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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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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:

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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

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The Journal of African History
  • ISSN: 0021-8537
  • EISSN: 1469-5138
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-african-history
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