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

Khat: Something to chew on.
Khat: Something to chew on.
Image: Reuters/Feisal Omar
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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.

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.

Children selling khat in Mogadishu, Somalia.
Children selling khat in Mogadishu, Somalia.
Image: AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh

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 tried ineffectively to ban it with a “miraa ordinance” 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 the miraa 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 help protect 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. A government 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.

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.

Neil Carrier, Lecturer in African Anthropology, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.