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September 18, 2018

Better Safe Than Sorry, The Poll Jitters Were Justified

Elections 13. Westlands 4 of march. Anna Bohlin
Elections 13. Westlands 4 of march. Anna Bohlin

Did you ‘panic shop’ before the elections? I did. Not in a particularly panicky manner, mind you (I live in Westlands, and in the first weeks of 2008, if you weren’t watching or reading the news, and restricted your little rounds from my place to ABC, you could be forgiven for not knowing that there was a bit of a crisis in the country).

Partly I did it because a generally sensible, grown-up friend had nudged me to do so, just in case. In the end, it actually turned out to be a sensible thing, mostly because I’m usually a bit more slapdash about grocery shopping and it actually saves you time if you do one proper round of household shopping rather than repeat runs to the shop. Duh - housekeeping 101!

But there was a bit of sniping on social media about panicked NGO and embassy staff frantically storming the supermarkets – you know, foreigners, freaked out about the natives’ propensity towards mindless violence.

Except that wasn’t really the case: when my friend and I did our round of shopping, the queues were definitely longer than usual, and the trolleys were also distinctly fuller than usual.

Except the queues weren’t full of diplomats and such: in the supermarket I went to, the queues were just the usual mix of that neighbourhood.

I thought most people waiting alongside us had the same approach: nothing to freak out about (yet?), but better safe than sorry. Worst case: you’ve done the shopping for the next three weeks.

Foreign journalists got a lot of flak for allegedly searching for violence and dead people (some did, some did so stupidly, many didn’t). But I also thought there were stories in the run up to the elections that weren’t looked into properly – maybe because of the ‘lobotomy of peace’, maybe for other reasons.

I didn’t search for the infamous taxi-driver quotes – while my trusted transport expert Samuel and I of course talk about all sorts of things, I’m not an international reporter looking for a bit of local colour to beef up my articles with.

In fact, I’m not even a reporter. But people who work with me told me of family members leaving their flats to stay with relatives, and even at their relatives’ place, sitting on packed bags, ready to leave that place too.

I was also told of people leaving Nairobi in unusual numbers. These are incidences I was told personally. There were also allegations of voter ID buying and so on, but not told to me in person.

This is anecdotal, of course. A snapshot of a supermarket queue is anecdotal as well. People may have acted in response to specific threats.

Or they may have acted on the basis of expectations derived from past experiences. That’s how we often take decisions, so I didn’t think it unreasonable to anticipate some sort of unrest – even though there was a lot of derision of such behavior in the social media space.

The week after the election was often tense but ultimately peaceful. (Although I still wonder if this is really the meaning of peace when it needs a massive presence of security forces and a go-slow in critical media inquiry. Maybe more an absence of unrest than really peace?).

Here’s a snippet that I found telling, though: On 18 March, Business Daily reported that ‘Industry insiders said the peaceful election left the underwriters with the biggest windfall ever (..) Souvik Banerjea, a senior marketing officer at Africa Trade Insurance, described the rapid rise in the uptake of political insurance as panic buying in anticipation of poll violence.

“There was a tremendous upsurge in purchase of political risk covers that could only be explained by panic buying.” (…) Mr Sourvik estimates that local insurance companies signed political risk covers whose sum assured was five times the Sh20 billion that his company handled. (…)ATI said it had underwritten big risk companies in Kisumu, Mombasa, Eldoret and almost every company in Nairobi’s industrial area.

Political risk insurance is short-term, and covers specific politics-related risks like destruction of property during outbreaks of violence. This isn’t a story of scared foreigners and (figuratively) bloodthirsty foreign journalists.

These insurance market data tell you that corporates across the board thought an outbreak of violence likely enough that they would pay cold, hard cash to cover themselves.

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