Published online by Cambridge University Press: 01 October 2015
In 2010, the Kenyan government annulled national census results due to concerns that Somalis in the country had been over-counted. This article traces the genesis of this recent demographic dispute, which held important implications for the distribution of political power. It shows that African leaders inherited long-standing practices laid down by the colonial state, which was unable to obtain a reliable count of the number of people in Kenya or render its Somali subjects into a countable, traceable population. In regions where expansive Somali networks had long predated British rule, colonial authorities only loosely enforced the concept of a permanent population. By yielding to this reality, colonial officials developed governance techniques that should not be mistakenly portrayed as state ‘failures’. These policies call into question the applicability of James C. Scott's concept of ‘legibility’ to Kenya. They also suggest that recent demographic controversies cannot be reductively blamed on ‘illegal’ immigration.
I would like to extend my gratitude to Richard Ambani and the rest of the staff at the Kenya National Archives as well as Hassan Kochore, Hassan Ibrahim, Abdi Billow Ibrahim, and Ibrahim Abdikarim, who helped at different stages of my fieldwork, in addition to the many people in Kenya who generously shared aspects of their lives with me. Thanks are also due to Dr Alden Young, Dr Mathew Barton, Dr Timothy Parsons, Alice Brown, Pete Tridish, and the three anonymous readers at The Journal of African History, who read early drafts of this article. Stanford University, the Mellon Foundation, and the Lauder Institute at the University of Pennsylvania generously supported my writing and research. Author's email: email@example.com
1 Samantha Balaton-Chrimes argues that the census provided marginalized minorities in Kenya with a new way to engage in the ‘politics of recognition’. Balaton-Chrimes, S., ‘Counting as citizens: recognition of the Nubians in the 2009 census’, Ethnopolitics, 10:2 (2011), 215CrossRefGoogle Scholar, doi:10.1080/17449057.2011.570983. Due to increased sensitivity resulting from the 2007 post-election violence and lobbying from minority groups, the government decided to encode groups for the first time, which more than doubled the number of legally recognized ‘ethnicities’. Ibid. 207.
2 Other historically nomadic communities living in the north, such as the Turkana, were also affected by the government's decision.
4 Not only have nomadic populations posed unique challenges for census agents, but inhabitants of the north have also been reluctant to cooperate with census efforts due to a long history of political and economic marginalization. The 2009 census may have turned out greater participation, in part, because it was tied to the promise of political reform.
5 The Colony and Protectorate of Kenya was technically known as the East Africa Protectorate prior to 1920.
6 J. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, 1998), 2.
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10 A useful examination of the failed state paradigm is to be found in R. I. Rotberg, ‘Failed states, collapsed states, weak states: causes and indicators’, in R. I. Rotberg (ed.), State Failure and State Weakness in a Time of Terror (Washington, DC, 2003), 1-25. Shahar Hameiri argues that both the neo-Weberian and the neoliberal literature on this topic are predicated on an overly technocratic view of the state. See S. Hameiri, ‘Failed states or a failed paradigm? State capacity and the limits of institutionalism’, Journal of International Relations and Development, 10:2 (2007), 122–49, doi: 10.1057/palgrave.jird.1800120.
11 J. Herbst, States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control (Princeton, NJ, 2000), 3. The intellectual roots of Herbst's argument can be traced to Max Weber, who drew a link between state power and the ability to maintain a monopoly on the use of violence within a given territory.
12 A. Mbembe, On the Postcolony (Berkeley, CA, 2001), 8. A number of influential philosophical texts have explored the association between Africa and ‘incompleteness’, such as C. L. Miller, Blank Darkness: Africanist Discourse in French (Chicago, (1985), 3–29; and V. Y. Mudimbe, The Idea of Africa (Bloomington, IN, 1994), 5–6.
13 There are, however, notable exceptions to this trend, such as J. F. Bayart, The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly (London, 1993), 1–37.
14 Whereas the popular image of the Somali in the 1960s was that of the shifta or bandit, today many Kenyans perceive Somalis to be potential terrorists. For more on why Somalis came to be constructed as ‘security threats’, see Prestholdt, J., ‘Kenya, the United States, and counterterrorism’, Africa Today, 57:4 (2011), 3–27CrossRefGoogle Scholar, doi: 10.2979/africatoday.57.4.3; and Whittaker, H. A., ‘The socioeconomic dynamics of the shifta conflict in Kenya, c. 1963–1968’, The Journal of African History, 53:3 (2012), 391–408CrossRefGoogle Scholar, doi: 10.1017/S0021853712000448.
15 A. de Waal, Famine That Kills: Darfur, Sudan (New York, 2005), 4. Finding colonial and postcolonial government statistics to be unreliable, de Waal instead grounds his analysis in ethnography.
16 S. Berry, No Condition Is Permanent: The Social Dynamics of Agrarian Change in Sub-Saharan Africa (Madison, WI, 1993), 22; F. Cooper, Decolonization and African Society: The Labor Question in French and British Africa (Cambridge, UK, 1996), 465. The limited reach of the colonial state, however, did not preclude the use of coercion and performative violence. See C. Young, The African Colonial State in Comparative Perspective (New Haven, 1994), 43–140.
17 K. Breckenridge, ‘No will to know: the rise and fall of African civil registration in twentieth-century South Africa’, in K. Breckenridge and S. Szreter (eds.), Registration and Recognition: Documenting the Person in World History, Proceedings of the British Academy, 182 (Oxford, 2012), 357.
19 K. Ittmann, ‘“Where nature dominates man”: demographic ideas and policy in British colonial Africa, 1890–1970’, in K. Ittmann, D. D. Cordell, and G. H. Maddox (eds.), The Demographics of Empire: The Colonial Order and the Creation of Knowledge (Athens, OH, 2010), 67.
20 See M. Jerven, Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do about It (Ithaca, NY, 2013), 1–7. Morten Jerven's work, which calls into question indicators such as GDP, has sparked a reevaluation among economic historians of the uses and misuses of statistical data.
21 Blacker, J., ‘The demography of Mau Mau: fertility and mortality in Kenya in the 1950s: a demographer's viewpoint’, African Affairs, 106:423 (2007), 209CrossRefGoogle Scholar, doi: 10.1093/afraf/adm014. Blacker critiques Caroline Elkins's use of the 1948 and 1962 national censuses to derive Mau Mau casualty figures. His study provides important cautionary advice against the uncritical use of census data.
22 P. Manning, ‘African population: projections, 1850–1960’, in K. Ittmann, D. D. Cordell, and G. H. Maddox (eds.), The Demographics of Empire: The Colonial Order and the Creation of Knowledge (Athens, OH, 2010), 245–75.
23 N. Mburu, Bandits on the Border: The Last Frontier in the Search for Somali Unity (Trenton, NJ, 2005), 23–74; G. Schlee, Identities on the Move: Clanship and Pastoralism in Northern Kenya (Manchester, 1989); H. Whittaker, Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Kenya: A Social History of the Shifta Conflict, c. 1963–1968 (Leiden, 2014), 1–23; interview with Ahmed Maalin Abdalle, Habasweyn, 16 July 2011; interview with Aden Hassan Baraki, Habasweyn, 16 July 2011; Kenya National Archives (KNA) DC GRA/3/4, H. B. Sharpe, ‘The Somali general history’, Jan. 1932.
24 L. Cassanelli, ‘The opportunistic economies of the Kenya-Somali borderland in historical perspective’, in D. Feyissa and M. Virgil Höhne (eds.), Borders & Borderlands As Resources in the Horn of Africa (Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2010), 133–150.
25 Some Somali traders also immigrated from Kismayo, a port city in southern Somalia.
26 ‘Clan’ should be understood as an imprecise label. The term is defined relationally and what it means in any given context varies. It is also likely that members of other clans who immigrated to Kenya ultimately came to identify as Isaaq or Harti.
28 KNA VQ 1/21, ‘The position of alien Somalis in Kenya Colony’, letter from the Secretariat circulated to all members of Executive Council, 25 Apr. 1945.
29 M. Owino, ‘The discourse of overpopulation in Western Kenya and the creation of the Pioneer Corps’, in K. Ittmann, D. D. Cordell, and G. H. Maddox (eds.), The Demographics of Empire: The Colonial Order and the Creation of Knowledge (Athens, OH, 2010), 158.
31 Some of the material in this article is based upon previous and forthcoming publications by the author. See Weitzberg, K., ‘Producing history from elisions, fragments, and silences: public testimony, the Asiatic poll-tax campaign, and the Isaaq Somali population of Kenya’, Northeast African Studies, 13:2 (2013), 177–206CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and K. Weitzberg, ‘Rethinking the “Shifta War” fifty years after independence: myth, memory, and marginalization’, in M. M. Kithinji, M. M. Koster, and J. P. Rotich (eds.), Kenya at Fifty: History, Policy, Politics (New York, 2016).
32 For more on ‘hybrid’ forms of governance on the borderlands of colonial states, see A. Walraet, ‘State-making and emerging complexes of power and accumulation in the Southern Sudan-Kenyan border area: the rise of a thriving cross-border business network’, in C. Vaughan, M. Schomerus, and L. de Vries (eds.), The Borderlands of South Sudan: Authority and Identity in Contemporary and Historical Perspectives (New York, 2013), 173–92.
34 KNA PC NFD 1/5/2, F. G. Jennings, ‘Wajir District annual report’, 1930.
35 Interview with Ali Hassan, Nairobi, 3 Nov. 2010; KNA PC/NFD/1/5/2, F. G. Jennings, ‘Wajir annual report’, 1932.
36 KNA PC NFD 1/5/2, F. G. Jennings, ‘Wajir annual report’, 1932.
37 KNA PC NFD 1/5/2, ‘Wajir annual report’, 1933.
39 Herbst, States, 3.
40 KNA PC NFD 1/5/2, ‘Annual report for the year 1934, Wajir District, NFD’, 1–5, 15.
41 M. Mamdani, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism (Princeton, NJ, 1996), 16–21.
42 Sir Richard Burton helped to popularize this image of the Somalis in the mid-nineteenth century. R. F. Burton, ‘The Somal, their origin and peculiarities’, in I. Burton (ed.), First Footsteps in East Africa or, An Exploration of Harar, Two Volumes Bound as One, vol. I (New York, 1987 [orig. pub. 1856]), 70–5.
43 KNA PC NFD 4/1/6, ‘Somali Exemption Ordinance 1919 and the Somali exemption rules 1919’, letter from Chief Native Commissioner to all Provincial Commissioners, 2 Feb. 1920; interview with Zaynab Sharif, Nairobi, 13 Jan. 2011; interview with Hassan Ahmed Warsame, Nairobi, 11 Oct. 2010.
44 KNA PC Coast 1/3/162, ‘Re: status of Somalis’, letter from H. W. B. Blackall, Ag. Crown Council to Chief Native Commissioner, 3 Apr. 1920; The National Archives of the UK (TNA) CO 533/402/6, letter from Edward Grigg, Governor of Kenya Colony and Protectorate to Lord Passfield, Secretary of State for the Colonies, 15 Sept. 1930; TNA CO 533/425/7, ‘Re: hospital accommodation-native civil hospital’, letter from representatives of the Isaak Sheriff Community, Arabs to Governor of Kenya, 4 May 1932; KNA AG 39/120, letter from Attorney General to Colonial Secretary, 31 May 1934.
45 TNA CO 533/402/6, letter from H. Kittermaster to Lord Passfield, Secretary of State for the Colonies, 10 Sept. 1930.
46 It is worth noting, however, that colonial officials often struggled to give their subjects singular and unambiguous ethnic labels. See Parsons, T., ‘Being Kikuyu in Meru: challenging the tribal geography of colonial Kenya’, The Journal of African History, 53:1 (2012), 65–86CrossRefGoogle Scholar, doi: 10.1017/S0021853712000023.
47 KNA PC CP 8/3/11, ‘Population of Colony and Protectorate of Kenya: Machakos, North Nyeri, and Meru’.
48 B. R. O'G. Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London, 2006), 170.
49 H. K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (New York, 1994), 159–63.
50 T. Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore, 1993), 17.
51 Lee, ‘The Native’, 455–78.
52 Kenya, The Official Gazette of the Colony and Protectorate of Kenya (Special Issue) 38:49 (Nairobi, 3 Oct. 1936), 949. For more on the campaign for Asiatic status, see Turton, ‘The Isaq’; and Weitzberg, ‘Producing’.
53 KNA AG 39/120, letter from E. J. A. Musa, President, British Shariff Ishak Community of Kenya Colony to Colonial Secretary.
54 KNA PC SP 6/1/2, ‘Status of Somalis in Kenya: rate of payment under Non-Native Poll Tax Ordinance’, letter from A. de V. Wade, Colonial Secretary to Secretariat, 26 Apr. 1938.
55 KNA AG 39/120, ‘Note on the status and control of Somalis in Kenya Colony in time of war’, letter from P. Wyn Harris, Officer-in-Charge of Native Intelligence, 24 Oct. 1940.
56 KNA AG 39/120, ‘Objects of the Somali Registration Bill’.
57 KNA AG 39/120, letter from G. Reece to G. M. Rennie, Chief Secretary, 16 Jan. 1940.
58 A concern that no doubt grew as increasing numbers of Somali soldiers began fighting in the Second World War on behalf of the British Empire. To preempt accusations of racial discrimination, the governor of Kenya instead implemented a far more limited system of registration for ‘non-natives’ residing in the NFD. KNA AG 39/120, ‘Government notice No. 506: The defence (Northern Frontier District) regulations’, in Kenya, The Official Gazette of the Colony and Protectorate of Kenya (Supplement No. 23) 43:24 (Nairobi, 3 June 1941), 169.
59 Turton, ‘The Isaq’, 345.
60 The Managing Committee of the Shariff Ishakian Community, Memorandum of the Population of The Shariff Ishakians and Somalies in East Africa (Nairobi, Jan. 1940), courtesy of Dr Tabea Scharrer.
61 For example, see C. Vaughan, ‘The Rizeigat-Malual borderland during the condominium: the limits of legibility’, in C. Vaughan, M. Schomerus, and L. de Vries (eds.), The Borderlands of South Sudan: Authority and Identity in Contemporary and Historical Perspectives (New York, 2013), 133–52.
62 Cooper, Decolonization, 65–73.
63 J. M. Hodge, Triumph of the Expert: Agrarian Doctrines of Development and the Legacies of British Colonialism (Athens, OH, 2007), 178. Ironically, as Ittmann points out, only a few decades earlier, most colonial officials thought of Sub-Saharan Africa as underpopulated. Ittmann, ‘Where nature’, 59.
64 For more on the history of postwar development projects in Africa, see F. Cooper, ‘Modernizing bureaucrats, backward Africans, and the development concept’, in F. Cooper and R. Packard (eds.), International Development and the Social Sciences: Essays on the History and Politics of Knowledge (Berkeley, CA, 1997), 64–92.
65 KNA VQ 1/21, ‘The position of Alien Somalis in Kenya Colony’, letter from the Secretariat circulated to all members of Executive Council, 25 Apr. 1945.
66 KNA DC ISO 3/6/26, ‘Crown Lands Ordinance’, letter from G. Reece, Officer-in-Charge, Northern Frontier District to Attorney General, 11 May 1939.
67 KNA DC ISO 3/6/26, ‘Alien Somali settlement scheme’, letter from G. Reece, Officer-in-Charge, Northern Frontier District to Chief Secretary, 12 Mar. 1940, 6.
68 KNA DC ISO 3/6/26, ‘Alien Somalis’, letter from T. G. Askwith, District Commissioner, Isiolo District to the Officer-in-Charge, Northern Frontier District, 17 June 1942.
69 KNA DC ISO 3/6/26, ‘Somali settlement’, letter from T. G. Askwith, District Commissioner, Isiolo District to Officer-in-Charge, Northern Frontier District, 16 Apr. 1943.
70 KNA PC NFD 5/5/1, D. C. Edwards, Senior Agricultural Officer (Pasture Research), 20 Nov. 1943.
71 KNA DC MDA 5/1, G. Reece, ‘Control of grazing areas’, 23 July 1945.
73 Ibid. 453. See also E. M. Fratkin and E. A. Roth (eds.), As Pastoralists Settle: Social, Health, and Economic Consequences of the Pastoral Sedentarization in Marsabit District, Kenya (New York, 2005), 1–28.
74 KNA PC NFD 1/1/9, ‘Northern Province annual report, 1947’, 4–5; KNA SA 15/17, ‘Wajir District handing-over report’, letter from P. G. P. D. Fullerton to J. M. Golds, 20 May 1961.
75 KNA DC WAJ 2/1/4, ‘Chief's Meeting’, 4 Jan. 1949; KNA DC WAJ 2/1/4, ‘Meeting of Chiefs’, 24 Dec. 1949; interview with Abdi Salat Abdille, Kotulo, 1 June 2011; interview with Saman Ali Aden and Abbas Aden Amin Osman, Wajir, 6 Apr. 2011; Schlee, ‘Territorializing’, 859.
76 KNA DC WAJ 2/1/4, ‘Minutes of Chiefs’ and Headmen's Meeting Held at Wajir’, 25 Jan. 1948.
77 As Andrew S. Mathews has shown of Mexico, ‘official knowledge’ rarely ‘arises from the imposition of legibility’, but is more often ‘the relatively fragile product of negotiations between officials and their audiences in meeting halls and offices’. A. S. Mathews, Instituting Nature: Authority, Expertise, and Power in Mexican Forests (Cambridge, MA, 2011), 15.
78 As Mohammed Farah notes, ‘no clan boundary, no matter how well-adjudged, could be said to contain all that was necessary for the needs of the livestock’. M. I. Farah, From Ethnic Response to Clan Identity: A Study of State Penetration Among the Somali Nomadic Pastoral Society of Northeastern Kenya (Uppsala, 1993), 133.
79 KNA PC NFD 1/1/10, ‘Northern Frontier Province annual report, 1951’, 2.
80 M. I. Farah, From Ethnic Response to Clan Identity: A Study of State Penetration Among the Somali Nomadic Pastoral Society of Northeastern Kenya (Uppsala, 1993), 133.
81 KNA PC NFD 2/1/4, letter from R. G. Turnbull to J. W. Cusack, ‘Northern Province handing-over report’, Mar. 1953.
82 East African Statistical Department, African Population of Kenya Colony and Protectorate: Geographical and Tribal Studies, 1948 (Nairobi, 15 Sept. 1950), 5–6.
83 KNA PC NGO 1/1/18, letter from R. G. Turnbull, Provincial Commissioner, Northern Province to E. A. Sweatman, Officer-in-Charge, Maasai, 24 Nov. 1952.
85 KNA PC NGO 1/1/18, letter from Ag. Secretary for African Affairs to Provincial Commissioners of Nyanza, Coast, Rift Valley, Southern, and Central Provinces and Officer-in-Charge of Nairobi Extra-Provincial District, 18 June 1956.
86 KNA DC MUR 3/1/21, ‘The Somali Census in Kenya Colony’, letter from Officer-in-Charge of Somali Census to Ag. Provincial Commissioner, Central Province, 28 Nov. 1956.
87 Between 1957 and 1959, Somali political associations petitioned the government to give Somalis outside of the NFD employment opportunities as well as their own member in the Legislative Council. There were approximately 8,000 Somalis living outside of the NFD at this time. (Somali veterans of the Second World War had augmented their numbers). KNA CS 28/2/1, letter from A. Warsame, Vice President of the United Somali Association to Chief Secretary, 7 Oct. 1957; KNA CS 28/2/2, letter from President, Somali National Association to Chief Secretary, 24 Feb. 1959; KNA CS 28/2/2, letter from W. F. Coutts, Chief Secretary to M. Blundell, Minister for Agriculture, 7 Apr. 1959.
88 B. S. Cohn, Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India (Princeton, NJ, 1996), 8; N. B. Dirks, Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India (Princeton, NJ, 2001); M. Mamdani, Define and Rule: Native as Political Identity (Cambridge, MA, 2012), 48–9; Scott, Seeing, 83.
89 A notable exception is Arjun Appadurai. See A. Appadurai, Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger (Durham, 2006), 49–85; A. Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis, 1996), 114–35.
90 A. Ghosh, ‘The fundamentalist challenge’, in W. H. Gass and L. Cuoco (eds.), The Writer and Religion (Carbondale, IL, 2000), 88.
91 Mamdani, Citizen; P. Geschiere, The Perils of Belonging: Autochthony, Citizenship, and Exclusion in Africa and Europe (Chicago, 2009), 130–68. As Peter Geschiere shows, nativist politics and anti-immigrant sentiments are also problems within Europe and thus can hardly be considered exclusive to Africa. For recent work on the relationship between elections, political ethnicity, and multiparty democracy in Kenya, see Bratton, M. and Kimenyi, M. S., ‘Voting in Kenya: putting ethnicity in perspective’, Journal of Eastern African Studies, 2:2 (2008), 272–89CrossRefGoogle Scholar, doi: 10.1080/17531050802058401.
92 ‘Revisiting Kenya's forgotten pogroms’, Al Jazeera, 15 Dec. 2013 (http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/aljazeeracorrespondent/2013/11/revisiting-kenya-forgotten-pogroms-2013111110145776543.html); Hogg, R., ‘Pastoralism and impoverishment: the case of the Isiolo Boran of Northern Kenya’, Disasters, 4:3 (1980), 299–310CrossRefGoogle Scholar.
95 Campbell, E. H., ‘Urban refugees in Nairobi: problems of protection, mechanisms of survival, and possibilities of integration’, Journal of Refugee Studies, 19:3 (2006), 396–413CrossRefGoogle Scholar, doi:10.1093/jrs/fel011. Many citizens of Somali descent have also been denied official forms of identification due to government discrimination. Consequently, ID cards are often a poor marker of legal status.
96 Jerven, Poor, 73–4; Samora, ‘The Somali’; D. Zarembka, ‘Perilous times for Kenya's Somalis’, Foreign Policy in Focus, 21 Oct. 2013 (http://fpif.org/perilous-times-kenyas-somalis/).
97 Appadurai, Fear, 6.
98 J. Ferguson, The Anti-Politics Machine: ‘Development’, Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho (Minneapolis, 1990), 19–20.