by Bashir Goth
“When you chew Khat, you are on the top of the planet, but after you spit it out, the planet is on the top of you” – A Somali saying.
When Somalia recently made a surprise decision to ban the importation of Kenya originated Khat (Catha edulis), a herbal stimulant with amphetamine-like characteristics that Somalis consume as a national pass time, it caused quite a stir both inside and outside the country.
With an estimated 20 million users in the Horn of Africa alone, and a growing and lucrative business produced by the 500,000 farmers across the Horn of Africa and Arabian peninsula, khat is a multimillion business for producers from Kenya and Ethiopia and a heavy economic burden to Somalia, the biggest consumer in the region.
According to official figures, more than 15 cargo flights of khat arrive in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, daily from Kenya, brining in about 12,000 bags of the stimulant with a total value of US$400,000.
Somaliland, the breakaway northern region which recently came to prominence by granting DP World a 30-year deal to invest and manage its Red Sea Port of Berbera, spends $524 million a year or about 30 percent of its domestic product on khat from Ethiopia, while the neighboring Republic of Djibouti spends $170 million, or 30 percent of household in come, on Khat from Ethiopia.
No wonder that Kenya was alarmed by the ban as expressed by Dave Muthuri, Chairman of Kenya Miraa Farmers and Traders Association, who said Khat cargo with an estimated value of 60 million Kenyan shillings (US$592,000) was lost on the first day of the Mogadishu ban.
Socioecomomic impacts of Khat
Apart from losing millions of hard cash everyday to buy Khat, Khat has harmful health effects while the World Health Organization considers it to be “seriously addictive drug”. In addition to health risks, Khat also drains household budget as men spend a great percentage of the family income on the drug at the expense of children’s food, healthcare and schooling. It is also blamed for destroying family bonds by increasing domestic violence and divorce rate.
“The problem comes down to the man not being part of the family and the woman being left to do everything,” said Fatima Saeed, a Somaliland politician and a British citizen, talking to Al Jazeera when UK banned Khat in 2014.
“Khat would arrive at 5pm on the plane and by 6pm men had left homes and wouldn’t return until 6am,” Saeed said. “After the ban it was like people woke up from a deep sleep. They started looking for jobs, being part of the family.”
Why the ban now?
The debate on the devastating economic, health and social impact of Khat in Somalia is as old as Khat itself which studies say predates the use of coffee. There were attempts before to ban the khat but they all failed. The British colonial administration restricted the importation of Khat in British Somaliland Protectorate in 1921 and in Kenya in 1940, but both times the ban only led to Khat becoming more lucrative in black market and its use being associated with rebelling against British oppression. The French administration in Djibouti also tried to curb Khat imports and consumption in 1952 only to find the consumption tripled in three years. In Yemen, the British administration’s ban on Khat in 1957 led to public outrage in Aden and also Ethiopia, the export country, while an attempt to ban Khat in South Yemen after independence is assumedly to have led to the government’s downfall in 1972, According to Khat in the Western Indian Oceanwritten by Neil Carrier and Lisa Gezon.
Post-independence Somalia also banned Khat in 1983 with the government citing the damaging impact of Khat on the national economy and social fabric. The ban led to widespread resentment in northern Somalia towards Mogadishu government while government supporters were allegedly allowed to profit from smuggling the Khat.
It is against this background that President Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud’s decision to ban the importation of Khat from Kenya was seen as a bold and surprising move. Anti-Khat activists have been urging the government to ban Khat and the government has shown its willingness to impose a ban.
“Somalia continues to lose a huge amount of hard cash to purchase khat from Kenya, which only creates an economic source for another country.” President Mohamud told reporters in May.
“The Khat business also continues to undermine our country’s post-war economic recovery, and that’s why every economy conscious person wants to deny Kenya from making money from Somalia just because it exports those leaves with health and humanitarian side-effects to our country.” He said.
However, the sudden decision was seen as a retaliatory action by the Somali government vis-à-vis Keneya’s decision to repatriate thousands of Somali refugees living in Dadaab Refugee Camp as well as what many Somalis say was a continued and arbitrary arrest, harassment, extortion, ill-treatment, forcible relocation and expulsion of Somali residents in Nairobi’s Eastleigh neighborhood.
Kenya and Somalia are also involved in a maritime border dispute over an oil and gas rich area. The dispute went to the International Court of Justice which heard the arguments of both sides on September 19-23 as Kenya failed to convince Somalia to withdraw the case for local bilateral resolution.
Kenyan media, however, attributed the ban to a visit of a Kenyan politician to the self-declared republic of Somaliland. According to Kenya’s Daily Nation, “Somalia imposed the ban because of Peter Munya, the governor of the Kenyan county of Meru, which grows most of the khat, had visited Somaliland in July to see if he could arrange a trade deal for khat exporters in Kenya – in exchange for some form of recognition for the autonomous region.”
Somali Ambassador to Kenya, Gamal Hassan, also affirmed this by explaining that the Kenyan politician’s visit to Hargeisa, Somaliland’s capital, in July had outraged the Mogadishu government.
Lifting the ban
Just a few days after its surprise decision, Somalia lifted the ban following a meeting between President Mahmoud and his Kenyan counterpart, Uhuru Kenyatta, on the sidelines of the leaders’ Summit of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) held for the first time in 30 years in Mogadishu.
This came after the IGAD Communiqué “reaffirmed its respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, political independence, and unity of Somalia.” This was a major concern for Somalia over the years and gives great relief to Somali people. The communiqué also “encouraged the voluntary return of all Somali,” while also underlining their commitment to “collectively address refugee situation in the region, as well as convene a special summit on durable solutions and effective reintegration of returnees in the country.”
Kenya also agreed to review the procedure of starting direct flights from Mogadishu to Nairobi without transiting a stopover in Wajir Airport in northeast Kenya, a measure Somalia viewed as underscoring Kenya’s attitude of considering flights from Somalia as a security risk. Another win for Somalia was Kenya’s promise to ease visa restrictions on Somali citizens and access of Somali banking, finance industry into Kenyan market and vice versa.
Although Kenya seems to have secured back its lucrative business that replaced coffee production as a major cash earner, the ban proved that Somalia can use its huge trade deficit with Kenya as a bargaining chip only as far as the Somali people remain in Mirqaan (blissed out) the leaves they call “Qoot Al Awliya” or Food for the Pious, and which they assume has the power of : “enlivening the imagination, clearing the ideas, cheering the heart, diminishing sleep, and taking the place of food,” according to Richard Burton.