Bashir Goth - "A word of truth used with an ill intention" is a maxim attributed to Imam Ali, the fourth Caliph of Islam. This was the first thing that came to mind when I read about the Mogadishu Islamists' decision to ban Khat, the narcotic stimulant, that millions of Somalis use as a pastime and for generating income to feed millions of children in a country where more than 43 percent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day.
Yes, Khat is a curse on the economy, health and family fabric of the Somali people. It props the economies of Somalia's neighboring countries; with Kenya exporting $250 millions worth of Khat to Somalia annually and Ethiopia earning $60 million a year from Somaliland alone. Most of this money is the remittances sent by overseas Somalis to feed their loved ones back home. In addition to its financial burden, the Khat causes numerous health problems; causes family break ups, wastes people's time and energy and increases the ranks of the country's unemployed as addiction forces millions of productive countryside people to quit their farms and livestock to khat markets, towns and villages.
On the surface of it therefore, it seems any sound thinking Somali should applaud such move and thank the clerics for ridding the community of such an age-old curse. But the timing of it may make one question the real motive of the clerics. The ban comes at a time when Islamists view Ethiopia and Kenya, exporters of Khat to Somalia, as hostile countries and accuse them of siding with the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) that they want to topple. They have declared a jihad on Ethiopia and they showed their mistrust to Kenya. By banning the Khat, the Islamists have waged an economic war on both countries. It is also a quick answer to Kenya's ban of all flights to and from Mogadishu.
Banning the Khat, however, is different from all the other bans the Islamist have imposed on the Somali people such as prohibiting music, singing, cinemas, going to the beach for women and even denying women to go out of their house without a chaperon. The Khat is not only a narcotic that almost all Somali men and many of the women use on daily basis, but unfortunately it is the only lucrative business in Somalia that feeds tens of thousands of families. It is the main business for thousands of women who sell the Khat in order to secure food, medicine and schooling for their children. What alternative do the Islamists have for all these families one may ask? Did they think about the reaction of Ethiopia and Kenya? What about if Ethiopia and Kenya decide to slap a trade ban on Somalia? With Khat replacing tea and coffee as a hard currency earner for both countries, it is obvious that both countries will feel the pinch. According to some estimates, Kenya alone would lose up to Sh19 billion and an estimated 500,000 jobs. It is my hope that the Islamists have seriously thought about how they would feed the Somali people if both Kenya and Ethiopia decide to close their borders and airports to Somali trade.
One may also remind the Islamists that when the British colonial authorities attempted to ban Khat in Somaliland it only strengthened the people's resolve for freedom. It was also the ban of Khat that fueled the Somali people's resentment of Siyad Barre and eventually contributed to his downfall.
Will history repeat itself? Will the Islamists revoke their decision when they feel the heat or will they stay the course until either the Khat or the Caliphate wins the battle? Only time will tell. But one thing is sure that the world may soon see an exodus of tens of thousands of Somali Khat refugees pouring to neighboring countries and even to Somaliland, Puntland and the TFG ruled zone of Baidoa in search of their freedom to chew what many Somalis believe to be the nutrition of God-fearing people (quutul awliyaa). Khat may also force hundreds of the young Islamist militia's, the majority of whom were the former mooryan's (drug addicts) of the warlords, to desert the Islamists side and join the TFG, thus reversing the Islamists hitherto unstoppable advance. One may not rule out, nevertheless, that the Islamists may have an agenda to extricate themselves of this brinkmanship by turning the Khat into a blessed black market that could fill their war chest.
Please e-mail PostGlobal if you'd like to receive an email notification when PostGlobal sends out a new question.