Staying safe during upcoming elections
28 Jul 2017 - by Liesl Venter
Elections in several East African countries have seen security experts advise corporate travellers to keep up to date with developments and not be caught off-guard. Liesl Venter finds out more.
Elections in Africa are known for their volatility and unpredictability.
“Threats to corporate travellers during the electoral cycle usually relate to social unrest and incidents of politically motivated violence,” says Catherine van Offelen, co-ordinating security information manager at International SOS and Control Risks. “As a precaution, we generally recommend that foreign visitors avoid any political gathering or meetings.”
She says caution should also always be exercised on politically significant dates, particularly when preliminary and official election results are released and when the presidential inauguration is taking place, but also on days when any poll-related events are planned in the particular city where travellers are staying.
“Having said this, the biggest risk to foreign travellers in East Africa remains petty opportunistic and violent crime, which can be mitigated by taking adequate security precautions,” says Van Offelen.
She says countries such as Rwanda and Kenya (both scheduled to see citizens go to the polls in August) have been under close scrutiny for several months.
“Overall, we assess that the elections are likely to pass off peacefully, albeit amid tight security. Large demonstrations and social unrest are uncommon in Rwanda in particular. This is attributed to a combination of factors, one of which is a general intolerance of dissent and a reluctance to endanger political stability through unrest, especially for those still marked by memories of the 1994 genocide. The surveillance of press and civil society groups will increase during the election period.”
Van Offelen warns, however, that this does not mean incidents will not occur. She says a number of low-level hand grenade attacks occurred in crowded marketplaces, transport hubs or near memorial venues before elections in 2010 and 2013. They were believed to have been the work of Congo DRC-based rebels.
“However, no serious incident has occurred since 2013, further lowering security threats for this year’s election.” She adds that the odd grenade attack, however, remains possible during the electoral period.
Kenya, on the other hand, has seen serious violence before, during and after elections and could again be hit by post-election violence this year. European Union observers currently in the country have warned of this.
In 2007, the country saw large-scale violent outbreaks after former President Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner of the election. It took at least a month before the situation was declared stable. The country has seen several violent incidents of terror since then, escalating the risk factor for this election.
For the most part, countries like Rwanda and Kenya carry low-risk travel ratings. “The situation in eastern regions in the neighbouring Congo (DRC) is, however, volatile due to the presence of various militias and rebel groups,” says Van Offelen.
She says uncertainty about the political situation in the DRC is also liable to increase insecurity in areas like the east of Rwanda and, in particular, the Kivus, which can have an impact on border areas. Separately, Burundi has experienced political instability since the contested re-election of President Pierre Nkurunziza for a third term in August 2015, with violent incidents and targeted political assassinations occurring regularly in the country since then. Thousands of refugees continue to flee Burundi and arrive in Rwanda, mainly in Mahama Refugee Camp in Kirehe District (Eastern province). Overall, the relations between Rwanda and Burundi remain strained and tensions along the Rwanda/Burundi border remain heightened, with allegations from both sides of cross-border raids targeting local inhabitants.
Overall, though, travel to East Africa can continue as normal, including during the election periods in Rwanda and Kenya, Van Offelen says. “However, business travellers should keep abreast of developments during their stay and avoid discussing the political situation in public places or with locals, including on social media. This is due to the considerable sensitivities attached to such discussions.”
In addition, adds Van Offelen, there is currently a high security force presence and travellers should also carry proper identification documents at all times for use at any security check.
“It is also advisable to register with your embassy and all relevant warden networks prior to travel”
Business travellers must stay informed of specific details of any political event and protest and avoid them as a routine precaution, says Van Offelen. “This is because scuffles are possible between supporters of rival parties, or between activists and the security forces.”
More generally, keeping apprised of developments can be done via local contacts on the ground, reliable local media, but also by registering for the travel security alerts of International SOS and Controls Risks, she says.
With regard to the choice of accommodation, she advises staying in hotels away from main potential flashpoints for unrest in cities.
What does your travel insurance cover?
When travelling to areas such as East Africa, where elections could see tensions rise, it is always advisable to spend some time familiarising oneself with the terms of cover related to terrorism incidents before leaving on a trip, says Simmy Micheli, sales manager at TIC.
“You would want to ensure you have full medical cover, full accidental death or permanent disability cover, and cancellation cover specifically indicating that you are covered for cancellation in the event of a terrorist incident,” she told TAM. Extended coverage would not be required for travellers heading to East Africa in the next few months, she adds.
Asked if corporates decided to cancel their travel to these countries because of potential civic unrest, Micheli said terms of cover would apply. “The insurer will usually indicate that the terrorist incident must have happened in a city indicated in your itinerary and give you a time period in order to qualify for a claim.”
She says travellers need to stay alert about what is happening on the ground in countries they are travelling to, especially during volatile times such as elections. “Generally speaking, in the event of a terror attack, some policies might exclude cover for cancellation fees or changed travel plans, but would still provide cover for medical costs and repatriation cover in the event of a terror attack.” She stresses the importance of having the right travel insurance in place, regardless of where one is heading in the world.
Says Micheli: “Cancellation cover will cover specific perils. You want a policy that will specify cover for terrorism incidents. Travellers wanting to cancel their trip due to a sense of anxiety are not covered. The incident must occur in the city indicated on the itinerary and within two weeks of departure. Travel insurance does not cover you for changing your mind, so unless your travels are directly affected by a recent terror attack, you would most likely not be eligible for a claim.”
But risk no longer applies to just one particular place in the world, making it imperative to keep perspective on travel. “Acts of terrorism make headlines almost every day and you are at risk just about anywhere you go nowadays. Look at the activity in London recently and before that, Paris, Brussels, Istanbul, Tunisia, Turkey, Bangkok. The heartbeat of travel insurance is your medical cover and ensuring you have full cover for terrorism for medical cover remains a high priority. One can bounce back from the loss of travel costs quite quickly, but medical costs that are paid in foreign currencies are a different scenario altogether.”