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January 23, 2019

The 'Insignificant' Life Does Mean A Lot To Someone

Can you put a monetary value on a human life? Sure. Professionally even, and I’m not talking about assassins. Otherwise life insurance wouldn’t work. Actuarial science will tell you exactly how to do it. I think that it broadly depends on the premium level, the overall pool of insured and the likelihood of death for different groups of people in the pool.

But of course the price tag that insurance people stick on a human life is of little meaning when it is the life of someone close to you, someone you love. In that case, there are no insignificant lives, no ‘insignificant number of people’, because that one person will always be full of significance for you.

Now Mr Ole Lenku has a hospitality and hotel management background and no discernible actuarial science expertise, so I doubt that he was speaking from an insurance perspective when he mentioned the ‘insignificant number of people’ left in Westgate.

If a list of famous quotes by Ole Lenku that’s making the rounds on Facebook is to be believed, he certainly shows limited aptitude for numbers in general, as evidenced by ‘We managed to kill all the 5 terrorists, they were 15 in number’, so actuarial science might not have been the most promising career path anyway. This will come as no great surprise as his CV shows an exclusively hotel/hospitality background (However, he may be living proof that not just Barack Obama has East African relatives, but George W. Bush does, too).

But I do wonder about the significance of lives. More than 60 in Westgate. I have enough self awareness to know that this affected me disproportionately because it was so close to home: It’s my neighbourhood, I’ve been to Westgate many, many times, and I know people who were in there, who lost friends and relatives. I know that this is explains the emotional reaction I had, but not the value of lives. Westgate was followed so closely not just by the media, but also by people on Facebook and Twitter, and I was glued to my laptop screen for days. It was also difficult to put my analyst hat back on and look at the impact of this event, also because my analyst assessment doesn’t mirror my gut-wrenching sadness:

Mostly, I think, it will not change Kenya’s risk profile much – the country has lived with the threat of a new terrorist attack for a while, and an attack on a mall appeared to be a question of when, not if. There will be a short-term economic impact, but from past experiences and recent signals – Kenya has just been named as the host of a major tourism industry event in 2015 – the memory of this will fade soon. Any investor who has done her homework on Kenya understands this. It also works in Kenya’s favour that there are global precedents: industrialised countries with far better institutional infrastructure have similarly been hit by terrorist attacks, which shows that everyone is vulnerable.

But saying that the risk profile hasn’t changed much doesn’t mean that it’s low – and the information that emerged after the patriotic ‘We are one’ hashtagging subsided shows us that institutional rot keeps it that way: Allegations that intelligence warnings of the attack were ignored? Remember pictures of ordinary police going into Westgate completely underequipped? Remember, even more shockingly, all the news about KDF’s looting spree? Not, mind you, at the tail end of the siege, but immediately after they took over the building. If that’s what they do right in town, under CCTV cameras, what do they get up to further away, upcountry, in Somalia?

And I still wonder about the significance of lives. In his speech, President Kenyatta said: ‘These cowards will meet justice as well their accomplices and patrons, wherever they are. Kenya has stared down evil and triumphed.’ Well. It certainly helps if lives are at risk right in front of the Twitterati and Facecook crowd and smartphone photographers – never mind that KDF’s acquisition focus might still make a mockery of that. And unless KDF and other senior officials lose their jobs and get tried, it will be meaningless. (not that I expect this to happen: the time-honoured ‘commission of inquiry’ strategy will nix this).

Elsewhere, GOK does not seem to have any such vigor fending off death and evil: That recent bus accident in which more than 40 people died? Or Baragoi: tens of police officers were killed there, underequipped and undertrained? No Twitter and Facebook coverage, no international media and other onlookers hanging around. Same as with pretty much all the killings in northern Kenya, including the conflicts in the Tana Delta.

Or go back a bit further: an estimated 1,500 people who died in early 2008. Not killed by religiously motivated psychos, but often by their own neighbours. Those who are still alive, who live with the pain, the scars, the grief, and the loss of property, are being told to move on. Did we hear any GOK statement on hunting down the evil doers? Insignificant lives?

Accept and move on. Nothing to see here. It’s business as usual.

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