Just about a year ago, I took President Uhuru Kenyatta to task for singing the praises of miraa in order to win political support in Meru — we all know that campaigns start in Kenya about a year before the elections — ( a global achievement).
The people and government of Meru were in a huge panic as the largest and the most convenient market for miraa, Somalia, imposed a ban on its importation. The President of Somalia had given strong and moving reasons, medical as well as social, why the ban was introduced — notwithstanding that he would thereby lose votes. On the other hand, Uhuru, to secure what he assumed was a huge vote in Meru, promised assistance to Meru farmers to cultivate miraa and undertook to find markets for it — only a few days after the ban in Somalia. Enormous pressure was imposed on the President of Somalia to lift the ban — exploiting the vulnerability of that country. Uhuru also donated Sh1.2 billion to promote the miraa industry (under what authority is unclear).
Knowing the ill effects of consumption of miraa, including the breakup of families, I thought Uhuru had behaved despicably, caring only about his electoral victory. I wrote then in the Star, “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 there. 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.”
One commentator 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 [Governor Peter] Munya, not farmers.”
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.
MIRAA IS NOT GOOD FOR YOU
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 this substance has been banned in a large number of countries, including Canada, the US, Sweden, France, Germany, Netherlands (in fact the whole of the EU). 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, the US, 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 the Somali migrant leaders.
My own experience (when I was legal adviser to the Somali Constitutional Commission in 2008-09 ) was that consumption of miraa tended to disable its members, and it was impossible to continue discussions and debate once chewing had begun for the day — often after lunch. A woman member of the commission told me a Somali saying, “When you chew khat [miraa], you are on the top of the planet, but after you spit it out, the planet is top of you”.
A World Health Organisation study reviewed 150 previous research reports. While miraa is probably not itself addictive, and its medical consequences are less serious than many other drugs, including perhaps tobacco and alcohol, there is evidence of ill-effects, including some cases of psychotic illness and even cancer from prolonged use. And some countries record significant social consequences. Though chewing produces pleasant feelings of increased alertness, “followed by a stage of vivid discussions, loquacity and an excited mood” then “thinking characterised by a flight of ideas but without the ability to concentrate”. This may be followed by depression, difficulty in sleeping, difficulty in rousing oneself the next day and poor work habits as a result.
Kenyans have been debating the merits and demerits of miraa for many years. In 1996, there was a long debate in the National Assembly that aired different perspectives, but mostly against its sale and consumption. The debate in Parliament concluded with the following resolution: “That in view of the fact that miraa, also known as khat, 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. And now miraa has the endorsement of the President and, to my surprise, also of his principal rival in the coming elections.
NASA’s RAILA ODINGA ON MIRAA
I had thought Raila Odinga was going to be a good candidate, focussing on the negative aspects of the Uhuru administration, and setting out the policy of his alliance, establishing a new tone for our politics. I have always had considerable respect for him; for the sacrifices he has made so that Kenya becomes a fair and democratic state, and his ability to nurture sensible policies to address the country’s problems.
During CKRC and Bomas, he was the only politician who showed any desire for a democratic Constitution, with an emphasis on integrity. So imagine my disappointment when I read in the press a few weeks ago that Raila had been campaigning in Meru and advocated a policy regarding miraa similar to that espoused by his rival, Uhuru. He chastised Uhuru and Jubilee for the miserable amount of Sh1 billion for the promotion of miraa. He would give them a lot more and find markets willing to pay higher price for miraa.
The government seems less concerned about medical opinion. The President’s Task Force was set up to study ways of promoting the production and sale of miraa. Months later Kemri was asked to investigate if there were any harmful consequences of chewing miraa, in order to prepare a scientific basis to provide scientific for lifting the ban in European countries as reported by NTV at the time. And Kemri obliged, no evidence! Meanwhile a committee was appointed by the President to promote the industry. And this very month — less than 40 days to the election — the President gazetted the appointment of an implementation committee.
It is very easy to become cynical about Kenyan politicians and politics. It is clear that their primary interest is their own welfare. There seems very little limit to what they are prepared to do to achieve their objectives. Meru is a swing county, and that is what matters. They don’t care what harm is done by chewing. It is embarrassing that our political leaders are prepared to spoil further our relations with our close neighbour, Somalia.
The President’s task force is to open up markets abroad, in other countries, where the importation and consumption of miraa are illegal. 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 19 Century to force them to consume opium?
Yash Ghai is a director of the Katiba Institute