Global Resources

Politics and the dilemma of meaningful access to education: the Nigerian story

Author: P. Obanya
Publisher: Centre for International Education, University of Sussex
Publication Date: Jan 2011

The sum total of the politics of Nigeria is one in which democracy is yet to take firm roots, with the country remaining an imperfect and lop-sided federation in which decentralisation is yet to translate into a devolution of powers. This political situation has not helped the cause of education, with national programmes consistently hindered by ‘bad politics’. This paper makes a case for ‘good politics for good education’, with specific reference to the Nigerian context. It surveys the impact of good and bad politics involved in the attainment of meaningful access to education, with special focus on Nigeria’s Universal Basic Education (UBE) programme.

The paper begins by defining meaningful education as favourably comprising five distinct and important aspects of educational access: economic, physical, sociological, psychological, and cultural. The most effective and comprehensive way of analysing meaningful education is via a framework established by the Consortium for Research on Educational Access, Transition, and Equity (CREATE), which assesses access based on results in secure and regular enrollment and attendance, progression through grades, learning with utility, reasonable transition into secondary level education, and more, rather than less, opportunity for equitable opportunity to learn for poorer children and girl-childs.

The paper then assesses Nigeria’s political past in relation to education, from pre-colonial Nigeria, through the colonial period, and up to the post-independence present. It then goes on to discuss UBE, which emerged with Nigeria’s return to civil democratic rule and was intended as one of the ‘dividends of democracy’ promised to the citizens. Unfortunately, the rigorous planning, resource mobilisation, and transformational management required for such an ambitious programme was lacking for a number of reasons, many of which are connected here to ‘bad politics’.

The first kind of bad politics responsible was the way in which politics was given prominence over policies and programmes, both in activities directly surrounding the enabling legislation, and federal-state power dynamics. Second, the enabling legislation laid more emphasis on the political governance of the programme than on its substance. Third, the enabling acts of UBE retained complex, multifarious structures for the management of the programme instead of adhering to the original vision of managing UBE under a single structure. This was then exacerbated by the establishment of Education For All (EFA) in 2000. These issues are exemplified by what is referred to as the ‘reverse-order planning’ of UBE, whereby the adoption and launch of the initiative preceded the necessary planning and strategising, leading to confusion, and targets devoid of any situational analysis.

The paper recommends a number of ways forward to rectify the damage already done, and to re-orientate Nigeria's education policy to make best use of its most important source of wealth: its people. These include four suggestions aimed at turning bad politics into good politics as a prerequisite to any new action:

  • Electoral reforms are needed to reduce the incidence of flawed elections, ensure that the people’s votes really count, and as a first step in the emergence of a government that would truly reflect and represent the people’s will.

  • Good governance that enshrines accountability and espouses a philosophy that public office is to be held in trust for the people.

  • Returning to the idea of ‘true federalism’, eliminating over-centralisation and giving strong political and financial muscle for the management of basic human development needs to local and state governments.

  • Drastically reducing wastage and corruption in the entire system, to release energies and resources for genuine national development endeavours.

The report also makes a number of recommendations for shifting toward a strategy-directed management of UBE, including the elimination of micro-management, re-skilling of managers, devolution of financial and technical resources to local levels, monitoring inclusion, and ensuring sustainable funding. Additionally, strategic planning for UBE should replace the reverse-order planning of old, thus requiring:


  • An overarching sector-wide approach that fits UBE into the broader scope of a single, all-embracing education sector strategy.

  • Systematic and strategic planning from the local level upwards.

  • Plans based on the identified UBE/EFA deficits of every state of the federation, focusing on context-specific barriers to meaningful access, especially for the poor and girl-childs.

  • Implementation strategies adapted to the specific requirements of every local government and every state of the federation.

  • A built-in monitoring-reporting-review mechanism, built around an action-research agenda.