There has been considerable controversy over the consequences of consuming miraa. For a long time it was consumed in Somalia, northern parts of Kenya, and Ethiopia. With the movement of members of these communities to Europe, the US and other parts of the globe, its consumption has extended to these areas. The medical profession in these countries became aware of some of the harms of the consumption of miraa and started a campaign to stop their import and consumption. There has been considerable debate about the benefits and ill effects of miraa—mostly the latter. Even countries which have traditionally cultivated and chewed miraa have objected to its use. Just as last month Kenya’s President was extolling the virtues of chewing miraa and promoting its production, export and consumption, the Somalia President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud was quoted in the Star as planning its ban in his country—traditionally considered as the home of miraa. Speaking in Mogadishu on Monday, Mohamud said the trade and consumption of the stimulant plant has a “devastating” impact on Somalis and must be banned. Somalia would not be the first country to ban miraa: they have been banned in Europe, the United Kingdom, and were this to happen in Somalia and Kenya, it would deal a heavy blow to the already struggling miraa trade in Kenya. That, as I explain later, is where President Kenyatta comes in, a bit later.
Kenyans have been debating the merits and demerits of miraa for many years. In 1996 there was a long debate in the National Assembly, which aired different perspectives, but mostly against the sale and consumption of miraa. Mr. Khalif (Asst. Minister for Research, Technical Training and Technology) made a lengthy speech arguing that the sale and consumption of miraa should be banned. Here are some extracts, “If this government really cares for its people, and I know it does, it should do everything to completely ban miraa...This is government of the people and it should do everything to ban miraa because it destroys our people. We are talking from experience and we know that right now many students are out of school because of miraa, a lot of people have suffered because of miraa, standards of education in our province and many parts of the Coast have fallen foul because of miraa; our teachers are using miraa and the effect of using miraa is terribly harmful to the body of a person. It erodes the teeth, it eats away walls of stomach; it causes fatigue. The chewer cannot work the following day and its disorganises the whole society. It kills the cultural values of the society so that there is no discipline. Today if you go to where miraa is consumed you will find that discipline has completely gone, disappeared. Children are chewing miraa, mothers are chewing miraa, elders are chewing miraa, and there is no discipline in this kind of society....So the government is obliged to ban this thing. Many political and religious leaders have agreed on this. Also many from the medical profession have accepted that miraa has tremendous harmful effect on the human body....Many [who chew miraa ] are reduced to charity, unable to earn a living’.
The debate in the Assembly concluded with the following resolution: “That in view the fact that miraa, also known as ghat, is a drug widely used in Kenya and has a strong anti-social effect causing economy and medical harm to those consuming it, this House urges the Government to consider controlling the selling and consumption of miraa”. It seems no action was taken.
I do not have space to summarise the global discussion on the effects of miraa. Debates on this matter have been conducted in many continents and countries. The importation and sale of miraa has been banned in a large number of countries including Canada, USA, Sweden, France, Germany, Netherlands (in fact of whole of the EU)Perhaps some of the criticisms against its use are too harsh, too exaggerated—but few are enthusiastic. With the migration of Somalis to various parts of the world, the issue of the use of miraa travelled with them; with most countries (Canada, USA, Sweden, France, UK, Germany, Netherlands—in due course most of Europe) banned the import and use of miraa. Whether this exaggerated the evils of miraa is contested—it is certainly the case that it is less harmful than most drugs. It is of interest that in most countries, the most vociferous opposition has come from Somali migrant leaders. My own experience (when I was legal advisor to the Somali Constitutional Commission in 2008-9) was that consumption of miraa tended to disable the members and it was impossible to continue discussions and debate once chewing had begun for the day a.
To return to our president. Just over a month ago, he established a taskforce on the development of the miraa industry. The taskforce, chaired by Geoffrey Nchooro M’mwenda with PS Dr. Richard Leresian Lesiyampe as alternate chair.was given three months to complete its assignment. It was to consult with farmers, traders and other stakeholders the taskforce was to recommend strategies tol support development of the industry. Getting back lost markets and searching for new markets were among the strategies it was supposed to focus on.
The President made his statement on a politically motivated trip to Meru. The trip was part of a general strategy that he and his deputy have undertaken, travelling around the country, to mobilise political support for the next general elections—well over a year from now. One billion shillings were allocated to the project.
One comment on the internet observed, “One billion can fund hundreds of youths in technical colleges or help them start jua kali projects. Instead, JAP is asking the youths to chew miraa. The one billion will be given to the politicians fighting Munya, not farmers.”
Governor Munya was reported as is less than happy with the project, saying that the task force did not represent miraa farmers. "We thank President Uhuru Kenyatta for allocating Sh1 billion to help the farmers regain the lost markets and solve problems in the industry, but the task force is made up of relatives of some people.”
But there are other serious implications of the President’s action. If the primary purpose of his initiative is local consumption, it is going to run up against a large constituency who are opposed to drugs and drinks—indeed his own government by its action against alcohol sales in villages, and an energetic anti-drink national institution. His task force is to open up markets abroad, in countries where the importation and consumption of miraa are illegal (though Kenya traders are credited with breaches of the law). These countries are otherwise good trading partners of Kenya, a relationship which will be jeopardised if illegal exports take place. Is this the beginning of a new “opium war” – in which the British fought the Chinese in the nineteenth century to force them to consume opium?
It is true that Uhuru wants votes from Meru in the next election—his sole purpose—but surely he can equally win their votes by support for other crops which can grow well area. Much better than trying to arm-twist countries that had banned the trade at the request of their own citizens and residents, or promoting a practice widely thought to be harmful among others who have so far avoided it. His action is a sad commentary on the nature of our politics, and obsession with votes at any cost.
Yash Ghai is a director of the Katiba Institute