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The rise, fall, then grudging acceptance of khat, East Africa’s controversial stimulant



In 2014 the UK banned khat, the stimulant stems and leaves of the tree Catha edulis. In Kenya it is more commonly known as miraa or veve.

This move brought to an end the weekly importation into London’s Heathrow of about 56 tonnes of the commodity. Most had been grown on farms in Kenya’s picturesque Nyambene Hills in Meru County. An estimated £12.7 million ($16.5 million) was remitted to Kenya from the UK for this trade in 2010 alone. The loss of this income has had adverse economic effects in those parts of the growing regions that had been reliant on the UK market.

The UK ban opened the latest chapter in the story of a remarkable commodity. It is a story I have been tracking for the past 16 years as an anthropologist who is fascinated by how people use, trade and perceive this botanical substance.

Some view khat as a relatively mild stimulant that aids sociality others view it as an “addictive drug”.

While prohibitions are being introduced in other countries too, including Uganda, in Kenya the British ban has actually served to make the substance more respectable and secure in status. But with its last major international market of Somalia threatened, the fate of this international pariah crop is far from certain.

Mild stimulant or addictive drug?

Until recently khat was restricted to the region where Catha edulis is indigenous. This includes eastern and southern Africa, the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Here it has been chewed in recreational, work and ritual contexts for centuries. Its geographic spread was restricted by its perishability until motor vehicles and air transport could overcome this.

In Kenya, its cultivation has long been the preserve of the Meru people of the Nyambene Hills running northeast from Mount Kenya. The Meru turned its cultivation and trade into a national then international industry alongside Somali exporters, who sent much to consumers in neighboring Somalia. It rose in importance as a commodity internationally in the 1990s and 2000s as Somalis moved throughout the world following state collapse and conflict. The diaspora populations in the UK, the US, Scandinavia and elsewhere created new demand for khat in those parts.

It has become almost a cliché in writing about khat that it is a substance viewed with great ambivalence, one that polarizes opinion. My own research has certainly highlighted this ambivalence. There are those who view khat as a relatively mild stimulant that aids sociality and provides livelihoods. Others view it as an “addictive drug” that damages household economies.

Just take the different views of the Meru of the Nyambene Hills and the Somali anti-khat activists in the UK. Khat is a valued part of cultural heritage and the mainstay of the local economy for many thousands of Meru farmers. But the activists view it as the cause of social, economic and moral decay, which is why they have campaigned for it to be banned in the UK for more than a decade.

A global perspective might suggest that the anti-khat sentiment so evident among the Somali diaspora in Europe has won out. The recent bans imposed by the UK and the Netherlands, where it was banned in 2012, attest to that.

Gaining respectability in Kenya

However, back in the growing regions of Africa, khat remains strong. While illegal for decades in Tanzania, in Ethiopia and Kenya it is very much legal and, if anything, becoming more widely produced. The recent rise in the Kenyan variety known as mugoka is evidence of this. In fact, the UK ban has counter-intuitively made the crop more secure in Kenya.

For much of the 20th century khat was viewed suspiciously in Kenya. The British colonial rulers tried ineffectively to ban it.

For much of the 20th century khat was viewed suspiciously in Kenya. The British tried ineffectively to ban it with a “miraaordinance” from the 1930s onwards. The fear then was that it was fomenting rebellion in Kenya’s Northern Frontier District. In post-colonial Kenya suspicion lingered. While themiraa ordinance was eventually repealed, the substance could never really shake off the reputation that it was a dubious drug, even as its economic importance grew.

The lingering suspicion prevented khat from being designated an official cash crop and so getting the state support afforded to the likes of more respectable stimulants in tea and coffee. Khat became a commodity tolerated by the state as a source of revenue, but one hardly encouraged.

But khat’s status in Kenya has changed. In fact, rather than suspicion, national politicians have shown remarkable willingness to associate themselves with the substance, especially when campaigning in newly devolved Meru County. Opposition leader Raila Odinga started this trend in 2012 while appealing for Meru votes in the run-up to the 2013 election. This would have been unthinkable in earlier political times and set a precedent recently followed by Deputy President William Ruto. Meru County has become a key battleground too for the upcoming elections, and Odinga was back to chew in Meru once more earlier this year.

Victory for khat at home

National and international politics combined with genuine sympathy for farmers affected by the ban has led the ruling Jubilee coalition to support the crop. Significantly, the UK ban was seen as punishment for Kenya having elected President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy, Ruto – then facing trial at the International Criminal Court – so pushing these leaders to resist. This was compounded by Kenyan anger that the UK government went against its own drug policy advisors in going ahead with the ban.

The Meru exploited growing sympathy for the loss of the UK market to push for khat to be given respectability. They appear to be succeeding. In the wake of the UK ban Kenyatta recently promised Meru County a billion Kenyan shillings (about US$9.8 million at current rates) to helpprotect the local economy.

He also recently signed into law a bill to make khat an official cash crop, so giving it the official status that the Meru have long demanded. Agovernment task-force has also been created to help develop the khat industry. Thus, a blow to khat in the international sphere has actually catalysed a victory for it in the national sphere of Kenya.

Khat as a bargaining tool

However, anti-khat voices threaten more harm to Kenya’s khat industry. Somali anti-khat sentiment, so evident in the UK, is also strong in other parts of the Somali world, and draws new inspiration from the successful UK activists. This includes areas such as northeastern Kenya, one of khat’s biggest national markets, but also an area where some condemn it as a drain on the local economy.

Anti-khat campaigners had quite a coup in encouraging the Somali president to call for a ban.

Furthermore, anti-khat voices are also finding traction in Somalia itself, the main international market left for Kenyan khat. Here the substance was previously banned in the 1980s. Anti-khat campaigners had quite a coup in encouraging Somali president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud to call for a ban.

But his call came as Kenya was pushing for the repatriation of the hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees living in Dadaab refugee camp and other parts of Kenya to Somalia. It appears that the threat to ban khat was a useful bargaining tool in negotiations between the two countries.

Kenyan khat is thus caught up in national and international politics. Those defending it have the upper hand at home, but those campaigning against it appear effective in cutting off its legal export markets.

Ironically, this all comes at a time of increasing unease with prohibition and drug laws. This is seen most vividly in the recent legalization of cannabis in Uruguay and various states of the US. As cannabis becomes more legal globally, khat appears to be traveling in the opposite direction, though the Meru and others involved in East Africa’s khat industry are resisting hard.The Conversation

Neil Carrier, Lecturer in African Anthropology, University of Oxford

Somali Articles

Civil strife in Ethiopia has the potential to destabilise the whole region




Ethiopia is experiencing ethnic and political tensions that could have far-reaching implications for its neighbors in the Horn of Africa, and beyond.

The Horn of Africa is among the most congested, eventful, and most volatile geopolitical intersections on earth. It is where the West meets the East in a highly competitive game of strategic positioning for economic or hegemonic advantage.

China and Turkey who, more or less, employ similar soft-power strategies have tangible investments in various countries in the region, including Ethiopia. However, the widespread discontent with Ethiopia’s repressive impulses and its ethnic favoritism that led to a particular ethnic minority (Tigray) to exclusively operate the state apparatus has inspired Arab Spring-like mass protests. These protests have caused serious rancor within the ruling party. It is only a matter of time before this haemorrhaging government might collapse.

So, who is likely to gain or lose from this imminent shockwave in the region’s balance of power?

The Nile Tsunami

Ethiopia — a country previously considered as a stable regional hegemon, a robust emerging market, and a reliable counter-terrorism partner — is on the verge of meltdown, if not long-term civil strife.

Today, the Ethiopian government is caught between two serious challenges of domestic and foreign nature: the Oromo/Amhara mass protests tacitly supported by the West, and the water rights conflict with Egypt, Sudan and Somalia.

Ethiopia is claiming the lion’s share on the Nile that runs through it and other rivers that flow from its highlands for the Grand Renaissance Dam – thus presenting existential threats to the connected nations.

For the third time in three years, the Shabelle River has dried up, putting millions of Somalis at risk of starvation.

But the current government is not ready for a substantive change of guard. The longer the mass protests continue and the minority-led government continues to offer artificial or symbolic gestures of prisoner releases — while declaring a second ‘state of emergency’ in two years— the faster Ethiopia will become destabilised and the faster foreign investments will fizzle away.

Worse — though seemingly unthinkable — the ‘favorite nation’ status granted to Ethiopia after becoming the US’ main partner in the global ‘War on Terroris’ is slowly corroding.

Despite this week’s visit from US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the US State Department is gradually turning its back on Ethiopia for a number of reasons; chief among them, is its double-dealings on the South Sudan issue.

Despite the facade of US/China collaboration to end the South Sudan civil war, the geopolitical rivalry between these two giants has been pressuring Ethiopia to pledge exclusive allegiance to one over the other.

With China’s huge investments on Ethiopia, Sudan and South Sudan’s oil fields – making a choice won’t be too difficult.

The Kenya Factor

Several years ago I wrote an article arguing that the two most stable nations in the Horn (Kenya and Ethiopia) will become more unstable as Somalia becomes more stable.

Today, the Ethiopian government is facing the most serious threat since it took power by the barrel of the gun, and Kenya has a highly polarised population and two presidents ‘elected’ along clan lines.

Kenya — the nerve center of the international humanitarian industry — could just be one major incident away from inter-clan combustion.

The Somalia Factor

The Ethiopian government has launched a clandestine campaign of strategic disinformation intended to fracture or breakup opposition coalitions and recruit or lure potential comrades.

Ethiopian intelligence officers and members of the diplomatic corps together with some ethnic-Somali Ethiopians have been recruiting naive Somali government officials, intellectuals and activists with a Machiavellian disinformation campaign.

Meanwhile, IGAD — Ethiopia’s regional camouflage — calls for an open-borders agreement between member states. Despite broad-based public perception that for a fragile state like Somalia, such an agreement would be tantamount to annexation, some Somali politicians are eagerly carrying its banner.

These kinds of desperate campaigns and the abrupt resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn only underscore the fact that the government’s days are numbered.

The Sudan Factor

Sudan is caught in a loyalty triangle (Ethiopia, Egypt and Turkey) with competing powers. Sudan needs Egypt to address threats faced by the two nations regarding the diminishing access to the Nile by reasserting rights granted through the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty.

It needs Ethiopia to protect China’s economic partnership and to shield President Omar al Bashir from Western harassment through IGAD.

It also needs Turkey for development and for a long-term strategic partnership. Sudan has become the second country in Africa to grant Turkey a military base, with Somalia being the first.

The Eritrea Factor

When neocons dominated US foreign policy and the global ‘War on Terror’ was the order of all orders, Eritrea was slapped with sanctions. It was accused of being the primary funder and weapons supplier to al Shabab.

Today, though neither the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia or Eritrea nor any expert free from Ethiopian influence holds such a view, yet the sanctions have not been lifted.

The Ethiopian lobby and certain influential elements within US foreign policy-making circles continue to label Eritrea as a Marxist rogue state that undermines regional institutions such as IGAD and international ones like the UN Security Council; a closed society that espouses a deep rooted hatred towards the West.

Against that backdrop, the UAE has been investing heavily in Eritrea since 2015 or the beginning of the Yemen war that has created one of the the worst humanitarian disasters. The Emirati military (and its Academi/Blackwater shadow) now operates from a military base in Assab. Whether that’s a Trojan Horse or not, is a different discussion altogether.

Ins And Outs

The current wave of discontent against the Ethiopian government is likely to continue. But, considering how the Tigray has a total control on all levers of power, a transition of power will not be an easy process.

Ethiopia is also rumoured to have created an ethnically Somali counterinsurgency force in the Liyu Police. This ruthless force has already been used against the Oromos as they were used against Somalis of various regions that share a border with Ethiopia.

The extrajudicial killings and human rights violations are well documented. Despite all this, the Oromo and Amhara are set to reach their objectives albeit with bruised and bloody faces.

Will their coalition remain or, due to their historical distrust, will each eventually invoke its constitutional right to secede?

Whatever the outcome, any scenario of civil war or chaos in Ethiopia could put the entire Horn in danger and create a potential humanitarian catastrophe, especially in Somalia.

Meanwhile South Sudan is a lightyear away from sustainable political reconciliation especially since the foreign elements fueling the fire are not likely to stop any time soon. Djibouti remains the host of the most intriguing geopolitical circus. So, that leaves Eritrea as an island of stability in the region.

In the foreseeable future, Turkey could divest her investment out of Ethiopia into Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea. China will diversify her portfolio to include Eritrea. And the US — with no new policy — will continue droning her way through geopolitical schizophrenia.


Abukar Arman is a Somali political analyst, writer and former Special Envoy to the United States. Arman is also a widely published foreign policy specialist, writing extensively on Somalia and international political affairs.

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Somali Articles

The UAE still supports al-Shabaab through Somalia’s illicit charcoal trade




Since the inauguration of the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) in 2012, the United Arab Emirates has increasingly vied with other regional powers for influence in the country, investing in infrastructure, and bolstering the country’s military capabilities. (more…)

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The Unrecognized Republic: Somaliland and the Gulf Security




Awad Mustafa is an online journalist with Al Arabiya English and is the former Middle East Bureau Chief for US-based international defense weekly Defense News.

The self-declared Republic of Somaliland is looking to the Gulf secure its borders within the horn of Africa due to the regional instability. (more…)

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