Every day, Kenyan and Ethiopian farmers pick a huge amount of fresh khat leaves — the herbal stimulant chewed to achieve a high similar to the effects of amphetamines — and sell it to traders who package it up and send it off to Somalia by truck and plane.
According to anti-khat campaigners, the drug trade in Kenya brings in upwards of $400,000 a day, thanks to healthy demand for khat in Somalia, where it is legal to chew the leaves but not to grow them. Some 15 cargo planes full of khat arrive in Somalia each day, where the leaves — which are also known as miraa — are promptly sold before they lose their potency after around 24 hours.
That means that the thousands of Kenyans who participate in the trade collectively lost millions of dollars when Somalia abruptly banned the trade last week, ahead of a regional meeting of African leaders in the Somali capital of Mogadishu.
“This is a big loss to us,” Dave Muthuri, who chairs the Kenya Miraa Farmers and Traders Association, told journalists last week. “Farmers are crying because of the loss they are incurring. It caught everyone off-guard.”
A reason for the ban was never explained, although it was lifted relatively quickly after Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud met with his Kenyan counterpart, Uhuru Kenyatta, on Tuesday evening.
On Wednesday morning, two flights carrying khat landed in the Somali capital — which likely came as a relief not only to the traders who lost money from the ban, but also for the Somalis who are dependent on the highly addictive leaf. In recent years, researchers have said that Somalia has one of the highest percentages of khat users in the world, and that up to 75 percent of the adult male population chews the leaf. Somalia has only recently transitioned to shaky, partially democratic rule. In the years the country was ruled by warlords, the United Nations found that the khat trade helped finance their procurement of weapons.
In the United States, United Kingdom, and most of Europe, khat leaves are banned and considered a substance as dangerous as many other illegal drugs.
On Twitter on Wednesday, one user suggested a new campaign slogan for Mohamud, who’s up for re-election this fall: “Let’s Be High Again.”
— A A Mohamoud (@AliMohamoud) September 14, 2016
But anti-khat campaigners called the reversal an “historic mistake.”
The reversal is a historic mistake and lost opportunity and there should be political consequences in the coming Somali elections #KhatBan
— Abukar Awale QAADIID (@Abukarawale) September 14, 2016
Photo credit: SIMON MAINA/AFP/Getty Images