Somalia: Is President Mohamud prioritising khat over food, despite the drought?

By Mohamed Sheikh Nor
Posted on Tuesday, 16 August 2022 19:05, updated on Thursday, 1 September 2022 23:09

Somali men buy khat stimulant leaves at an open air market in Hodan district of Mogadishu, Somalia June 22, 2020. REUTERS/Feisal Omar

The Horn of Africa continues to experience a devastating drought, creating a historic food crisis in the region. Food insecurity has hit Somalia particularly hard, where some 7 million people have been affected. But President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s recent deal on khat imports has made many question his priorities.

Khat is a leafy green plant that contains a drug that is a stimulant. Khat is most frequently used in the Horn of Africa and parts of the Middle East.

President Mohamud took office in May of this year, with the drought and the government’s fight against the Islamist rebels of Al-Shabaab as major challenges.

In his early days in office, President Mohamud embarked on foreign visits to shore up support for his new government. Regionally, his first stop was Eritrea, followed by Kenya then Djibouti.

President Mohamud was widely expected to complete his horn tour with a visit to Ethiopia, But he chose to visit Tanzania while it was hosting the East African Community (EAC) heads of state summit.

Measuring the draught’s impact

The impact of the drought in Somalia has seen thousands of people displaced from their rural homes; they who are now seeking help in urban centres.

Recent data from the emergency operation centre – an office of the newly appointed prime minister, Hamza Abdi Barre – indicates the drought has affected about 7 million people, displaced nearly 1 million and killed 2.7 million livestock. This worsening situation in Somalia has received little international attention and support given it has been eclipsed by the global focus on the war between Russia and Ukraine.

Apart from appointing a special envoy on drought response to address the worsening situation, President Mohamud’s mid-July visit to Kenya raised eyebrows when re-establishing the khat trade topped his agenda of bilateral negotiations.

Recent reports on resumption of khat imports from Kenya say that people in Somalia spend nearly $1m each day paying for this narcotic, at a time when millions of citizens are in need of food.

Khat comes in, foreign-exchange out

Khat is grown and traded in East African and the Horn. Khat imports, however, deplete Somalia’s much-needed foreign-exchange reserves.

The president fast tracked the khat deal just to show Somalia has improved its relations with the neighbouring countries.

Ahmed Khadar, an economics lecturer at University of Somalia in Mogadishu, says President Mohamud wants Somalia to join the EAC, which is one of the reasons why he prioritised the resumption of khat imports.

“I think Hassan Sheikh was rushing the khat deal for political purposes, especially pushing Kenya to take Somalia’s application for EAC to the presidential committee of the regional bloc. [The] reason is that Kenya is highly influential within the EAC. Additionally, he must have prioritised khat importation at the request of outgoing Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. The trade deal is more likely to help Uhuru’s party gain votes from Meru region of Kenya [where khat is grown], as he seeks to assert his legacy,” says Khadar.

Tripartite alliance

Mohamud’s predecessor, Mohamed ‘Farmaajo’ Abdullahi Mohamed, had developed stronger relations with neighbouring Ethiopia and Eritrea, which are not part of the EAC.

Since taking office, Mohamud has yet to visit Ethiopia – a country that had exclusively exported khat to Somalia under Faraamjo. This latest deal with Kenya is likely to melt the icy relations Mohamud’s predecessor had with Kenyatta. Under their tenure, Somalia and Kenya were in conflict over a disputed border.

Khadar says Mohamud is seeking to improve Somalia’s international image. “The President fast-tracked the khat deal just to show Somalia has improved its relations with the neighbouring countries. He is looking to boost the image of Somalia in the international relations arena.”

Khat from Kenya

Somalia’s previous government had banned khat imports from Kenya, however, the plant continued to be smuggled through porous borders.

Farhan Isak, deputy director Somali Public Agenda, a research group based in Mogadishu, says Mohamud’s rushed deal had both political and economic rationales.

“The khat deal the President struck with Kenya has less correlation with drought, partly because khat has been coming [legally] from Ethiopia and illegally from Kenya, despite a ban imposed by the former Somalia government on Kenyan khat.”

From an economic point, legalising khat from Kenya enables legitimate trading and earns the government revenue.

From a political point of view, Isak notes: “Somalia struck the deal to repair the political rift between the two countries.”

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