The politics of ‘muguka’: Ban sparks political and legal controversy across counties.

  • 3 Jun 2024
  • 4 Mins Read
  • 〜 by James Ngunjiri


‘Muguka’, a variety of the popular stimulant known as khat or miraa, is not a lifeline for farmers in parts of Embu County, where the majority of growers harvest the stimulant leaf, but it is also a political tool often used to shape the politics of the county.

The recent ban on the sale, transportation, and distribution of ‘muguka’ in Mombasa, Kilifi, and Taita Taveta counties has affected hundreds of farmers in Embu and sparked a political storm.

official data shows that at least 65,000 residents of Embu are engaged in ‘muguka’ farming, and the number is increasing. Coast counties serve as the biggest markets for the product, which is estimated to contribute approximately Ksh1 million to the Mombasa economy per day on transport levies.

The crop is fast growing and does well in the semi-arid lowlands of Embu County, making it less vulnerable to erratic weather conditions. Farmers with a lot of land used to grow ‘muguka’, but now even small-scale farmers are cashing in on the trade.

Following the ban, Embu governor Cecily Mbarire threatened to take legal action to protect the livelihoods of her community, which she said pockets about Ksh22 billion annually from the sale of the leaf.

Legal experts state that the mandate of banning a product or service protected through an Act of Parliament is the sole power of the national government.

Senior Counsel Charles Kanjama said the coastal counties should have instead petitioned Parliament, which would then come up with a law to ban the product due to health concerns or regularisation measures to control its usage and sale.

“Counties have a legitimate interest in the health of their residents and county health services in the issues they deal with… they have a legitimate role under the fourth schedule of the Constitution in the control of drugs and pornography…counties of Kilifi and Mombasa are genuinely concerned about residents abusing ‘muguka’ and suffering various deleterious effects, mental and others that rise from addiction,” Mr Kanjama said on Citizen TV’s weekend show on May 25.

Mr Kanjama added that county governments cannot choose to regulate a product or service by banning it altogether, but they can control it by saying, “You will only sell it in this place or conditions…that is licensing, but to ban requires national government legislation. That is the correct procedure.”

Health impact

A study conducted by the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) in 2021 revealed a troubling correlation between frequent ‘mugukause and the development of psychotic symptoms.

The KEMRI study found that users experienced increased instances of hallucinations, paranoia, and other mental health issues.

Additionally, the World Health Organisation (WHO) also expressed concern over the health impacts of ‘muguka’. In a 2020 report, the stimulant effects can lead to insomnia, increased heart rate, and a high potential for addiction. The report also revealed that many users spend a substantial portion of their income on the product, leading to severe financial strain, mostly in low-income households where resources are already limited.

Political intervention

When Ms Mbarire threatened to go to court over the ban, President William Ruto intervened and met with the governor in the company of her deputy and the entire county leadership at State House, Nairobi, and later announced that the ban on ‘muguka’ in the coastal counties was null and void.

The President directed the expedited formation of a miraa/muguka pricing committee under the Crops Act 2013, adding that the Council of Governors has already nominated three members to the committee.

However, the High Court in Embu temporarily suspended the executive orders banning the sale, distribution, and consumption of ‘muguka’ in Mombasa, Kilifi, and Taita Taveta counties until a case on the same is heard and determined.

In March, the Senate Standing Committee on Trade, Industrialisation and Tourism met with a delegation from Embu County Muguka/Miraa Farmers Cooperative, led by their chairperson, Jerevasius Nyombyekothe, to discuss the Ministry of Investments, Trade and Industry’s response to the statement, as requested by Senator Embu County, Alexander Mundigi, on the high cess levied on muguka on transit to Mombasa and its environs.

The Senator had requested to know the measures the government has put in place, if any, to harmonise cess levied on ‘muguka’ on transit to Mombasa and its environs; measures put in place, if any, to strengthen existing Muguka Cooperative Societies with the aim of facilitating members to access loans that will enable them to engage in activities to improve their business; and, the progress of the Thuci, Kapingazi and Kamumu dams that have been earmarked to be supplying water for ‘muguka’ farming as well as other domestic use.

Scheduled crops

‘Muguka’ is a scheduled crop in accordance with the Crops Act 2013 and the Miraa Regulations 2023, and the laws were passed by the National Assembly and the Senate, and in concurrence with the Council of Governors.

Article 119 (1) of the Constitution gives every person a right to petition Parliament to consider any matter within its authority, including to enact, amend or repeal any legislation.

And even though the National Agency for the Campaign Against Drug Abuse (NACADA) has not declared ‘muguka’ a narcotic nor banned it, the government agency is only mandated to regulate product usage.

Senate Leader of the Majority, Aaron Cheruiyot, said county bosses have no power to place an embargo on ‘muguka’ in their areas of jurisdiction. “It’s a noble thing for the coastal counties to seek to regulate the distribution of ‘muguka’ in their turf. However, the truth is that counties have no such powers. The best thing is for the counties to lobby their MPs to present before Parliament a bill seeking to ban the use of ‘muguka’.”