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Chewers, religious leaders disagree on khat ban


Kenyan decree cuts off supplies of satanic leaves' to Somalia in an effort to stem flow of weapons NAIROBI Dealers in the popular mildly narcotic plant khat were left sitting high and dry on worthless merchandise yesterday after a weekend ban on trade between Kenya and Somalia.

While Kenya's President Daniel arap Moi's edict was devised partly to stem the gushing flow of weapons into Kenya from its war-ravaged neighbour, such is the power of the Kenyan president's almost casual commands that Saturday's order is being applied as a blanket interdict.

At Nairobi's Wilson International Airport, usually abuzz with khat traders, the scene yesterday was slow, the mood irate. Trader Ahmed Ibrahim said: "At least 13 small aircraft carrying khat used to fly to Somalia every day. They take khat and come back with dollars." Seats of 10-passenger planes are usually removed to make space for dozens of sacks of khat, weighing 10kg-20kg.

In south and central Somalia, where it is too hot and arid for the plant to grow, a bundle of good quality leaves, which must be chewed for several hours for a mild high, fetches the equivalent of $5. "The aircraft leasing companies that transport the khat to Somalia and the transport firms that bring it from (central) Meru district to Nairobi are without business," Ibrahim said. Firms charge $3000 for the Nairobi-Mogadishu round trip. Another trader, Amina Hassan, said the ban hit her hard.

"I bought more khat before the ban only to realise on Sunday that I am unable to send it to Somalia. I lost 90% of all my capital." Taxi drivers at Wilson complained about loss of business. In Mogadishu, the ban brought mixed reaction. While traders were feeling the pinch, religious leaders were pleased. "It is great news to hear the ban of satanic leaves' trade into Somalia.

It is good news, it is like stopping the export of drugs from Colombia to the US," declared Sheikh Ahmed Mohamud Ismail, a religious personality. But Addi Abdullahi Yasin, a young user at a Mogadishu market usually given over to selling the plant, said: "Khat is a pastime (for) me to get more energy and strength after chewing.

"I am not addicted to the use of it, but in fact khat is a good means of socialising people. "I know khat is not haram (forbidden)," Yasin said angrily. There have been no deliveries since the ban. Traders and those employed in the local distribution network could do nothing except hope that supplies from Ethiopia, another major producer, would arrive soon.

For khat chewers in the Nairobi district of Eastleigh the export ban has led to a glut and a sharp fall in price. Somali traders rejected Moi's charge that Somalia is largely to blame for a profusion of weapons in the hands of Kenyan criminals. "Weapons are scattered in southern Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda and the Great Lake (area)," said businessman Hassan Aden.

A young man at Wilson said he could not see the relationship between khat and weapons. Moi made it clear guns were not his only target, promising to enforce the edict "until a legitimate government is installed in Somalia".

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