Refashioning Neopatrimonialism in an Interface Bureaucracy: Nigerian Higher Education

  • Christopher Willott

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


The African state has received numerous analyses in academic literature. The vast majority of these studies focus on the essence of the state rather than how it is experienced and lived by its citizens and therefore sacrifice empirical knowledge of state function in favour of abstract conceptualisation. Much academic literature, especially the neopatrimonial approach dominant in political science, examines African states through the prism of Weberian logic and suggests that, because states do not conform to a rational-legal ideal, they must therefore be deficient. These analyses also frequently downplay the impact of colonial rule and postcolonial state formation and politics on the character of contemporary African states, instead stressing the continuities between pre-colonial and modern patterns of rule. This thesis eschews a normative understanding of the state in favour of an approach grounded in everyday action through analysis of the workings of the Nigerian higher education sector. I argue that this sector is a microcosm of broader state-society relations. The thesis draws on primary data collected through ethnographic methods to analyse how providers and users of a university in south-eastern Nigeria negotiate their passage into, and through, a highly complex and flexible institution. The thesis argues that, among both students and staff, achieving success in Nigerian higher education is dependent on a combination of merit, personal connections and money. The importance of these three elements suggests a system in which norms rooted in bureaucracy (merit), patron-clientism (personal connections) and financial corruption (money) intersect. My empirical research suggests that characterisations of African states as wholly captured by society and functioning as little more than vehicles for particularistic advancement, both central elements of much neopatrimonial state literature, are therefore inaccurate. The thesis also places the Nigerian state in historical context, arguing that, while some patterns of pre-colonial behaviour remain important in contemporary Nigeria, they have been fundamentally altered by colonialism and its aftermath. This thesis offers an important corrective to the rather abstract and normative ideas that underpin the theory of the African neopatrimonial state. It argues that a better understanding of the state requires a stronger focus on the routine and real experiences of service providers and users and their daily interactions.
Date of Award1 Aug 2009
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorJoe Devine (Supervisor) & Dibyesh Anand (Supervisor)


  • factionalism
  • Nigeria
  • patronage
  • corruption
  • state
  • Higher Education

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