Africa

Published — May 22, 2007 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

A society consumed with qat

Drug’s soothing effects mask its true roles: revenue and control

Introduction

DJIBOUTI CITY, Djibouti — In less than a quarter of an hour every day, life in Djibouti City all but comes to a standstill. It begins just after an Ethiopian Airlines flight lands at 1 p.m. at Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport, bringing the 11 to 12 tons of qat Djiboutians consume daily. Qat, a leaf harvested from the homonymic tree that grows widely in Ethiopia and Yemen, is used commonly in the Horn of Africa, in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula, and more recently in the Somali expatriate community in London. Chewed raw, it produces a mild hallucinogenic effect that, for a few hours, puts you gently out of business.

The qat also helps keep the government in business.

Distributors from Djibouti City and minibus convoys that take the dope to villages south of Tadjourah Gulf pick up their daily allotment at a staging area next to the airport. The operation is run by SOGIK (Société Générale d’Importation de Khat), a company legally registered at Djibouti’s Registry of Companies. To prevent a riot, the old Nissan diesel truck that brings the qat from the plane to the staging area does not brake before entering a fenced cage. Once inside, the cage’s doors are locked and SOGIK employees begin the distribution.After arriving on the daily flight at the airport, the qat is distributed all through the country. The first loaded speedboats, 15 to 22 feet long, leave the harbor within 20 minutes of the plane’s arrival. The boats will reach the remote town of Obock about 3:30 p.m. From there, pickups trucks take the qat to the villages farthest from the capital, approaching the border with Eritrea. By 8 p.m., many in these villages are stoned.

Standing atop the qat truck, SOGIK employees yell at local retailers, asking their order; four bookkeepers stand by. Each pack of qat is worth 8,000 Djibouti francs (about $45) and contains 30 “bouquets,” which are sold for 300 to 500 Djibouti francs ($1.70 to $2.80), depending on their quality and weight. Some of the best bouquets, set aside for the wealthiest citizens and Cabinet ministers, can fetch more than 8,000 Djibouti francs.

Their daily portion in hand, local retailers head to their shops and display the bouquets in wooden stalls, protected from the intense heat by jute fabric moistened regularly. The first sales are made as early as 2 p.m. More women than men are local vendors; more men than women are users.

Djibouti has ratified various U.N. conventions related to the fight against narcotic trafficking, but the country is dominated by qat, and virtually no major activities take place in the afternoon. Many government ministers chew the leaf routinely, and places that forbid chewing — Camp Lemonier is one — are scarce. During election campaigns, candidates commonly distribute qat bouquets to voters.

Value of qat understated

Because qat increases the rates of mouth cancer, infant mortality and malnutrition, it is a concern to the World Bank. In a March 2005 report through its International Development Association, the World Bank said that “the qat problem is not adequately addressed … it is estimated that qat absorbs up to 30 percent of family budgets. Even the poorest families spend a considerable share of their budget on qat.” The report calculated that about 4,000 tons of qat, valued at about 3 billion Djibouti francs (about $17 million), are imported annually.

But, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) discovered, while the World Bank was right about the tonnage imported, it seriously underestimated its value — $17 million is only the amount of revenue a surtax on qat sales generates for the government. The government also levies a “common tax” that raises 1 billion Djibouti francs more ($6 million) and, since August 2001, it has collected a “special tax of solidarity” on qat, amounting to about $1.1 million annually. In sum, qat tax revenue brings the government upwards of $24 million a year, not an insignificant amount in a country where 2002 gross domestic product was estimated at just more than $600 million.

That revenue — plus money that flows to individual dealers — undercuts any political will to clamp down on the drug. In an interview with ICIJ, President Ismail Omar Guelleh said that Djibouti has tried to stop qat imports but that he views qat as a social phenomenon and a source of income for the poor.

It is not only the poor who benefit. A source close Djibouti’s qat distribution, speaking with ICIJ under condition of anonymity, said that SOGIK’s revenue reaches as high as $45 million per year and that net profit can reach $20 million. SOGIK’s shareholders include individuals close to the regime, according to a former employee of the Djibouti Chamber of Commerce who has dealt with SOGIK since 1987.

Black marketeers also reap profits, as do members of Guelleh’s ethnic group: The Djiboutian government authorized importing qat by air in an April 1992 decree that forbids import via road or rail, with one notable exception: a single border crossing from Ethiopia that just so happens to be controlled by Guelleh’s people.

Another reason the government doesn’t clamp down is that the regime uses qat as a tool for control, according to critics. A former member of the Parliament, Jean-Paul Noël Abdi, estimates that the Djiboutian security services have 17,000 informers. Their tactics for recruiting informants includes qat, which induces users to talk freely and to share secrets. “It’s a drug that makes you sweet, rather calm, pacifist,” he told ICIJ. “And the use of qat, especially during the first two hours, stimulates gatherings, little assemblies where talking is a need and a pleasure. At that moment, there will always be a ‘big brother’ to listen to you. If the qat doesn’t represent much money, it is at least a way of keeping people under your grip.”

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