How alumni clubs are fostering a sense of entitlement


Kabarnet High School old boys attend the Alumi Day last month.

I have been following with keen interest the unfolding saga that led to the resignation of Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister last week.

One commentator had some rather unflattering words to say about Boris: “How can someone with demonstrably questionable morals and a more than casual relationship with the truth, reach such a powerful position? One word springs to mind, entitlement.

Boris comes from a long line succession of posh upper class, bumbling idiots who were destined for greatness only because no one has ever or will ever tell them they are not. Boris went to Eaton.”

An old boys’ club (or old boy network) in the traditional sense is an informal system in which wealthy men with similar social or educational backgrounds help each other in business or personal matters.

The term originally referred to social and business connections among former pupils of male-only elite schools, though the term is now used to refer to any closed system of relationships that restrict opportunities to within the group.

This can apply to the network between the graduates of a single school regardless of their gender. It is similar but not the same as an alumni association which is more structured.

In popular culture, old boy network has come to be used in reference to preservation of the social elites in general, such connections within the British Civil Service formed a primary theme in BBC satirical comedy series “Yes, Minister,” and closer home, Kenya’s first post-independence cabinet was more of an old boys’ club, with 9 of its 15 members being former Alliance High School students. The phrase “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is associated with this tradition.

A study of Harvard University in the 1920s and 1930s published in The Quarterly Journal of Economics in May 2022 shows three main findings.

First, students from prestigious feeder schools are overrepresented in exclusive campus clubs, while academic high achievers and ethnic minorities are almost completely absent. Second, the labour market premium for club membership is much larger than the premium for academic success.

Third, exposure to high-status college peers pushes high-status students towards high-status paths in their social and professional careers, but does not affect students from less privileged backgrounds, thus reinforcing rather than reducing inequalities.

After a long stint in journalism, Boris became a member of parliament in 2001, and was Mayor of London between 2008 and 2016, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs between 2016 and 2018, and ascended to Leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister in 2019.

Despite being elected in 2019 on a promise “To Get Brexit Done” and touting his “oven-ready” exit deal with the European Union, Johnson’s government has continued to wrangle with Brussels over the operation the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol, a key tenet of the agreement signed by both parties.

Boris Johnson was finally backed into a corner last Thursday after dozens of his government ministers resigned.

In describing one of Britain’s most colourful and controversial prime ministers, Jonathan Freedman of The Guardian wrote, “Lies and a brazen contempt for the rules powered his rise; lies and brazen contempt for the rules brought his fall.

Which means the political odyssey of Boris Johnson has a curious symmetry. Except that what began as defects in the personality of one man ended as defects in his party and eventually his government.”

And if I may add, no one was prepared to tell him.

I recall during my days at the University of Nairobi in the early 1970s, there were various branches of tribal or regional associations.

One of the biggest associations was a branch of GEMA which would hold lavish parties at the campus to try and indoctrinate students from central Kenya with promises of accelerated career progression after university. We gladly drank their beer and enjoyed other trappings, but happily returned to our independent ways!

Entitlement is an enduring personality trait, characterized by the belief that one deserves preferences and resources that others do not. People with a sense of entitlement are often unwilling to recognise another’s meritorious worth or hard-earned success and you will hear them describe others as “streetwise.”

We are seeing these traits in some of our candidates for the August 9 general election. I urge Kenyans to seek out candidates with the virtues of integrity, accountability, and servant leadership, however rare these qualities are to find in our leaders.