Miraa, the diplomatic bridge between Somalia and Kenya

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By Abdikariim Jama

The recent ban by Somalia on Kenyan flights carrying the herbal stimulant khat has proven a point that Kenya and Somalia has one diplomatic crop, Miraa.

In numbers: Kenya Airports Authority data show that about 12,000 bags of khat are loaded per day on cargo planes to Mogadishu with a total retail value of $400,000. One plane carries about 90 bags of miraa. 15 #number of Miraa cargo flight to Mogadishu alone.

Khat which is very popular in Somalia but it is grown in Ethiopia and Kenya has made a crucial link between the two neighbouring nations who always have to come to talking terms whenever this business seems hurt.

Somalia which receives more than 15 cargo flights full of khat in its capital, Mogadishu alone, every day from Kenya seems to be enjoying the use of this traded to bring Kenya on a diplomatic table whenever a controversy arises.

Just recently, a misunderstanding over the modalities for repatriating over 600,000 Somali refugees had the same trade affected bringing Kenya to quickly mend fences. Kenya and Somalia reached a gentleman agreement after the two neighbours neared a diplomatic spat following the announcement to shut down one of the world’s largest refugee camps in Kenya.

The Daadab refugee camp has been in existence for close to three decades with Kenya having announced its arbitrary closure.

The Kenyan government even went ahead to disband its department responsible for managing the affairs of the refugees.

Somalia President then called for the ban on Kenya’s export cash cow to Somalia, Khat popularly known as Miraa in Kenya. The crop commonly grown in the Eastern parts of the country and near Mount Kenya regions had been banned in the United Kingdom dealing a heavy blow on the economic lifelines of the people in those regions.

Kenya Airports Authority data show that about 12,000 bags of khat are loaded per day on cargo planes to Mogadishu with a total retail value of $400,000. One plane carries about 90 bags of miraa.

The suspension hurt many farmers in Kenya where livelihoods depend on the crop and many people depend on the trade. In Mogadishu, sellers of the stimulant also make a living from but Kenya is usually a bigger causality when suspensions like the September one occurs.

The planes from Kenya arrive in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, in the morning and the leafy stimulant, which is not cheap, is usually chewed after lunch, mainly by men, in the afternoon and into the evening.

This could not have come at a worse time with Kenya looking into an election period while the vote rich region of Meru where the Kenyan government has in the past pledged to support the growers of khat,  would be completely devastated after the crop was  banned in much of Europe.

Khat is also banned in a number of other countries, including the US and Canada.

The outcry that followed the ban was loud enough to push Kenya into action.

Leaders from the region where the crop is grown and traders complained of massive losses as the Kenya Airports Authority and the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority who earn revenues from the landing planes and those taking off from the airports receded massive losses.

One trader recounted losses of up to USD 1,000 in one day when the ban was effected. The six days could have meant a lot of money for the Kenyan government and the farmers who pay taxes.

“I was preparing to harvest my crop this week but it seems I cannot fetch more than Sh20,000. The closure of Mogadishu means the local market will be saturated leading to a big drop in prices. We will have to do everything possible to see the president [Uhuru Kenyatta] for immediate intervention. Let us negotiate with Somalia to allow us continue with the trade,” Mr Mutwiri, a farmer based in the eastern region of Kenya said.

Kenya had even constituted a Miraa taskforce to look into the prospects of the crop after it was banned in the UK. The taskforce had negotiated for a USD 10 million to be used to boost the farmers whose livelihoods had been affected by the ban and help them to their financial feet. There was no way the country would have remained quiet and Somalia had to be sweet talked to lift the ban in another regular diplomatic game involving the Khat.

Six days after the ban a side meeting between President Uhuru Kenyatta and his host Hassan Sheikh Mohamud broke the stalemate and the Somali government lifted the ban on the stimulant. “The agreement was reached at a meeting between President Uhuru Kenyatta and Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud in Mogadishu,” said the statement.

The Somali government had accused Meru Governor Peter Munya of using the trade to break up the Horn of Africa country.

Amidst the storm of the ban, things were so hot in Kenya that a top politician and Meru Governor Peter Munya claimed his life was in danger.

Somalia Ambassador to Kenya Gamal Hassan said Mr Munya’s visit to Hargeisa in July had led to political pressure which prompted his government to act. He had allegedly touched on Somalia’s territorial integrity in his comments.

While in Somalia, the Meru governor met with Somaliland Deputy President Abdurrahman Ishmael, the Foreign Affairs minister and his Finance counterpart.

President Kenyatta, the first Kenyan Head of State to visit Mogadishu in 30 years, also secured an agreement for Kenya Commercial Bank to open an office in Mogadishu during the visit but the lifting of the ban was given a lot of prominence underlying its importance.

He was here to attend to the Igad summit, but a ban on miraa exports was threatening to kill Kenya’s last strongest market for people in Meru County.

The  combative Meru governor was humbled in the midst of the ban as he claimed  miraa cartels were likely to “trail and kill him” after Somalia Ambassador to Kenya Gamal Hassan said he was to blame for the ban that took effect on Tuesday.

Trade has for a long time been skewed in favour of Kenya with most products including the lucrative khat business while very little leave Somalia in formal trade that may earn the country the millions in revenues it badly needs for economic renaissance.

The strong trade in Khat will remain the diplomatic carrot dangled whenever Kenya and Somalia have little tussles over diplomatic issues. The two countries have been long term trading partners in various other commodities for a long time but none of the items ever proved diplomatic like the khat.