On November 17, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) declared a ban on Qat (or Khat), a mild narcotic plant chewed for relaxation. The ban threw off balance a multi-million dollar regional trading industry between Somali and Kenyan businessmen. Since then, observers have pointed out that the ban exposed cracks in the ICU leadership, with sources in Nairobi saying that only a small group in the courts arrived at the unpopular decision. Furthermore, the ICU is believed to have made this decision as a “quick fix” for demonstrations that were seen on the surface as resulting from the ban yet in fact uncovered simmering dissatisfaction among Somalis over the ICU’s leadership style.
Demonstrations erupted on November 16 in Mogadishu after news spread that the ICU was planning to issue a decree banning the herb. In reaction, the Islamists’ militia opened fire on the protesters, killing a teenage boy (Shabelle Media Network, November 17). That night, the ICU followed the ban with instating a curfew for the first time since taking control of the city in June. What angered the people more, however, was that ICU leader Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed imposed a seven million Somali shilling fine (US$800) to owners or buses transporting the narcotic, and a 500 shilling fine ($40) to Qat consumers, explaining that both decisions were made by the top organs of the ICU. According to Ahmed, “The Islamic Courts have forbidden the import of Qat in areas under their control.”
Around this time, local Qat farmers in Kenya, who had been reaping huge profits from exporting the drug to Somalia, began to protest. According to a trading association for the narcotic in eastern Kenya known as the Nyambene Miraa Traders Association, the farmers were incurring daily losses of 20 million Kenya shillings ($300,000) as a result of the ban. Mwenda Mithika, the association’s spokesman, said the courts may have banned the herb to take revenge on the Kenyan government’s ban of passenger flights to Mogadishu. “The Islamists hit back by banning the imports from Kenya,” Mithika said on November 23 in a press conference, asking the Kenyan government to initiate dialogue with the ICU over the ban. Most of the Qat consumed in Somalia is grown in the Meru district in eastern Kenya. Once in Somalia, it is either consumed or exported to the Gulf countries. The ICU’s ban on the drug encompasses both consumer use and exports.
While the ban remains, many Somalis have argued that Qat has played a historical role in their culture. They have warned that this action will cause the ICU to lose vital support at a time when the potential for war is high. With both the Qat ban and the previous ban on popular entertainment, it will be crucial to monitor whether Somalis become disaffected with the ICU over the new regulations.