Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

Ethiopia’s Smart Drug Policy Keeps Revenues Up and Insurgencies Down

Ethiopia is famous for its coffee, but another, more controversial stimulant helps keep the country’s troubled economy afloat.

Depending on who’s counting, khat is estimated to be the country’s second, third or fourth most valuable export, and cultivation has continued to rise steadily, securing much-needed income for the farmers who make up 80% of Ethiopia’s population.

While other countries in Africa and beyond have implemented bans, Addis Ababa opted to keep khat firmly in the formal economy. It’s a shrewd move that ensures tax revenues remain firmly in their hands, rather than gifting them to criminal syndicates, terrorist networks or militant insurgents – as many of their African neighbours, have unwittingly done.

Khat (or chat, or qat) is a flowering plant that grows across the Horn of Africa and Arabian peninsula. Chewing the leaves creates a mild euphoric or amphetamine-like effect and khat has been taken recreationally since at least the 14th Century, traditionally as a social lubricant. It loses its potency around 48 hours after harvesting, meaning that in the past, khat could only be sold close to where it was grown. As transportation networks in the horn of African improved, farmers and traders who previously struggled to move supplies within the 24-48 hour freshness window seized on the opportunity to grow their export trade, moving huge quantities quickly and regularly.

Trucks leave early in the morning from market hubs in Ethiopia, destined for Somaliland and Djibouti. In the 24-hour khat market in Awoday, near the sacred city of Harar, $80 million is thought to change hands every day and the Ethiopian trade is continuing even amid coronavirus border controls. This provides much-needed tax income for Ethiopia’s battered economy; tax on exports of khat are twice that on product sold domestically, and easier to collect at land borders than in the hard-to-monitor, informal market economy.

Djibouti, a country with a population of under a million people, imports around 15 tons of Ethiopian khat every day. Photo by Lesly Derksen

The largest exporters are thought to hand over sums approaching $100,000, every single day, meaning that the government may actually collect far more from the khat trade than from its biggest official export, coffee. Tiny Somaliland alone spends half a billion dollars every year on Ethiopian khat, according to its Finance Minister, although many believe the true figure is much higher.

If officials on both sides downplay the numbers, it’s for reputational reasons. Khat is now illegal across most of Europe, North America and Asia, and some African nations, such as Eritrea, Tanzania and Uganda, have followed suit. Given the international trend towards demonizing and banning khat, as well as an (albeit mild) internal backlash by some socially conservative and religious groups in Ethiopia, it’s unsurprising that Addis Ababa is disinclined to shout it from the rooftops.

Nevertheless, khat is clearly a highly valuable, growing industry. From 2001 until 2015, cultivation of khat increased by 160% – faster than any other crop, including coffee. Cultivation exploded from a few thousand hectares in the 1950s to a quarter of a million hectares by 2016, and may be as high as half a million today.

The government said that it earned nearly $300 million from khat exports in 2013, and while the UK ban in 2014 brought with it a $25 million-per-year-hit, internal production and exports to neighbouring countries continue to thrive. It’s one of very few export products that didn’t suffer a decline in 2018-2019, when overall export performance dipped by 8.3%. In fact, khat actually outstripped coffee in export value in October 2018, bringing in $107 million in a single month, compared to $53 million for coffee.

Coffee is Ethipia’s largest official export product. Photo by Shml Shma

That’s not to say the trade is without drawbacks; khat can be psychologically addictive and, like any stimulant or psychotropic substance, comes with potential health risks. Prolonged use can trigger the onset of schizophrenia and many European countries justified their decision to outlaw khat after its use was linked to an increase in seizures (although in the UK, then-Home Secretary Theresa May went against the advice of expert medical advisers in order to implement the ban). Driver impairment caused by chewing khat has been linked to Ethiopia’s high proportion of road traffic accidents. Ethiopians consume an average of 400 grams per day, with around one in five people chewing the herb to the extent that it’s thought to have a negative impact on health.

The quick wins from growing khat also means many farmers are abandoning or replacing less lucrative staple crops, increasing their dependence on the khat trade while potentially weakening Ethiopia’s food security in the long run. Khat is by the most profitable crop that any Ethiopian farmer can grow, with one kilogram grown for export selling for around $20, and top-quality yield often fetching even more. By comparison, a leather factory worker – leather is another much-trumpeted Ethiopian export – can expect to earn just $45 per month.

Market traders sell vegetables in Addis Ababa. Photo by Erik Hathaway 

Despite these issues, banning khat in Ethiopia would probably push the trade underground, incurring a huge loss of income and increasing policing pressures without delivering any real benefits. The UK, for example, criminalised khat in 2014, putting a stop to the 56 tonnes of khat legally imported every year from Ethiopia and Kenya. Usage has not stopped; khat is now smuggled into the country illegally and simply costs five times the price – a change that places more financial burden on users (primarily British Somalis) and is highly unlikely to trickle down to producers. At the same time, khat vendors that once described their trade as a community service that keeps traditions alive have now been criminalised.

In the Netherlands, seizures at Schipol Airport represented the shift from legal import to illicit smuggling, and while supply was impacted, the price of khat simply increased tenfold to offset this reduction. Research suggests that problem use actually doubled, and while overall usage dropped, this is probably due to the dip in quality as dried and powdered khat overtook fresh leaves. In other words, if traffickers identify a faster route for fresh khat, usage may simply creep up again.

At the moment, attempts to get khat into Europe, North America and China appear to take place at a low level, with individual smugglers or small networks of people trying their luck, rather than joining forces with established trafficking rings, gangs or cartels. For as long as there’s a lucrative legal trade in the Horn of Africa, growers and traders have little incentive to risk dabbling with illicit groups.

Khat provides much-needed income for Ethiopia’s mostly rural population. Photo: Lalibela, Ethiopia, by Photo by Mulugeta Wolde

Compare this to cannabis, which has been outlawed all over Africa for nearly a century, dating back to colonial-era regulations. As Neil Carrier and Gernot Klantschnig, authors of Africa and the War on Drugs, explain, cannabis is not only the most commonly consumed recreational drug across African nations, but in Nigeria, production has shot up over the past three decades in response to neoliberal economic reforms that made it harder for farmers to earn a living from cocoa cultivation. Now, it is grown all over the country.

Nigeria is, in fact, one of the few countries in sub-Saharan Africa to wage an American-style War on Drugs since the 1990s. As in the US, this quickly proved to be an expensive failure, with over 3,000 officers deployed as drug-enforcement agents that prioritised easy-win arrests of individual users over dismantling international trafficking rings – and in the early years at least, using drug raids as an excuse to “arrest to loot”.

Despite prohibition efforts, around 11 million Nigerians are cannabis smokers. Photo by LexScope.

Over the past decade, too, there has been an explosion in Nigerian-operated drug trafficking and embezzlement, exacerbated by the emergence of nearby narco-states like Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau and Gambia. There are around 20 times as many annual drug trafficking arrests in Nigeria today than there were in 1990. Nigerian drug gangs have been linked to Italian mafias – or in some cases have even supplanted them.

A 2017 study by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) found that 15% of Nigerians used some kind of illegal drug, the vast majority of these being the country’s 11 million cannabis smokers. The report also noted that the majority of the country’s cannabis-related drug arrests were for possession, that 61% of people arrested served prison time as a result, and that most of those arrested were “users in older age groups and those who had steady or full-time jobs” – in other words, people whose lives and livelihoods were disrupted not by cannabis use itself, but by the resulting arrest and incarceration.

Even the Nigerian Drug Law Enforcement Authority (NDLEA) conceded in 2015 that emphasis on law enforcement had led to increased corruption, human rights abuses, overburdened courts and overcrowded prisons, while at the same time targeting users and low-level growers or couriers rather than “the criminal masterminds” behind the trade.

Trucks abandoned in a field in Enugu. Economic liberalisation hit Nigerian farmers hard, making cannabis an attractive alternative crop. Photo by Ovinuchi Ejiohuo

Worse, while ordinary Nigerians were being locked up for non-violent offences as part of the War on Drugs, this legislation provided an opportunity for Islamist insurgent group Boko Haram to finance their very real war on the Nigerian state. The UN has for years warned of Boko Haram’s involvement in trafficking drugs across the region; in February 2020, the NDLEA seized 10.5 tonnes of compressed cannabis in Maigadari, which the Nigerian authorities said was “most likely” linked to Boko Haram insurgents in the Northeast, possibly working with transnational drug syndicates to move the product to bordering Niger, Chad and Cameroon. Northern Cameroon has long provided the militant group with a trafficking and trading corridor for drugs and weapons, arming and funding their attacks on the rest of the country.

Giving militant groups the chance to finance their activities through contraband has been shown over and over again to be an unmitigated political disaster. Conflicts in which insurgents can draw on finances from drug trafficking and other illicit industries tend to last 2.6 times longer than civil wars where this isn’t a factor.

Ethiopia is only just emerging from decades of internal conflict, including protracted rural insurgencies by the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). Had the khat trade been illegal all this time, it seems fair to presume that these successionist movements and insurgencies would have seized the opportunity to raise cash – increasing their might in the process.

Not only that, the peace negotiations of the last few years would have been a much harder sell if these groups had a profitable illegal industry to protect alongside political grievances to be met. This can have lasting security implications, even once a conflict is over. Just look at Colombia, where the cocaine industry left behind by FARC rebels failed to subside along with the insurgency, instead falling into the hands of incoming drug cartels who have now established trafficking routesinto Europe through Guinea Bissau.

Back in 2008, the head of UNODC said “Let’s be frank, Africa in general never faced a drug problem – whether we speak about production, trafficking or consumption. Now the threat is there, on all these fronts.” By bucking the prohibition trend and instead capitalising on domestic khat production, Ethiopia is one of few countries in the region to keep the illegal drug trade at bay. This sensible drug policy has also improved its long-term chances of establishing peace. Neighbouring countries may want to take a leaf from Ethiopia’s book.


Lead Photo: Addis Ababa by Gift Habeshaw