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DEVELOPMENT-SOMALIA: Khat Dampens Euphoria About Peace

Joyce Mulama

NAIROBI, Jul 7 2004 (IPS) - After a marathon round of talks, peace may finally be in sight for Somalia, which has been without central government since 1991. But, some fear that a deeply-rooted practice – the chewing of khat – may undermine the gains of negotiations.

Khat, also referred to as qat or miraa, is a shrub – the leaves of which are chewed or used to make tea. The plant contains a substance that makes the person consuming it feel alert, energetic or euphoric. Too euphoric, say certain Somali women, who allege that men in their communities have become addicted to khat, and are neglecting their families.

"Our men have become lazy over the years because of the widespread trade that forces them to just sit and enjoy the product. Our children have nothing to eat, let alone go to school, because their fathers cannot work," Eng Rukia Osman Mahmoud, an anti-khat activist, told IPS during an interview in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi.

Mahmoud is also a delegate to the Somali peace talks being held in Mbagathi, on the outskirts of the city.

She claims that about 75 percent of the eight million people in Somalia chew khat, with men and boys accounting for the largest percentage of this group. The popularity of khat notwithstanding, she and other Somali women are lobbying for a ban on the trade in this narcotic.

"Women and children have suffered for so long, and now that peace is in the air we have to look at ways of reconstructing the country in all aspects," Mahmoud notes.

"This will have to involve everyone, including men, and may be more effective only if a ban has been imposed on the khat trade, because trading in this commodity poses a challenge to rebuilding efforts."

The fact that khat provides an extremely lucrative trade for many (and the only source of income for some) is likely to complicate efforts to outlaw sales of the plant’s leaves.

But the women maintain that the disadvantages of khat far outweigh the importance of the profits it yields. The negative effects of khat include hallucinations, schizophrenia, depression and impotence.

"The answer to the khat problem lies in halting all cross border trade of the commodity. Countries supplying the drug to Somalia must also be covered by the ban because most of the khat in Somalia comes from neighbouring countries," Hussein Ali Elmi, spokesman of the Somali Young Turks Association (SYTA), told journalists in Nairobi last Friday, Jul. 2.

Kenya is the biggest supplier of khat to both Somalia and Europe, competing closely with Ethiopia and Yemen, according to Joseph Kaguthi, Coordinator of Kenya’s National Agency for the Campaign Against Drug Abuse. Exact figures are hard to come by, but certain Somali businesspeople estimate that the Kenyan-Somali trade in khat is worth more than 300,000 dollars a day.

SYTA is calling on faction leaders who are attending the Nairobi talks to explore alternative income-earning activities that can reduce the country’s dependency on khat.

"Somalia is a very fertile country. The new government must throw its weight behind farming and phase out khat trading. I’m sure if farming is given due attention, it may replace khat in income generation," Asha Abdi, another female delegate to the peace talks, told IPS.

Given that farmers may be able to earn far more from khat than food crops, this might be an optimistic view of the situation.

The khat trade is also controlled by faction leaders, who have the muscle and motivation to ensure that it continues unhindered – especially if peace is not to their liking.

Although talks are underway, the ongoing volatility of the situation in Somalia was demonstrated in late May, when several people were killed during clashes in the south of the country.

"These people (faction leaders) have a great interest in this business. All their operations in the country depend on the proceeds from the drug," says Abdalla Hussein Abdalla, a political commentator living in Nairobi.

His observation is echoed in a 2003 report of the United Nations Panel of Experts on Somalia.

"Several major (factions) and authorities have a direct stake in the business, either through partnership with khat importers/exporters or by levying charges and taxes at points of entry," says the report in part.

The panel was established to gather information on violations of a UN arms embargo imposed on Somalia in 1992. It has noted widespread disregard of the embargo, with khat often being used to finance the weapons that have allowed faction leaders to keep a stranglehold on parts of Somalia.

The East African country has effectively been divided into a number of fiefdoms since the fall of President Siad Barre in 1991.

Talks aimed at re-establishing central government in Somalia got underway in 2002, but have been marred by wrangling amongst faction leaders. However, a certain measure of progress has been achieved: warring parties have drawn up a framework for government.

The talks will now focus on electing members of a new parliament. After this, a president and 16-member cabinet will be elected – a process which is expected to be complete by the end of this month.

Negotiations have involved over 300 delegates, who also include representatives from civil society. They are being held under the auspices of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, a regional body comprising Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia.

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