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Shifta (Ge'ez: ሽፍታ, or "shufta") is term used in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Somalia for rebel, outlaw, or bandit.[1][2] The word is derived from shúfto.[3][4] Historically, shifta served as local militia in the lawless rural mountainous regions on the Horn of Africa. The word shifta can be translated as 'bandit' or 'outlaw', but can include anyone who rebels against an authority or an institution that is seen as illegitimate.[5]


The term shifta has positive and negative connotations, that of a common bandit and that of a revolutionary; both concepts being distinct but not necessarily mutually exclusive. They are often considered as highly respected, politically minded outlaws struggling for social order or a political cause. When applied in this context, shiftinnet (being a shifta) in its diverse forms has a social function as a form of conflict resolution.

In Eritrea during the British administration, military units were used to police the lawless areas and stop common shifta activity.[6][7]

In Ethiopia, individuals who started as shifta have risen to the level of warlord or Emperor thus legitimizing the concept of shifta itself. Two nineteenth-century shiftas, Kassa Hailu[8] of Gondar and Kassai Mircha of Tigray, became respectively, Emperor Tewodros and Emperor Yohannes in the later 19th century. Thus the shiftas formed the military elite and became the core of the resistance, using their military skills against the Italians.

A shifta, however, whose acts surpassed social norms would be called t'era-shifta and would be regarded as a thief or bandit. The Italians not surprisingly labelled all shiftas as t'era-shiftas, of the criminal type.[citation needed] Nevertheless, to be described as a shifta, especially during the Italian occupation, was an honour for an Ethiopian and this was how resistance started and spread.

Both Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea and Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia were called shifta when they served respectively as rebel leaders of the EPLF and TPLF.[9]

See also[edit]

References and notes[edit]

  1. ^ "Somali Refugees in Kenya". Human Rights Watch. Retrieved 2007-03-29. 
  2. ^ "African Banditry Revisted" (PDF). Retrieved 2008-10-18. 
  3. ^ Hamilton, David; Shinn, Thomas P. Ofcansky, Chris Prouty (September 2004). Historical Dictionary of Ethiopia. Scarecrow Pres. ISBN 9780810849105. 
  4. ^ shifta Definition, Encarta
  5. ^ "Hunt for tourists moves to Eritrea". Scotland on Sunday. Retrieved 2007-03-29. 
  6. ^ "Battling the Shifta in Eritrea". Retrieved 2007-04-07. 
  8. ^ Jon Abbink; Mirjam de Bruijn, Klaas van Walraven. Rethinking Resistance: revolt and violence in African history. Brill Academic Publishers. pp. 95–96. ISBN 90-04-12624-4. 
  9. ^ Abbink, Jon; Mirjam de Bruijn, Klaas van Walraven (September 2003). Rethinking Resistance: Revolt and Violence in African History. Brill Academic Publishers. ISBN 9789004126244.