help identify the causes of bias and mitigate its consequences. Corroborated, fact-based journalism improves the quality of reporting that can inform official policy and state action in pastoral drylands. In Nigeria, for example, Search developed an early warning system in which it was a requirement that all reports of conflict events had to come from two or more independent services before being disseminated through the system. This simple practice ensured that the early warning system was not actively contributing to the spread of unverified information.
Fulani pastoralists in West Africa have been frequently stigmatized as a militant community, leading to abuse or violence directed against Fulani civilians. The perception that the whole Fulani population are part of an organized, militant threat has been subtly reinforced by the way they are represented in some research and mainstream media. One key example is the representation of Fulani in conflict event data sets like the Global Terrorism Database (GTD). The GTD compiles data on terrorist events all over the world by drawing primarily on local news sources. The system has used the umbrella term “Fulani militants” to categorize attacks where Fulani individuals or groups have been implicated as the perpetrator by local media. This can include incidents where media sources report that the perpetrators are suspected to be Fulani, even if that has not been confirmed or verified by law enforcement. Coding the data this way can create the illusion that these attacks are all committed by a unified group, even though they may be wholly unrelated.
Drawing on this data, the 2015 Global Terrorism Index – which analyzes global trends in terrorism – presented “Fulani militants” as the fourth deadliest terrorist organization in the world, comparable to Boko Haram or the Islamic State. This point was reiterated in mainstream media sources, stirring anti-Fulani sentiment at the local level. The presentation of “Fulani militants” as a group was removed in later GTI reports, and discussions of the Fulani in the data have been supplemented by a disclaimer on pastoralism-related violence.
Photo: Fulani pastoralist with his cattle in Nigeria. Credit: Search for Common Ground