Motor Park Democracy and Dysfunctional Education in Nigeria

At the dawn of the 21st Century, the rot in Nigeria’s education sector is more real than apparent. Despite the quantum of neoliberal reform policies and “investments” in the sector, the Nigerian education system continues to head south. The colonial legacy of deliberate underdevelopment of the African education system to produce cheap ideologically malleable manpower for Western domestic capitalism appears impotent to explain the current trend hence, the need for a more home-grown diagnosis. Accordingly, this article examines the nexus between the nature/quality of the Nigerian ruling class and the phenomenon of continuously declining educational standards in Nigeria. It deploys the concept of “Motor Park Democracy” vis-à-vis the Tout Theory of Politics to explain the dysfunctionality of Nigerian education, especially in terms of unravelling the root cause of the decay. Additionally, it anchors the study on the Marxist Structural Causality to demonstrate the interconnectedness of this decay with other facets of the Nigerian formation, and proffers relevant suggestions for reviving the sector.

There is no gainsaying the fact that the Nigerian educational system in the 21st Century is as moribund as it is comatose. Unfortunately, in spite of key indices that suggest the contrary, the Nigerian ruling class through her governmental surrogates continues to grandstand about its neoliberal reform policies and investments in the sector. However, when the effects of these reforms and investments are reviewed, they are seen to be more inimical than beneficial to Nigerian education, if not entirely cosmetic. Incidentally, extant analysis about the culpability of the colonial legacy of deliberate underdevelopment of the African educational sector to produce a cheap and ideologically malleable workforce for Western domestic capitalism now appears insufficient to explain the crisis, as emerging trends seem to implicate the nature/quality of the indigenous ruling class for the downward spiral of Nigerian education.

In “Motor Park Democracy: Interrogating the Tout Theory of Politics” (2020), Professor Jonah Onuoha articulates the concept of “Motor Park Democracy” as a fallout of his Tout Theory of Politics which seeks to link the asinine nature of politics, democracy and development in a neoliberal state like Nigeria to the touting behaviour of the subsisting ruling class. However, an earlier invention of the concept was found in Charles Dickson’s “Away from Motor Park Democracy, Leadership ahead of 2007.” Notwithstanding, Motor Park Democracy portrays the political conjuncture as a motor park in which the ruling class as well as her political surrogates and stipendiaries are behaving like touts. It is a “cash and carry” form of democracy characterized by selfish horse trading with very little concern about the quality of the commodity being traded or its utility to the wellbeing of the masses. Characteristically, tout politics is potentially violent, lays so much emphasis on monetary and material accumulation and tolerates a lot of mediocrity. At the national and international levels, the ruling class that is engaged in this form of politics is amenable to the neoliberal prescriptions of the Capitalist West, therefore, it is not reluctant to sacrifice national development on the altar of envenomed trade liberalization, structural adjustment, currency devaluation, unceasing accumulation of foreign and domestic debts/loans, prebendal corruption and compradorization, etc., once it has secured her own selfish interests from her foreign or domestic patrons. “Motor Park Democracy” is laced with aspects of godfatherism involving a supreme tout who is the political and ideological head of the colony of touts. In point of fact, the motor park relations of production shows little or no interest in the people’s intellectual development, and is mainly characterized by a warped form of absolute loyalty which is blind and fierce.

Conversely, the Marxist Structural Causality was propounded by Nicos Poulantzas to demonstrate the predominance of societal structures in determining the behaviour of the state. However, the framework is adopted in this analysis given the assumption that the ruling class of a given formation creates the structures that determine the behaviour of that formation through its activities in the historically-determined mode of production. Thus, by creating the laws that govern politics in a capitalist economy to protect its vested interests in the economic system, the petit-bourgeois ruling class of the neoliberal state inadvertently creates the legal structure for determining and enforcing the subjugation, alienation and continuous exploitation of the subordinated classes. For instance, the petit-bourgeoisie could alienate the proletariat from political power by inflating the prices of nomination forms for elective positions in such a manner that they are beyond the affordability of the average citizen. Ipso facto, its position in the relations of production is perpetually entrenched.

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As we have hinted earlier, the overdose of neoliberal reform policies in Nigeria’s education sector has produced little or no result. This is courtesy of the fact that the reform policies of the neoliberal state are deliberately put in place to cripple local innovation so that the interests of foreign finance and industrial capital would continue to thrive. As Ifesinachi (2007) puts it, “privatization and market driven foreign economic policy in structurally dependent states tend to undermine popular developmental aspirations.” For instance, one shining example regarding the failure of neoliberal reform policies to reverse the declining fortunes of Nigerian education is the introduction of the 9-3-4 system of education in Nigeria. This system replaced the old 6-3-3-4 system and according to Uwaifo and Uddin (2009) was “expected to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2020.” However, like all externally directed neoliberal policies, the 9-3-4 system which appears to have lacked sociological suffrage eventually failed. As Uwaifo and Uddin (2009) assessed it, “This programme has failed to achieve much not solely because of lack of human and material resources but largely due to poor implementation.” Incidentally, this was not the first time that such reform in terms of the number of years to be spent in each of these academic phases was made. According to Gusau (2008), educational reforms started in Nigeria as early as 1954 with the switch from the 8-6-2-3 system – that is, 8-year primary, 6-year secondary, 2-year higher school certificate and 3-year university, to the 6-5-2-3 system that was 6-year primary, 5-year secondary, 2-year higher school certificate and 3-year university. Later, the National Curriculum Conference of 1969 which held in Lagos recommended further changes to the system culminating in the American patterned 6-3-3-4 system which is 6-year primary, 3-year junior secondary, 3-year senior secondary and 4-year university. Unfortunately, this format suffered the same fate as its predecessor. Interestingly, Adesina (1980)’s report corroborates the tendency of neoliberal economic reforms to end in failure occasioned by endless confusion, poor planning and implementation. He complains that the “Free Universal Primary Education was launched in 1976 but the policy on education itself appeared in 1977 one year after the implementation of the programme. In this kind of situation where implementation is ahead of policy, confusion would certainly emerge. Needs assessment was not properly done; the end result was absence of adequate statistical data.” As Ismaila (1998) narrates,

“1975-1983 witnessed the launching of the gigantic educational programme in Nigeria. Above all, it was a period of unprecedented financial imprudence, irrational planning, large scale production that culminated in a steep decline from boom to doom. In the absence of any comprehensive planning, the implementers of the programme have (sic) their leeway; they chose what was important and what was not. Emergency contractors executing fictitious contracts became the norms (sic), substandard buildings in the name of UPE scattered all over the country, half-baked teachers populated the teaching force, ghost workers were made part and parcel of the UPE programme. The enormous responsibility Federal Government of Nigeria took in respect of the UPE programme cannot (sic) be sustained. The financial burden became too great that government began to shy away from its undertakings. As a face saving measure the then Obasanjo administration placed Primary education under joint control of States and Local Governments in the 1979 Constitution, where Local Governments had direct control over primary schools. To worsen the situation some states in the federation started reversing the policy by returning back voluntary and mission schools to their former owners. The falling prices of petroleum in the international market pass (sic) a dearth (sic) sentence to UPE programme. States and Local Governments could not fund primary education as such began to charge fees and what was left; UPE programme was neither free nor universal. It was simply a political expediency designed to impress Nigerian masses….”

This is the prototype character of neoliberal reforms. Not only that they encourage corruption and inefficiency, they leave every system worse than they met it. Unfortunately, the aforementioned only constitutes the origin of the problems in the education sector. As we have seen, the reforms in the sector were not only poorly executed but, they also failed to uplift the standards of Nigerian education. Expectedly, the reforms should fail because they were mostly externally directed and would not have arisen out of any sociologically censored suffrage to address the indigenous needs of the sector. Consequently, the lack of indigenous input in the articulation of these reforms would also mean that the level of consultations and consensus among key players in the sector is low, so that these key players could feel alienated and therefore, less interested in the policy implementation process. Under this atmosphere, inefficiency was expected to thrive because the loss of interest by key players in the sector would translate to reduced checks and balances on the contractors enlisted to implement the scheme. Unfortunately, corruption would set in because the lack of checks on the field would invariably result to poor auditing which would leave the contractors and their cronies with so much money to play around with, without fear of consequences. In the final analysis, the Nigerian education system would be worse off. It is therefore not surprising that in spite of these historical reforms, a plethora of evidence indicates that nothing significant has happened in the sector. For instance, the World Economic Forum (2017) presents Nigeria as ranking 124th out of 137 countries as regards the quality of her primary education system. Additionally, a 2012 study by Watkins and Gruebel found that about 58.3% of Nigerian schoolchildren were not learning the elemental numeracy and literacy skills required for them to function effectively, especially in the educational sector. Similarly, Peterside (2023) aptly describes the current state of educational infrastructure in Nigeria thus,

“The education infrastructure in Nigeria is old, decrepit, poor, and sometimes abysmal. Successive governments have failed to build new public schools commensurate to the community need, or where they do, no real investments are made in infrastructure and facilities. The condition of most public schools are (sic) terrible, and no one wants to study there. The school buildings and premises are “not fit for purpose”. There is an extreme level of negligence towards education.”

However, we are concerned with the problems of the education sector at the present. In this regard, it is instructive to note that despite the colonial legacy of deliberate underdevelopment of the education systems of the colonies to produce cheap labour which is too intellectually weak to question its subordinated role in the colonial relations of production, the official attitude of the contemporary Nigerian ruling class appears more complicit than ever in nailing the coffin of educational development in Nigeria. In essence, the “body language” of this ruling class does not appear to show its determination to redeem the educational sector. Apart from the intermittent periods of industrial action in tertiary institutions which appear unceasing, coupled with the seeming disdain for teachers at all levels, the inertia often exhibited by the Nigerian ruling class in keeping to agreements with labour unions in the educational sector tend to give away its level of disinterestedness in education. Through her governmental agents, the ruling class would sign agreements with labour unions in the sector encouraging them to suspend subsisting industrial actions; then, it would renege on the agreements only to quickly sign new ones whenever these unions resume or threaten to resume another round of industrial action, and the cycle continues. Interestingly, the call from certain quarters that wards of government agents ought to be barred from attending foreign academic institutions have not been heeded, even when it is clear that such move could revitalize government’s interest in the welfare of the educational sector. The result of all these has been a feeling of helplessness among Nigerian students who are the victims of these shenanigans in the educational sector. To worsen the situation, government’s inability to redirect the course of society from criminality appears deliberate and clearly conceived to benefit the tout economy which consists mainly of current and former political thugs yearning for “settlement”. Additionally, the seeming ease of economic ascendancy of criminally-minded individuals in the society with its attendant culture of glorification of crass materialism appears to have reinforced the helplessness of the average Nigerian student who is suddenly missing or disconnected from the social division of labour, having suddenly realized that despite all the years he had spent in school, he had neither graduated nor earned reasonable money to cater for his responsibilities at home. Soon, this undergraduate begins to see education as a scam and time waster and begins to aim to be as “successful” as his criminally-minded peers regardless of what it takes. Unfortunately, when this student eventually graduates, what awaits him is even worse because after many years of graduation, the jobs remain elusive. With time, the perennial lack of employment constrains him to either join the bandwagon of criminality or resort to learning trades in the informal sector where he is sometimes ridiculed by his peers who now consider themselves very lucky to have avoided formal education. In most cases, he would have lost much of his youthful age trying to find his feet in the motor park social relations of production which does not accord any modicum of respect to his status as a graduate. Even when he eventually finds a job, it becomes clear in many cases that the poor curriculum that was used to form him in school did not adequately prepare him for the job. Unfortunately, rather than blame the inadequacy of the obsolete and deficient curriculum which served as the basis of his educational formation, the society brands him an unemployable graduate. Consequently, as things continue to deteriorate, the young people begin to see the educational system as a waste of time and the respect for the products of the sector also begins to diminish. Suddenly, we realize that the bulk of society is now made up of illiterates or half-baked graduates whose only criterion for gauging success is the amount of money in one’s pockets. This generation of youths would do anything to get money and would never have a high regard for education. Accordingly, as the emphasis on monetary aggrandizement increases, social norms and values begin to decline while criminality continues to grow in leaps and bounds. Furthermore, the ruling class which is the political and ideological head of this tout economy does not see anything wrong in the situation because they would rely on this pool of touts to guarantee their continuous hold on power in the next elections. Thus, the syndrome of “stomach infrastructure” at the economic level of the tout economy is replicated at the political level with “settlement” politics where the vanguards of the tout economy are rewarded with elective or appointive positions in government with little or no regard for competence, eligibility or accountability. Hence, it is possible to discover that in a tout economy, even the basic academic requirements to occupy a political office may not be met, yet, the occupant manages to occupy the office, using same office to cater for the “settlement” of several smaller touts whom he has been mandated to cater for, by the supreme tout.

At this juncture, the tout economy is seen to have become highly specialized with several touts taking care of numerous subsidiaries with the sole intention of relying on their patronage for future elections. As a result, the operators of motor park democracy become more preoccupied with the settlement of their touting patrons rather than the welfare of the generality of the citizenry; such that, once the patronage of these touts is guaranteed for the next election, anything can go in government. This explains the common trend in motor park democracies where despite numerous visible shortcomings, an underperforming government is still “re-elected” to power in landslide manner, to the chagrin of the decent voting public. In some cases, it does not matter whether the candidate campaigned for the post or not, it does not also matter whether he is qualified for the post or not, as some candidates in a motor park democracy are known to have won elections even while serving prison terms.

In view of the foregoing, the fate of education in a motor park democracy becomes clearer. Like their political counterparts, the students in a motor park democracy have no regard for hard work. Their teachers are not also better off. First of all, the disinterestedness of the motor park ruling class to invest in education in an economy where education is not needed conduces to the pauperization of the key players in the sector, especially the teachers. This sets the stage for the massive corruption and ineptitude that are to follow. Additionally, owing to the touting behaviour of the general society, the character formation aspect of teaching and learning is already dead on arrival. Thus, it is not surprising to see students who are well-known for their fraudulent activities becoming the toast of teachers in a tout economy because these students provide much of the funds needed to rehabilitate the hungry teachers. In some cases, the few students who have managed to retain their moral standing in the tout economy are seen as weaklings and never-do-wells partly because of their assumed incapacity for dastardly criminality, but mainly because of their economic depression when compared with their criminally-minded counterparts. As it is with education, so it is with other facets of the economy. Ironically, despite the premium on good health which should be expected in a tout economy (since it takes good health to engage in touting activities), the health sector in a tout economy is not spared of neglect.

The transport sector which is one of the favourites of the tout economy is also disorganised with hardly any meaningful infrastructure except street urchins who parade themselves as the lords of the streets given their so-called affiliation with the supreme tout. Accordingly, the point has to be made that the level of morass experienced in a motor park democracy is reflective of the decay in the ordinary motor park which is the ideological origin of the tout economy, and replicates itself in all strata of governance and administration to conserve and glorify the social capacity for destructive nuisance value which the “stakeholders” represent. In some instances, these “stakeholders” become so domineering that even the official coercive apparatus of the state is either subordinated to their whims and caprices or is condemned to play second fiddle in the political economy of national defence and security.

Having come this far, we must state that the revival of the education sector is imperative for the rebirth of a decent and progressive economic system. However, this revival would not come until the tout economy is ultimately confined to the dustbin of history. Accordingly, the relegation of the tout economy must begin with the emphasis on issues-based elections concretized by popular insistence on electoral debates during electioneering campaigns rather than the personality mainstreaming that often comes to the fore. This is the first step for the restoration of Nigerian education.

The second step would involve a massive citizens-based activism to compel the political successors of the tout economy to invest massively in education. Additionally, such investments must be made in due consultation with the key stakeholders in the sector to address the critical issues impeding educational growth and development rather than waiting for external forces to determine the mode of reforms. Furthermore, the UNESCO recommendation of voting 15-20% of the annual budget to education must be discarded in view of the massive dilapidation awaiting attention in the sector. Accordingly, federal tertiary institutions and unity schools must be empowered to pursue alternative sources of funding while subnational governments are also to start looking inwards for alternative sources of funding for state-run tertiary institutions and schools. Similarly, local governments’ revenue must be revamped by abolishing the states-local governments’ joint account system to make for increased funding for academic institutions at that level. Finally, the wards of elected and appointed political office holders must be barred from attending foreign schools, for the periods that such officials hold the office.


The ‘Alternative Viewpoint,’ penned by Flight Lieutenant Christopher Uchenna Obasi (Retired), is a sophisticated weekly column that delves into the complex dimensions of socio-political issues. While it concentrates primarily on the African context, the column also casts a wider analytical net to encompass global affairs. Through incisive commentary and in-depth analysis, it aims to offer alternative perspectives that challenge mainstream narratives and provoke thoughtful discourse on critical matters.

Africa Today News, New York

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