The cover page shows an old man with an apprehensive look in his eyes, half-smiling as he hands you a bunch of qat leaves. In the background there is a wild-eyed teenage boy, cheeks swollen from the qat that fills them, peering into the camera.
This 862 page hard-cover book published by Reichert Publications is a weapon in all senses of the word. Besides documenting the ever growing role qat plays in Yemen and in the life of Yemenis, the book also analyses Yemen’s qat policy, the tribal qat economy, and the qat connections of our decision makers.
I had this huge publication lying by my bedside for months before I summoned the courage to pick it up and start reading. This was not only due to its intimidating size, but probably even more so due to its topic. Qat, and the political and economic schemes around it, was to me as a Yemeni always a well known problem. I just was too afraid to read for myself and acknowledge how I as a citizen am part of a society that enables this culture of qat.
I don’t chew Qat and personally I am ardently opposed to it. But I live in a society where Qat prevails. After years of research, Peer Gatter, the author of this book, published it in 2012, offering to the world an insight into this drug and what it has done to my country. Gatter was working for many years for the World Bank and UNDP in Yemen and is now heading the Integrated Expert Program for Afghanistan of the German Development Cooperation(GIZ-CIM).
Other than opium, whose properties have been discussed in Asian and European literature since the times of Avicenna, qat became a focus of international attention only with the colonization of Africa and the Middle East by European states. This was not only due to the geographical and political isolation of the African and Arabian highlands where the plant was grown and to where its consumption was initially restricted, but also due to the highly perishable nature of the chemical components of qat that made long-distance export of fresh leaves impossible then. Qat commerce has thus never reached the proportions of the coffee trade. Only in very small quantities qat was traded early on in dried form and exported as a powder to the coastal and desert lowlands of Arabia and eastern Africa.
Qat in colonial East Africa—A hopeless battle
After the First World War the qat phenomenon had reached proportions that increasingly plagued colonial administrations, foremost due to the outflow of monetary resources from the coastal colonies to highland regions of the hinterland that lay beyond European control.
British in Somaliland: The first colonial ban of the drug was spelled out by the British in Somaliland in 1921—that, despite being ruthlessly enforced, proved ineffective. In 1935 and 1936, the question of qat was raised at the League of Nations in Geneva. During its 12th to 16th sessions, the league’s Advisory Committee on the Traffic of Opium and Other Dangerous Drugs discussed two technical reports, submitted by Britain’s representative. In small quantities, qat was grown and consumed in northwestern Somalia for centuries.
As early as 1921, the British administration identified qat as a problem in Somaliland—two decades before adopting measures in the Aden protectorate. Contraband was fought, offenders jailed, even shot, and vehicles they had employed for transporting qat were thrown into the sea.
Opening the border to the former Italian Somaliland—which was also administered by Britain from 1941 to 1950—led to an influx of qat to other Somalian cities. In 1947, the colony’s Governor Gerald Reece tried to counter this trend with a law commonly known as the “Khat Ordinance” in order to control, regulate and restrict qat distribution and consumption.
Colonial Kenya: In Colonial Kenya qat has been grown for centuries in the Meru district on the northeastern slopes of Mt. Kenya and in the hill country extending to its north towards the town of Isiolo. It grows wild over a much more extensive area. Among the Meru and Embu ethnic groups the use of qat was strongly linked to tribal customs and is said to have once been restricted to their elders. After the First World War, however, qat use started to spread to other areas, cross-cutting ethnicity and age-groups. In Kenya it was not the colonial authorities who first tried to limit the proliferation of the habit with restrictive measures, but the tribal population itself in fear of moral decline and a loss of traditions. In 1934 the Isiolo Native District Council unanimously adopted a resolution whereby “any person found in the possession of any portion of the plant in the Isiolo District shall be guilty of an offence.” The Isiolo ruling was approved by the British Governor Council and the Meru resolution even became a law in 1935, which was still in force in 1959. In other districts the trade of qat was restricted by high taxes.
During the late 1950s qat was increasingly exported to neighboring countries, especially Somalia, Uganda, and Tanzania (including Zanzibar), but in smaller quantities also to the Comoros, Sudan, Congo, and Rhodesia. This trend further intensified after independence in 1963.
French Somaliland (Djibouti): Qat chewing had initially been restricted to Djibouti’s Arabs, of whom more than 4,000 lived in the French territory by the mid 1930s, making a living mainly as merchants and port workers. After World War II the habit also started to spread among the indigenous Afar and Issa tribes and soon became a universal habit.
In the late 1920s the economic importance of qat had come to the attention of the French colonial authorities and from that time on qat shipments were included in official trade statistics. In order to discourage the trade in qat, the French government imposed high taxes on its import and sale in April 1952.
Following a WHO “Khat Mission” to East Africa in 1959 that reported that in Djibouti even ministers, women and children chewed qat, French authorities attempted a partial ban on the trade of qat in 1960 by limiting imports to four days per week only (Thursday to Sunday). However, due to popular pressure the ban had to be lifted in the following year.
In 1970 a new attempt was made by French authorities to curb the trade and consumption of qat in Djibouti. Law No. 701 320 of Dec. 31, 1970 declared that the punishments for the illicit traffic of narcotic substances are also to apply in the French overseas territories.
Italian Somaliland: Before the conquest of Italian Somaliland by the British in 1941/1942, the qat habit had been virtually unknown in eastern and southern Somalia. With immigrants from the north settling there after the opening of the borders during the times of British administration, the habit became established in urban centers.
After research, the Ministry of Internal Affairs emphasized that a ban would be most beneficial to the country because “Somalia would be paralyzed if khat were allowed.” Consequently, Law No. 3 of Jan. 5, 1956 was enacted, prohibiting the import, transit, possession, and “all dealings in Khat except for the purpose of health and science.” Nominally, this law remained in effect until after independence in 1960. This ruling was however universally ignored and qat continued to trickle into the colony on back roads by truck and on camel back from Ethiopia, as well as aboard small vessels from Aden to the northern coast at Bosaso. By 1959 it was estimated that 5 percent of the population of the territory were using qat, while some 80 percent were chewing tobacco.
Qat policy in colonial Aden
In Aden—Britain’s oldest Arabian and East African territory—the colonial authorities were confronted with qat first, but acted last. For over a hundred years they tolerated the spread of its consumption among the local population and drew handsome profits from taxing the qat trade. In the 19th century fresh qat leaves reached Aden from the highlands of Al-Dhale, Yafi‘, and Taiz by caravan, and in dried form also by ship from Zeila on the Somali coast.
After completion of the Franco-Ethiopian Railway between Djibouti and Dire Dawa in December 1902, small quantities of Harari qat also reached Aden’s markets from across the Bab Al-Mandab.
The British had established their presence in Aden in 1839 and were governing the barren promontory henceforth from British India. The qat trade in the unhealthy port town that was then home to as many Arabs as Jews, played—if any—a rather inferior role. This rapidly changed with Aden becoming the major coaling station for ships steaming to and from India.
By the mid 1840s, qat was frequently used by an ever-rising number of Arab laborers employed in the loading and unloading of British vessels and caravans arriving from Yemen’s interior. By 1844, the trade of qat had become “exceptionally valuable, sales were heavy.” (1975).
Only after the status of Aden was changed from a settlement within the Indian Empire to a crown colony in its own right in 1937, were the first qat policies drafted. Among the first known measures taken vis-à-vis qat was an administrative instruction to the effect that recruits for the police and military forces of the colony were to be selected only from those tribes of the hinterland among whom qat consumption was either unknown or frowned upon. The British also attempted to ban qat consumption in their prisons, but had to go back on this decision, fearing disturbances, since inmates became extremely irritable without qat.
A motive for tolerating the drug for such a long time before introducing a ban in the 1950s may have been the fragile balance of power with the rulers of the interior who drew considerable profits from the trade—a balance the British wanted to maintain at all cost. When Aden had become a crown colony in 1937, the main landward imports were qat, firewood and fodder.
After the commencement of commercial air traffic between Ethiopia and Aden, Harari qat dispatched from Dire Dawa was introduced into the British colony. First deliveries by air reached Aden in 1949.
For Ethiopian Airlines, which was founded in December 1945 with the United States’ surplus aircraft from World War II, qat deliveries were soon to become an important source of revenue.
Before long, Adenis developed a liking for the taste of the East African leaves and soon favored them over Yemeni qat. It thus did not take long for Ethiopian qat to dominate the market and by the early 1950’s Ethiopian qat was delivered to Aden on a daily basis.
Owing mainly to a growth in population and purchasing power as a result of increasing salaries, qat imports to Aden multiplied by two and a half times between 1947 and 1953. The rise of qat imports was paralleled by a marked increase in prices for Harari qat.
Source: Yemen Times