Qat – The Multi-Million Dollar Battle
October 13, 2010 7 Comments
It is a busy day here at the Qat stalls located just on the outskirts of the Bakara market. Hundreds of sandalled feet scuttle towards the stalls, in tumultuous excitement, and frantically rummage through the tightly bundled leaves in the hand-woven Qat baskets in order to pick out the moist, tender shoots. Scores of young men and women visit these stalls on a regular basis to purchase Qat – a mild stimulant with a bitter taste that a large number of the Somali population – in Somalia or abroad – is highly addicted to. Under the commotion and the emotional frenzy, tensions often rise and agitated customers as well as vendors seem to always be in a combative mood. But perspiring under the heat, the wide-eyed, and almost anaemic, Qat-sellers appear to be relishing this kind of atmosphere.
‘Hurry up Waryaa! hurry up! this is the cheapest you can get. Hurry up! Qat is almost out of stock!’ screams one seller, as he wipes away the trickles of green saliva dripping down his chin with a grubby handkerchief. Behind him, dozens of young men sit on the concrete slabs, or squat on the floor, unmindful of the staccato rounds of gunfire in the distant neighbourhoods, and gnaw away at the leaves in a surrounding far less salubrious than can be appreciated. This is a very loud and unforgiving place. Bestrewn with dry twigs, discarded leaves and plastic bags, these squalid stalls, adjacent to the old Cigarettes and Match Factory, receive hundreds of customers a day, but they have now become even increasingly populated since Al-Shabab’s closure of KM 50 airport yesterday.
The KM 50 airport was, until now, the largest Qat depot in Somalia. Located in the Lower Shabeelle region, near Afgooye, the airport received an average of 7 plane loads of Qat a day, adding an estimated $1,500,000 a day to the Kenyan economy. The cargo would then distributed to all the cities in Southern/Central Somalia and to individual sellers. The Islamists’ decision to forbid the landing of Qat planes at the airport is by far the toughest verdict, in their long list of punitive measures against the stimulant, to be meted out to the Qat merchants in Somalia, and consumers alike. But how will this decision affect the people of Southern Somalia?
Qat is considered an illegal substance in the regions controlled by the Islamists. In the regions under Al-Shabab the selling of these bundles of leaves is completely prohibited in small towns and villages, whereas in the densely populated cities, such as Kismayo, Marka, Mogadishu, Hiiran, etc, they have designated special selling places, usually outside the city centre, hoping, I presume, that by stigmatising the stimulant and making it difficult to purchase, people would be less addicted to it. The consumption of Qat is deeply entrenched within the Somali society, albeit gradually diminishing, but now with the airport closed off to the trade, many Somalis remain uncertain of how things will shape up in the future for the Qat industry. For the merchants, however, very few alternatives remain.
The cost-effectiveness of the operation and the safety aspects were one of the main reasons why the Qat merchants preferred to use the KM 50 airport. With no cumbersome taxes collected at the airport, no extortionate prices being paid to the militia blocking the roads and no gun-wielding bandits along the way, the Qat merchants and distributors operated with some level of assurance in the Islamist controlled areas that their goods would be delivered to all the cities in Southern Somalia with relative ease. But now with the airport closed off and Qat planes no longer allowed to land at the KM 50, the merchants are left with only two options, both equally unpleasant: Adan Adde International airport, Mogadishu’s main airport, or Jaziira airport, an unused make-shift runway south of Mogadishu. Both are controlled by the government and both have dreadful consequences.
Qat merchants unloading their planes at Mogadishu airport will have some disastrous consequences in the pursuance of their business. The economic burden, in the form of taxes, on the part of the traders will be exceeded by the pandemonium it may cause at the airport. The government will have to control not only the safety of the airport at this heightened state of fear in the city but also the flow of Qat. corruption is rife here and Qat is considered a currency in Somalia. But Jaziira airport – the former stronghold of warlord Muuse Sudi Yalaxow – does not offer a viable alternative either. Located in a sparsely populated sea-side settlement chiefly occupied by fishermen, the runway is not a good option, from a logistical perspective, for the merchants to land their goods.
By using this runway the distributors must drive through several kilometres of unguarded woodlands before reaching Madina district – an area plagued by armed robbery and extortionate government checkpoints. The risk of transporting the leaves from this airport is more hazardous in comparison to any other part of the country. But what makes the arrival of Qat in the government controlled territory even more burdensome is that most, if not the entire, Somali army is addicted to the drug. Some are even willing to kill for it. Then, of course, there are the economic consequences of these two alternatives.
The expensive taxes collected at Mogadishu’s airports, coupled with the difficulty of having to pay individual checkpoints exorbitant prices means that there will undoubtedly be an increase in the price of Qat. The multi-million dollar Qat industry is a lucrative business not only in Somalia but primarily in Kenya and Ethiopia – the two main exporters of Qat in East Africa. Almost all of the Qat that reaches Southern Somalia comes today from Kenya, whereas Ethiopia is the main supplier of Somaliland and Puntland in the North.
As one of its largest exports, the millions of dollars generated in revenue by the Qat industry in Kenya every month is now in jeopardy. Due to the severity of the situation on the ground and the complexities surrounding Somalia’s multi-faceted political environment, the merchants might decide to stop importing Qat and thereby flushing the multi-million dollar industry down the drain. The expensiveness of the operation of transportation of Qat to Somalia could also act as an impediment to the industry, eventually resulting in its total discontinuation. The pressure is on both the Somali as well as the Kenyan government to find a speedy solution to the problem. Whatever happens though, the coming weeks will test the patience and of both the Qat traders and consumers, though many of the Somali civilians would be far happier to do away with the shrub altogether.
In the mean time, it is safe to say, without debating the virtues and vices of the stimulant, that to cure the ills of Qat in the Somali society will be a very long and difficult struggle.
UK’s Home Office ministers have asked the government’s official drug experts to consider placing restrictions on the use of qat. A 2005 Home Office study said that 6 tonnes of qat leaves and stems were flown into Heathrow airport every Friday.