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Wall St. and Business Wednesdays: The New Tribalism - Meritocracy Has Turned Ethnic Discrimination Into A More Sophisticated Exercise by Anthony Ngare


Nobody is surprised when they hear of tribalism in the public sector. After all, many of the people at the policy-making level get there because they have (or benefit from) tribal political constituencies. Even tribalism in small companies is to be expected: such enterprises are often run according to their owner’s whims. However, when it comes to larger organisations intent on profitability, most of us would like to think ethnicity is not that big an issue.

Think again. Late last year, Titus Naikuni, Chief Executive Officer of Kenya Airways, Africa’s ‘Most Respected Company’, was quoted as saying tribalism had taken root in all sectors of Kenya’s economy. He specifically singled out staff recruitment as an area managers need to keep an eye on.

Sam Wainaina, a personal financial adviser with a multinational organisation, is one of those who believe larger organisations are generally meritocracies. He argues that a company being run professionally will not have open tribalism.

"But family businesses are vulnerable to this vice because the big positions are largely exchanged amongst the relatives," he says. "These people in turn recruit members of the extended family."

However, Francis Gikuhi, a civil engineer with Howard Humphreys (East Africa) Ltd, has a different take on the issue.

"We need to admit that Kenyans and Africans are by nature tribalistic and this, in itself, is not essentially evil," he says.

Ethnic agendas

So who is right? It would seem to be both. Managers in professionally run organisations cannot be tribalists in the old sense. Their discrimination has to be a lot subtler. With a larger pool of highly qualified candidates to choose from than managers had in the past, they can favour their tribesmen without arousing any suspicion.

"Ethnic chauvinism has seen a revival in the last few years," says Mbugua Kinyanjui, a social analyst. "You can already see its fruits on the political scene. In the workplace, however, individual managers with ethnic agendas have to hide their tribalism behind a professional facade."

In most organisations, tribalism has joined other less obvious forms of discrimination at the work — on the basis of age, religion, marital status, looks etc.

Fighting this new tribalism usually requires developing a strong corporate culture, says Eng Gikuhi.

"For one to have allegiance to a nation, the benefits must outweigh those of belonging to a tribe," he says. "The same applies in the places of work. For most people, the benefits of allegiance to the company must overwhelmingly outweigh those perks that come with being close to a particular senior tribesman in the office."

Alex Gogo, a doctorate candidate in Political Science at the University of Nairobi, says: "Tribes are a contradiction in modern Kenya as they are an evil if your tribe is not in power and a benefit if your tribe is in power. This is due to the nature of our political and government systems." This mentality, it would seem, is also reflected in the private sector.

"In most African nations you are defined as a citizen only in paper," says Eng Gikuhi. "Your primary designation is that of an ethnic group. This schizophrenic mindset permeates everywhere including the corporate world and its denial only compounds the problem."

Ownership background

Not all organisations are troubled to hide their tribalism: industries in which there is little competition for labour throw up blatant examples of old-school tribalism.

"Most bosses end up employing fellow tribesmen so that they can act as their henchmen or spy men in the organisation," says Brian Adero a freelance journalist based in Nairobi. The recruits are expected to keep close tabs on the company grapevine and keep the boss abreast of the mood in the organisation, continues Adero.

He argues that the generation of leaders in both public and private sectors is more predisposed to thinking tribally than the people they recruit.

"Tribalism in the workplace gets ingrained from the background of ownership of the company," he says. "If most directors come from a specific community, then most employees invariably get recruited from that community. Most of the people who have capital to invest or who hold senior positions in major corporations are above 45 years old. They may have undergone a different socialisation process."

Tribalism in the office manifests itself in different forms according to Wainaina.

"In a big firm you can see promotions going to members of a specific community despite the organisation having a rich diversity," he says. "Even in-house training opportunities can fall to a small group sharing the same mother tongue depending on who calls the shots."

Not everyone thinks tribalism is a bad thing.

"As an urban-raised Kenyan, I saw tribalism as an evil that we have to overcome," says Eng Gikuhi. "Lately, I have come to regard it as a cancer and also a tool that can be used to propel us to a new dimension of development if only it is applied at the right areas. We need to look at our ethnicity as a formula for being fair to everyone."

The new tribalism might alarm men who expect to be aware of discriminative behaviour. Women, however, being more used to having the game stacked against them, are less likely to be too concerned.

Policy guidelines

Take the case of Michelle Njeri, formerly an accountant with a religious institution. Njeri got pregnant but did not intend to marry the child’s father. When she told her employers about the pregnancy, she was fired for violating the terms of her contract which required her to "convey the teachings of the faith through words and actions, demonstrating an acceptance of Gospel values and Christian traditions". What gets to her, though, is not just that this contractual obligation focuses solely on pregnant women, but that it was applied selectively.

"I was not the first unmarried lady to conceive while serving the organisation," she says. "It had happened before with two others who are still working there probably because they come from the same community with the head of the organisation."

The Bill of Rights in the current Constitution is very clear that nobody should be discriminated against on the basis of colour, creed or tribe according to Duncan Kaigi, a legal practitioner with Maina, Rogoi & Company Advocates.

"If a senior manager or the director engages blatantly in tribalism, then that individual can be taken to task for abuse of office," Kaigi argues. "A perfectly healthy individual should be the last person to be ill-treated on the basis of his background in the office."

If you find yourself having to contend with tribalism in the office, Wainaina advises that you can advocate for policy guidelines in terms of merit and criteria, if you are in a senior position. However, should you not be lucky enough to be higher enough on the ladder, then you can only give your best and strive for exposure, you can never know when Lady Luck can smile at you.

"The guys in the middle level are the ones who badly need to rise and, therefore, they have to go for it fully," says Wainaina. "Organisations which may be practising tribalism and other forms of favouritism should widen their scope and go for well trained people and refrain from concentrating on one or few ethnic communities."

This article was published in The East African Standard.


Anthony Ngare

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

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