Somalia's ban on flights importing the popular narcotic khat from Kenya appears to be holding up in the capital, Mogadishu, although a region to the north is defying the ban.
Yaasin Muuse, a airport staff member at Mogadishu's main airport, said no khat flights arrived the city Tuesday.
“None of more than 10 khat flights which used to come to Mogadishu daily landed because of the government ban,” he said.
In Mogadishu’s khat markets, only a few tables selling drinks and cigars were occupied, and the khat kiosks were empty.
At Kenya’s Wilson airport in Nairobi, a reporter for VOA's Somali service said at least five planes loaded with khat cancelled their flights to Mogadishu, and most likely the shipment will be sent back to its original source because khat cannot be stockpiled — it has to be taken fresh.
On Monday, the Somali government announced it was banning all flights from Kenya to Somalia carrying the stimulant, a plant whose leaves, when chewed, give the user a feeling of mild euphoria.
“It is a temporary ban and we did it for mixed circumstances related to national interests,” Somali Aviation Minister Ali Ahmed Jangali told VOA. “I am not ready to give the details now, but security is one of them,” He said.
A government security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the decision is part of security plans as Mogadishu prepares to host the 53rd summit of the East African bloc IGAD (Intergovernmental Authority on Development) this weekend for the first time, following decades of civil war and instability in the Horn of Africa state.
Just a week ago, a car bomb killed more than 20 people near Somali's presidential palace. The blast was the latest in a series of attacks against hotels and restaurants by militant group al-Shabab.
Puntland defies ban
However, officials in Puntland, a semi-autonomous federal member state in the northeast of the country, ignored the government's edict. Five khat flights from Kenya landed at Galkayo airport and an airstrip at Qardho on Tuesday, and the cargo was unloaded.
Puntland spokesman Abdullahi Jama Quran Je’el said the government's decision does not affect the region.
“The federal government neither consulted with us nor informed us about the decision of the khat flights ban so we have nothing to do with that decision," he said.
Khat chewers reaction
Khat is known in Somalia as "qaad" or "jaad." It is a plant whose leaves and stem tips are used as stimulant or medicine in certain areas of East Africa, Madagascar and Arabia. It has a history as a social custom dating back thousands of years.
In Somalia, planes from Kenya usually arrive in the morning and the khat is sent to the markets at noon. Its consumers, mainly men, chew it in the afternoon.
Weyrax, a khat consumer in Bosaso, Punland's commercial capital, said chewing the leaves has a negative impact on youth.
“It is costly, addictive and wastes our time, we get nothing from it except insomnia and hallucination so that I welcome the ban,” Weyrax said. “It gives you an excitement but sometimes anxiety.”
Ahmed Bashe, another khat consumer in Bossaso, said trading khat was not only his source of living, but also mental alertness.
“I vend khat to earn money to live, I also consume it to get a feeling of well-being and mental alertness with loquacity,” he said.
Ali Ahmed, a university student in Mogadishu says khat is the number one killer of young people’s future.
“To achieve the climax of the khat feeling, they continue chewing for six to 10 hours or even more. Those who consume do not attend schools or universities. Those who attempt cannot keep the attendance and immediately drop out,” he said.
Khat consumption also has a negative effect on families. Daud Abdullahi, a father of six, said he consumed khat for 16 years, finally giving it up two years ago.
“Fathers who consume khat turn to be irresponsible. When I was chewing, I remember after-effects were usually insomnia, numbness, lack of concentration and anorexia,” he said. “Sometimes you spend a lot of times away from your family and their wellbeing is not your priority, but khat.”
Despite the negative effects, many Somalis remain addicted to the drug. The Islamic Courts Union tried to ban it to no avail when it briefly controlled most of Somalia in 2006. Al-Shabab's attempts at a ban also crumbled, and the group eventually allowed its consumption so it could collect taxes on the sales.
Economic impact on Kenya
A Kenyan government spokesperson told VOA's Swahili service that the government received notice of the ban from Mogadishu on Monday, and that officials are evaluating the decision.
Kenya is the source of much of the khat consumed in Somalia. Khat traders estimate that 20 tons of khat worth $800,000, is usually sent from Kenya to Somalia each day, mainly through flights.
Traders and farmers in the "khat belt" have expressed shock at Somalia's decision and have no idea what it all means.
Talking to VOA, Kimathji Mujuri of the Nyambene Miraa Trader Association, says the decision will hurt farmers and traders alike.
A decision by Britain and the Netherlands to ban the product two years ago sent prices plummeting. Mujuri said a 30 kilogram shipment of khat went down from $700 to less than $200 today.