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Media cheers anti-muguka war as drug lords dance all the way to the bank

Veteran lawyer, civil society luminary and columnist George Kegoro touched muguka for the first time last week. He posted a group photo of his tour of a muguka shamba.

“I understand that part of the war against this herb is being waged by drug lords that sell ‘harder’ stuff against which this herb is proving a stiff competitor,” Kegoro posted on X.

Maybe hizo ni stori za jaba. Muguka has been in the news for weeks, as a great Kenyan journo would write, for all the wrong reasons. Coast leaders are waging a relentless crusade against the mild stimulant mostly grown in Embu County.

To say the war against the largely unknown humble leaf has received one of the most extensive media coverages this year would be an understatement. Muguka is in the news daily, turned into a gripping yet polarised national debate.

The High Court lifted a ban on muguka imposed by Mombasa. Until President William Ruto ‘waded’ into the debate in defence of the leaf, no media house had clarified that muguka is a “scheduled crop” protected by national law.

And, baithawee, where were all those Coast leaders when muguka was declared a “scheduled crop”? Why are Coast MPs not fighting the law in Parliament by sponsoring amendments or its repeal? Why are Coast activists, religious leaders, and businessmen not in court to challenge the law?

Looks like lawyer Kegoro has a point, that the campaign is a misplaced war, most likely a distraction from the region’s crippling hard drugs trade controlled by powerful barons.

Let the facts speak. Muguka hardly deserves a fraction of the national media coverage and virulent campaign it has received.

Use of khat (miraa/muguka) is a minor issue in Kenya, according to the National Authority for the Campaign Against Drug Abuse (Nacada). The agency estimates there are less than a million users. And only a handful at the Coast.

Nacada’s National Survey on the Status of Drugs and Substance Use in Kenya (2022) reports that alcohol leads (3.1 million drinkers between 15 and 65 years) followed by tobacco (2.3 million). Khat is third, with 964,737 chewers.

And here is the big point: “Eastern region had the highest prevalence of current use of khat (9.6%), followed by North Eastern (7.2%) and Nairobi (4.9%).”

So, why is Coast leading the war against muguka?

At the end of February, the national government held the Coast Region Conference on Illicit Alcohol, Narcotic Drugs and other Psychotropic Substances attended by Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua, five Cabinet Secretaries and Senate Speaker Amason Kingi.

The Kenya News Agency reported that Interior CS Kithure Kindiki “announced government plans to embark on a crackdown on drug barons in the coastal region.”

“Mombasa, Kwale, and Kilifi reportedly rank within the top five counties in the nation, collectively representing 43 per cent of individuals engaged in the misuse of hard injectable drugs, alongside Nairobi and Kiambu.”

It’s not exactly news. An investigation by NTV in December 2022 described the Coast drug crisis as “a silent pandemic”. Heroin is “cheaply and readily available”. So bad is the situation that the government launched methadone in 2015 as a substitute drug to treat and counter heroin.

“A spot check at the Kilifi Reform and Resource Centre confirms our fears. The rate at which people troop into the centre in search of methadone is alarming.”

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimereports thatfor decades, heroin produced from poppy grown in Afghanistan has been trafficked from ports along the Makran coast of Iran and Pakistan on large ocean-faring dhows or small vessels to port cities across the Indian Ocean coast. Known as the Southern Route, this corridor is a major conduit for illicit maritime flows from which transnational organised crime groups generate considerable revenue.”

For the longest time drug money has been linked to fabulous personal wealth and politics at the Coast.

Just days after the national conference, “a visibly angry” Mombasa Governor Abdullswamad Nassir blasted the government for “lying” to the region that it would end the drug problem.

NTV reported that Nassir “dared the national government to parade drug traffickers in the Coast region. Nassir blasted the state for failure to contain the menace even with the intelligence and other security agencies at its beck and call. The governor has threatened to rally members of the county assembly to come up with county laws to deal with the illicit trade.”

Nassir made good his threat. He rallied the county assembly to ban muguka.

Ahem, maybe veteran lawyer George Kegoro has a point, ama ni stori za jaba? That’s what good journalism should dig into.

See you next week!

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