Khat has been used in Somalia for centuries, and has a long history of use in the Horn of Africa region. The ancient Egyptians viewed Khat leaves as sacred, whilst Sufi religious men chewed the drug during their meditations: Khat use is not viewed as taboo in the country. Yet it’s use is currently being threatened, both by the existing government and the al-Shabab terrorist organisation that seeks to overthrow them.
As their influence and reach in the country continues to rise, al-Shabab not only a threat to the current Western-backed Somali government but also to the culture of Khat use within the country. A recent news report from the Washington Times has postulated that al-Shabab, who already have significant power in Southern Somaliland, are appealing to residents across the rest of the country, and are offering to secure the peace that they desire. However this supposed peace comes alongside the implementation of strict Sharia law. As well as restricting the rights of women and offering severe punishments for minor crime, these ultra-conservative laws outlined by al-Shabab also ban both the smoking of cigarettes and the chewing of Khat. It is this attitude towards Khat use which may well destabilise the popularity of the group.
The Financial Benefits of Khat Sales and Production
Khat use is enmeshed in Somali culture and the tax earned on the substance is a huge source of income for the government, with the Ministry of Finance reporting in 2014 that 20 percent of the $152 million budget for the country was generated from Khat sales. Khat is a big business, and it is estimated that across the Horn of Africa and Arabian peninsula there are approximately 500,000 farmers choosing to farm Khat, which can be grown all year round and is easy to produce, requiring minimal amounts of water to grow. From both a financial and cultural point of view, then, it is clear that a widespread ban of Khat in the country is an unrealistic expectation for Somalia’s near future.
Despite this, the President of Somaliland has in recent months indicated that the government is planning to minimise the use of the stimulant in the country, which could drive the cost of the drug up for local users. In mid May 2015, Somali lawmaker Mohamud Mohamed Godir even discussed plans to ban the drug across the country with prominent national and international journalists, continuing to keep the use of the drug in the public eye. This discussion followed blanket bans of the drug by many of Somaliland’s western allies: In 2014 the drug was made illegal in the United Kingdom, and it is also illegal in much of Europe and the United States, but here in Africa use of the drug is largely legal, including in Somalia (where Khat use was prohibited in 1983 but then relegalised just six years later in 1989).
A Huge Spectrum of Drug Users
The individuals abusing Khat span a huge spectrum, with users ranging from young children to the very elderly: it is thought that as many as 90% of Somali men living in the country regularly chew Khat. The longer the substance in abused the more likely those individuals are to suffer from the negative side effects of abusing the drug (including mental health problems, heart disease and mouth issues) with is why those senior drug users choosing to abuse the drug are a huge source of social and economic concern for the Somali government. Care and support for those individuals suffering from mental health problems in Somaliland is hugely limited, meaning that many of those Khat users that succumb to the drugs negative side effects are left chained in their homes and at the mercy of their loved ones support, rather than receiving the help and support of medical professionals. As a result of this, they rarely recover, and under Sharia law it is likely that any professional medical support would become even more difficult to procure.
According to Rakiya Omaar, a representative of the Somaliland consultancy firm, the Horizon Institute: “Khat is a massive burden on Somaliland’s fragile economy since it means that a large percentage of its foreign currency is used to purchase khat.” This stands in contradiction to the tax benefits that the substance brings to the country, and further complicates the controversial conversation that surrounds Khat use in Somaliland. The debate about the widespread use of Khat rages on, whilst the country awaits further clarification from the President on his decision to reduce Somaliland’s dependence on the drug. In the meantime, you will find the trademark green flecked smiles of Khat users on every corner of every township across the country.