Hundreds of people today rioted in Baidoa town, 240 km south of Somalia's capital Mogadishu against restrictions imposed in the sale and consumption of khat (miraa), the semi-narcotic herbs favoured by many people in the country.
The demonstrators gathered at Afar Irdood area in downtown Baidoa, chanting slogans against the restrictions.
Al-Shabaab, the hard line Islamist militia, on Tuesday ordered traders in Bay region to sell the stuff at the outskirts of the town. The radical movement also gave instructions that consumers could only chew the herbs at the sales points.
For three hours, the streets of Baidoa that until January 2009 was the base of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Parliament before being captured by Al-Shabaab, became chaotic as the initially peaceful rally turned violent. Stones and tree branches were laid down to block streets and objects hurled at Al-Shabaab militants found along the roads.
The crowd disbanded when armed Al-Shabaab militias started shooting on the streets. One person was injured while 50 others were detained.
Many people, especially khat enthusiasts, viewed the restriction as marginalisation and abuse against their liberty to consume the stuff in a decent way like other places in Somalia. “We want our preferences and rights respected,” shouted the demonstrators. “Khat is like any other commodity,” others chanted.
Khat chewers in Baidoa suspect that initial restrictions on khat will eventually lead to its banning. “The likelihood of khat being banned is looming and must be confronted,” said Madey Ai Mogow in Baidoa.
Al-Shabaab and other radical groups in Somalia tend to impose restrictions in the areas they control. In other occasions they ban the stuff, saying it wastes time and resources. They also insist that khat chewing is religiously unacceptable.
However, khat consumers maintain that it is just a stimulant which causes no harm to the body and does not affect the society. They say chewing of the succulent twigs is a pastime, especially after work hours.
Most of the khat sold in Somalia is imported from Kenya, which produces several varieties of miraa. Some of the khat is imported from Ethiopia. At least 20 flights from neighbouring countries land in parts of Somalia every day, delivering tonnes of khat valued at hundreds of thousands of US dollars.
For many people, the nature of the trade is interesting. “Khat is one of the highly traded stuff in the Horn of Africa,” remarked Mohamed Hersi, an economist in Mogadishu. “It is symbol of good intra-regional commerce that should be encouraged and extended to other goods and services,” he added.