Tribalism and Corruption: The Dark Side of Social Capital

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on December 12, 2016

Social capital can be defined as the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively. The positive aspects of social capital are selflessness, generosity and compassion. In countries that are not social market economies with a robust government funded security net, social capital is a crucial means through which the vulnerable are supported to have a better quality of life. We see this in Africa everyday: supporting friends and family with school fees; fundraising for the medical care of others or providing monthly stipends for unemployed loved ones. Social capital is a crucial part of the fabric of African communities where many still feel a sense of responsibility for others. Indeed, there is a theoretical possibility that the introduction of social market economies in Africa may lead to an erosion of this social capital.

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However, there is a dark side to social capital; a side that enables cronyism, tribalism and corruption. A side where oneself and a select group of associates or beneficiaries have priority over collective well-being. The self, not the other is the core of negative social capitalism; a core where the self and a limited circle are the intended beneficiaries of generosity, often at the cost of the welfare of others.

Kenya’s best known expressions of negative social capitalism are tribalism and corruption. In the case of tribalism, the tribe to which the self belongs is deemed as rightfully superior to the tribe of the other. Kenyans tend to (silently) condone tribalism as long the tribe of the self is benefitting from unearned favours and undue favouritism. Uproar only ensues when the tribe of the other is accruing the benefits.  This has resulted in a lack of commitment to end tribalism in in the country. Kenyans are happy to benefit from this beast when it’s their turn to eat and only refer to the need to adhere to principles of justice and fairness when it is not their tribe benefitting from cronyism. Kenyans will bemoan tribalism from the tribes of the other but fervently defend individuals who are conduits of tribalism in the tribe of the self. As a result this version of negative social capital expands as the circle of beneficiaries contracts and does not extend beyond tribe.

A worrying, emerging reality in the context of devolution, is that negative social capital is being expressed as the devolution of tribalism. Speaking to county officials has made it clear that at county level, the circle of beneficiaries of Kenyans is narrowing from tribe to clan. Kenyans are keeping an eye on how positions at county level are divided among clans. Discontent arises if one clan is seen to be benefitting from county appointments more than others. This is a worrying form of self-obsession because it is rooted in a sentiment of exclusion not inclusion.

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Corruption is an interesting phenomenon because it is the conduit through which negative social capital is expressed. Corruption is the means through which cronyism and tribalism are brought to life. What is fascinating is that those engaging in corruption feel justified in engaging in it because they have beneficiaries who rely on them, who are better off due to their pilfering. Their children go to better schools, their parents live in better houses and their spouses drive better cars. Thus, in the warped world of negative social capital, the individual engaging in corruption feels justified in their embezzlement. And the irony is that what should be the positive aspects of social capital, caring for others outside the self, emboldens corruption and thus what ought to be positive is turned into an ogre that pillages the other to benefit the self.

Tribalism and corruption cripple the ability of the country to work towards a common goal rooted in an incentive to work hard. Tribalism and corruption allow individuals to reap where they did not sow. How then can a country truly develop if honesty, diligence and hard work are not rewarded?

Anzetse Were is a development economist;


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