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.
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