January 21, 2007 / 6:57 AM / 12 years ago

Somali Islamists are gone -- so 'khat' is back!

MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Perhaps the most telling sign of Somalia’s remarkable power shift is the rapid return to Mogadishu’s streets of the leafy twigs known as ‘khat’.

Traditionally chewed by most Somali men, but outlawed since June by hardline Islamists, the mild stimulant reappeared within hours of Mogadishu’s recapture by government forces last week.

“I am happy that miraa (khat) is back on the street. Now we can work because it gives us some energy,” said Abdi Awale, a Mogadishu resident. “But my expenses will go up again.”

Normally chewed in the afternoons and evenings, the leaf releases a mild stimulant, although users later feel down. It has a central place in Somali social gatherings, and gives a livelihood to traders and importers.

The Somali Islamic Courts Council (SICC) beat a hasty retreat from the capital and much of the south they had controlled for six months after a two-week war with government forces backed by Ethiopian troops.

After defeating warlords from Mogadishu in June last year, the SICC had brought some semblance of order to one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

This attracted support from residents who have known little but violent anarchy, bitter clan rivalry and squabbling warlords since dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted in 1991.

But bent on introducing sharia, Islamic law, the Islamists angered Somalis who are traditionally moderate Muslims after they formally banned the popular khat in November.

The movement also sparked protests in some towns after it introduced other hardline practices such as closing cinemas, prohibiting smoking and some music and enforcing dress codes.

The Somali interim government, led by President Abdullahi Yusuf, had sharply criticised the khat ban.

Trader Habibo Ali said her khat business was slowly picking up although the volume of the stimulant coming into Somalia remained low because Kenya had a direct flight ban to the Horn of Africa nation. Direct flights from Kenya to Somalia must receive special government clearance.

“I am happy that I can sell what I am used to selling for the last 25 years,” she said.

The reintroduction of khat was also good news for Kenyan peasant farmers who grow and export the crop to Mogadishu in small cargo aircraft. Khat is not widely used in Kenya.

“The business has started to pick up,” David Kirimi, a trader at eastern Maua township told Reuters by telephone. “The quantities that were being demanded have not recovered fully but there is some improvement.”

Hundreds of Kenyan khat growers in the eastern province of Meru, where many farmers have uprooted coffee in favor of the profitable khat, had held street protests, saying the Somali ban had denied them their livelihoods.

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