Khat, a popular mild narcotic that has been used in most of the Eastern African region as well as the Arabian peninsula since time immemorial, has become a bone of contention in the East African country in spite of its economic value.
Banned in the United States, Canada, Uganda, and in some European countries, khat is mainly exported to countries in the East African sub-region, Yemen and the United Kingdom, which has been struggling to effect a ban.
And despite its numerous economic advantages, the Ethiopian government has frowned on the use of khat. The government of Ethiopia’s Tigray region has already banned the cultivation of the plant, saying the leaf has the potential to wreck havoc to the region’s social fabric.
The move has seen a rise in police raids on illegal khat operators in Ethiopia. Officials argue that operators admit boys of school-going age into parlours. But the police clampdown in neighbourhoods harbouring so-called illegal operators has reportedly caused much amusement as the stimulant leaf is readily available at most street corners in the capital, Addis Ababa.
Million of dollars
The substance, also known as celastrus edulis or catha edulis, a green stimulant leaf, popular in the horn of Africa and Yemen, is one of the main cash crops in the Hararge region of Ethiopia. Khat earns the agicultural sector millions of dollars per year. And local khat growers are among some of the well-to-do farmers. The crop earned Ethiopia some “sixty million US dollars between 1999 and 2000” alone, Dechassa Lemessa of the United Nations Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia told the BBC in 2002.
Khat, which needs little water to survive – in an area best known for its long droughts, is traditionally believed to contain unique medicinal properties and is extensively used in the treatment of a number of ailments including asthma and gonorrhoea, among others. However, while some claim that khat is harmless, the plant has been criticised for being carcinogenic and addictive. Some say it can result in serious psychotic problems among long-term users. Khat-chewers admit that the plant can also trigger paranoia and constipation.
In some parts of the east African region as well as parts of the Arabian peninsula, khat has long served as a substitute for alcohol, which is banned by Islam.
Blaming the stimulant leaf for causing more harm than good to the Ethiopian society, Tsegaye HaileMariam, Addis Ababa city council’s head of justice and legal affairs has expressed his desire to have khat banned in Ethiopia. This follows an arduous quest by some British politicians to ban khat use and sale in the Untited Kingdom by supporting legislation to make it a classified drug. The substance, imported from Ethiopia, is sold in supermarkets across the UK.
If the ban on Khat in the UK is obtained, Ethiopia’s agricultural sector could lose a lot in revenue, however, should Ethiopia make cultivation illegal, other countries in the sub-region might grasp the opportunity to increase their output.