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Eras Journal - Hannah Whittaker

Abstract of: Pursuing Pastoralists: the Stigma of Shifta during the 'Shifta War' in Kenya, 1963-68.

This paper will address the ways in which cultural, economic and political appellations of shifta (bandits or rebels) were used to force social change amongst Somali Kenyans in Kenya's Northern Frontier District (NFD) during the 1963-1968 'Shifta War'. Presenting a work-in-progress the paper reveals how the notion of shifta veiled various forms of violence in the NFD. Consequently, and in common with other investigations of banditry I argue that the Kenyan government 'discovered' a powerful political weapon in shifta that provided a pretext for forcing social and political change. In order to meet the challenges of independence, the shifta 'threat' enabled comprehensive government action against a group of people who were seen to defy the territorial and political constitution of the nation state. This resulted in the misrepresentation of violence in the region and the criminalisation of a community. When looking at state initiatives to contain the 'Shifta War', it is clear that counter-insurgency measures were directed not only at the secessionist fighters but also at the Somali pastoral community more broadly. Forced villagisation, movement restrictions and livestock confiscations criminalised a whole community, and shifta was the justification. In its broader significance this paper challenges the legitimacy of the post-colonial state as an agent of change amongst a group of people who have traditionally existed without regard to state authority.

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