The Pedagogical Subject of Neoliberal Development
By Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim

The Pedagogical Subject of Neoliberal Development

Mar. 11, 2016  |     |  0 comments

In fall 2012 and spring 2013, I coordinated the Freshman Seminar program for the American University of Nigeria. As the seminar aimed at introducing our student participants to the challenges of development in Nigeria and West Africa, I had to consider the pedagogical subject of neoliberal development. This was especially so since this seminar had to comport with AUN’s vision of becoming “the Development University for Africa,” and in particular, “a great center of learning and research for Nigeria and West Africa, and a catalyst for development in the entire area” (American University of Nigeria, 2011, pp. 2-3). AUN qua development university envisions itself as being deeply engaged with the surrounding community, with this practical engagement proceeding on a double movement, with the faculty on one hand “connecting and applying their theoretical knowledge with the aim of solving social and economic problems,” and the students on the other being guided by the faculty to “understand and solve problems” for the development of the community (p. 7). Hence, before I could develop the curriculum for the Freshman Seminar, I first had to understand the development challenges faced by the community. As I soon discovered, these challenges emerged from Nigeria’s neoliberal transformation of the 1980s.

Structural Adjustment

Peck (2013) notes that neoliberalism is an “unloved, rascal concept” (p. 133), as the multiple and varied histories of neoliberalization across the developing world renders it erroneous to compare neoliberalism against a single measure of “absolute market rule” (p. 140). In the case of Nigeria and other African states, the path of neoliberalization is clear, with the imposition of structural adjustment programmes in the 1980s by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). By the end of that decade, sub-Saharan African states were laboring under the conditionalities imposed by 84 structural adjustment loans (Harrison, 2005, p. 1308). Through structural adjustment, the affected governments adopted a regime of market reforms that shrunk the public and expanded the private sector, opened markets to free trade, and encouraged export-oriented industrialization (Kraus, 2002, p. 428). The World Bank and IMF soon became “the paymasters and auditors of development policy making” in the affected states (Harrison, 2005, p. 1308). Ideologically, these international financial institutions and the Western donor states envisioned the private rather than the public sector as the legitimate “engine of growth,” and deployed structural adjustment to implement this ideology across sub-Saharan Africa (Kraus, 2002, pp. 395-397). This deployment of structural adjustment has been very effective, with neoliberalism supplanting “statism and socialism as the dominant strategy among politicians and intellectuals in Africa more thoroughly than one would have imagined in 1980” (p. 428). Structural adjustment also opened the affected markets to free competition from multinational corporations, devastating local entrepreneurs. For example, the Nigerian government was forced by its structural adjustment program to repeal “indigenisation decrees that had reserved whole economic sectors to local businesses or the state” (p. 430). In addition, Haque (1999) notes that neoliberal ideology has a narrow focus on economic growth, ignoring other concerns including economic justice and environmental sustainability (p. 209). This has had deleterious effects on the environment, and impeded progress towards sustainable development:

In effect, such neo-liberal policies are likely to expand industrialization (causing environmental pollution); globalize consumerism (encouraging consumption of environmentally hazardous products); multiply the emission of CO2 and CFCs (worsening the greenhouse effect and ozone layer depletion); overexploit natural resources (depleting nonrenewable resources); increase the number of urban poor and rural landless (forcing them to build more slums and clear more forests); and, thus, threaten the realization of sustainable development objectives. (p. 199)

Not only has structural adjustment negatively impacted economic development in sub-Saharan Africa through the destruction of indigenous industries, it has also had the neocolonial effect of feeding the region’s “natural and human resources” into the economic development of the North, which as Geo-Jaja and Mangum (2003) succinctly observe, is “not to African advantage” (p. 296). The effects of structural adjustment on ordinary Africans, including mass job losses of those formerly employed in the public sector, as well as the weakening of purchasing power through currency devaluations and the removal of state subsidies, have also impacted the intellectual and middle classes, for whom neoliberalization “appeared as the final assault on the historical foundations of their embourgeoisification in the colonial and postcolonial eras” (Eyoh, 1998, p. 285). This devastating assault on the peoples’ standard of living generated a cycle of resistance and repression:

Most African intellectuals believe that structural adjustment programs were recipes for intensification of economic dependence and socioeconomic inequalities. These programs were profoundly undemocratic in both sentiment and practice because their design and implementation ruled out domestic political debate over the direction of economic policy. While ruling elites escaped the sacrifices structural adjustment programs called for, popular resistance to these programs provoked more state repression. (p. 286)

As Eyoh (1998) observes, this resistance had two targets, opposing “both authoritarian rule and the authority of neoliberal orthodoxy” (p. 286). In the case of Nigeria, the state violence that defended the economic violence of neoliberalism was most intense under military dictatorship. Since independence, the Nigerian military has ruled for over a quarter of a century, a period in which “violence became a quotidian experience” (Smith, 2004, p. 436). This violence served to undergird the inequality that emerged under neoliberalism, an inequality which was intensified by “the rapid and massive accumulation of wealth by the military and their civilian collaborators,” thanks to their capture of the neoliberalizing processes of privatization and trade liberalization (Smith, 2001, pp. 816-819). Ordinary Nigerians soon came to despise the routine extraction of bribes that took place at police checkpoints, and quickly grew to regard them as representative of the general extractive violence of the corrupt entanglement between structural adjustment and military rule (Smith, 2004, p. 436).

More generally, neoliberalism represents the latest stage in modernization’s disruption of the traditional economy. As Polanyi (1957) observes of the pre-capitalist political economy:

As long as social organization runs in its ruts, no individual economic motives need come into play; no shirking of personal effort need be feared; division of labor will automatically be ensured; economic obligations will be duly discharged; and, above all, the material means for an exuberant display of abundance at all public festivals will be provided. In such a community the idea of profit is barred; higgling and haggling is decried; giving freely is acclaimed as a virtue; the supposed propensity to barter, truck, and exchange does not appear. The economic system is, in effect, a mere function of social organization. (p. 49)

The neoliberal society, in contrast, consists of atomistic individuals. Harrison (2005) argues that the neoliberal optic views Africans as possessing “a utilitarian individuality,” with the neoliberal African society hence representing a “collective endeavour to improve utility” (p. 1313). This neoliberal conception of the utilitarian African society is ignorant of the specific particularities of actual African societies (p. 1314), which, as we shall see, offer spaces for resistance. Actual African markets “are pluralised, culturally embedded and structured in ways” that make them substantially different from the idealized rational markets of neoliberal ideology (pp. 1315-1316).

When structural adjustment was imposed on sub-Saharan Africa, the consequences were refracted through networks of traditional patron-client relationships, giving rise to an intensification of corruption. While traditional African kinship societies were characterized by inequality, this inequality was continually calibrated through the redistributive mechanism provided by patron-client relationships, such that the rich and powerful “were forever fulfilling obligations to their followers and redistributing their wealth to buy prestige” (Smith, 2001, p. 820). In such patronage networks, the reputation that a rich and powerful person enjoys from being a “big man” arises precisely from his capacity and willingness to be a “big patron” (Smith, 2001, p. 820). Conversely, the poor and powerless assume the submissive role of clients to patrons “who may be able to help out with employment, cash for medical and other crises, places at school or university, or just about anything else for which influence might be required” (Pierce, 2006, p. 891). Indeed, patronage serves as a key bond between rich and poor in traditional kinship societies:

When a relatively wealthy man has his car stolen in town, his rural kinfolk and other people in his sphere of influence feel genuine sympathy. In addition to affective sentiments motivating their sympathy, they often have more instrumental reasons to be concerned about his welfare. (Smith, 2004, p. 434)

The arrival of neoliberalism disrupted this redistributive mechanism offered by patronage, for the new political and economic elites in the neoliberal economy regard themselves as unbound from their traditional obligations of kinship and patronage, leaving the poor and powerless less able to appeal for favors from them (Smith, 2001, p. 820). This unease over neoliberalism’s disruption of the traditional mechanisms of wealth redistribution can be observed in popular rumors of the occult misdeeds of the neoliberal nouveau riche. Smith (2001) recounts one such tale:

A young man in a neighboring village was said to have died in his uncle's house. He died vomiting money. The uncle, people said, had hired a juju man (a sorcerer or witchdoctor) to help him get rich. The juju man instructed the uncle to give one of his family members a special medicine. If a family member ingested the medicine and the man observed the prescribed rituals, he would become rich, the juju man promised. The man picked a nephew who lived with him and locked the boy in a room, feeding him food that included the juju man's medicine. The man was not told that his nephew would die or exactly how he would become rich. The man was horrified when his nephew died, and he realized he could do nothing to stop the corpse from vomiting money. (p. 818)

Such fears of profit-oriented occult violence have the capacity to generate violence, as Smith (2001) documents in his reconstruction of the 1996 Owerri riots, in which the angry mob attacked the neoliberal elite for their alleged use of “satanic rituals” to accumulate wealth, as well as their local collaborators, “the police, politicians, and religious leaders who were believed to have encouraged, protected, legitimized, and consorted with these evildoers” (p. 804). As Dean (2002) argues of the American Revolution, the production of conspiracy theories can facilitate the emergence of a counter-public sharing the same set of grievances:

Encoded through the dynamic of publicity and secrecy, the grievances relied on a knowledge of the excesses of power, a knowledge that made links among seemingly disparate and not strictly factual events. (p. 57)

In the aftermath of the Owerri riots, similar rumors of the occult violence of the neoliberal elite “circulated widely in the press and in popular discourse,” reflecting both the general “discontent over inequality” as well as the empowering sense that, just like the Owerri rioters, the common people are capable of violently resisting the new political economy (Smith, 2001, p. 804). The emergence of everyday vigilantism in Nigeria, vividly dramatized in Cole (2013), manifested public frustration over the “greater inequality and injustice” that arose from structural adjustment (Smith, 2004, p. 430). However, such vigilante violence only “obscured the role of politicians and the state in perpetuating the conditions that produced crime, insecurity, and inequality” (p. 431).

Development comes to the Koma Hills

To see for myself the impact of neoliberal development on a local community, I organized a faculty visit to the famously underdeveloped Koma Hills, located at the Atlantika mountains on the Nigerian border with Cameroon. This borderland is a hub of legal and illegal transborder trade, with large container trucks continually transporting consumer goods from Nigeria’s markets into Cameroon. Meagher (2003) reminds us that the economic disruption of structural adjustment has increased smuggling and illegal trade:

Throughout West Africa, the effects of devaluation, inflation and declining real incomes has produced an intensifying contradiction between the rising cost of goods and declining effective demand. This has encouraged, among other things, an increasing evasion by traders of duties, tariffs and taxes. Even in entrepôt economies, which had officially encouraged transborder flows since the 1970s, structural adjustment has triggered a massive shift into unofficial trading circuits in an attempt by traders to evade even the low level of duties and taxes imposed within these states. (p. 61)

With structural adjustment having generated unemployment through the retreat of the public sector, and with the private sector having failed to generate sufficient jobs to employ the unemployed and immiserated masses, smuggling and illegal trade offer income-generating opportunities (Meagher, 2003, p. 61). Some of the private taxi drivers I met since coming to AUN began their careers working as truck drivers transporting goods across the bush roads and broken highways from Yola in Nigeria’s Adamawa State across the border into Garoua in Cameroon’s Adamawa Region. Indeed, Nigerian and Cameroonian officials on both sides of the border, whose incomes had been adversely affected by structural adjustment, have become involved with the illegal transborder trade as well. Ironically, the loss of purchasing power has increased the demand across the border for Nigerian goods, thanks to “the massive devaluation of the Naira” (p. 61):

Transborder flows of manufactured and subsidised goods from Nigeria have also increased dramatically under adjustment, in the face of a rapidly devaluing Naira accompanied by increased demand for cheaper goods throughout West Africa. Subsidised Nigerian petrol, which accounted for only 10-20 per cent of Niger’s fuel needs in the early 1980s, was, by the early 1990s estimated to account for 50 per cent of Niger’s and nearly two-thirds of Cameroun’s fuel consumption. Nigerian-made building materials, spare parts, textiles, soap, pomade and pharmaceuticals have enjoyed a similar boom in transborder distribution. (p. 62)

While the illegal transborder trade has offered opportunities for employment and rent extraction, agriculture has suffered, as the import of cheaper agricultural products has adversely affected local farmers by “undercutting prices and eroding demand” (Meagher, 2003, p. 70). With the bustling transborder traffic between Cameroon and Nigeria only an hour away by road, I wondered how the people of the Koma Hills had handled the encroachment of neoliberalism.

As it turned out, Christianity had arrived first. Instead of the men and women famously clad in leaves and animal skins, the Koma people who greeted us were mission school students neatly dressed in donated Western clothes. The missionaries explained to us that they were from a southern Nigerian Dominionist church who had heeded their religious call to bring their “radical evangelism” to the Koma Hills (Momolosho, n.d., p. 7). As Pastor Kay Momolosho explained in his church publication Koma Lens Talk (n.d.), before the church arrived, the Koma people “were in gross darkness; poverty ravaged their land like locusts”:

They were all naked; concealing their nudity with fresh leaves (denge) for the women and animal skin (bante) for the men. (p. 6)

Several pages of Koma Lens Talk consist of before-and-after photographs of Koma women attired in their traditional denge and then in their donated Western attire. Indeed, Pastor Momolosho views life in the Koma Hills in terms of before-and-after the arrival of the Dominionist mission:

Death and diseases were their kinsmen; while life begins at forty for the man in the outside world, theirs expires at forty – any extra is considered “unusual.” Nobody in the land was enlightened. All of them were in complete darkness. (p. 6)

The Dominionist missionaries were proud of the development they had brought to the Koma Hills, including the construction of boreholes and wells which prevented the spread of river blindness and other water-borne diseases (Momolosho, n.d., p. 28); as well as a boarding school for the local children (p. 17), all the better to “teach them God’s ordinance via their ability to read and write” (p. 7). Similarly, the provision by the mission of primary health care served to “elongate their short life span in preparation for the gospel” (p. 7).

While Pastor Momolosho and his missionaries had evangelical intentions in mind for their mission to the Koma Hills, their ministry can be read as part of the greater assemblage of governmentality that has extended the regulative power of government into the Koma Hills. Government, in this Foucauldian sense, refers to the mode of power that allows the population to be “modified, altered, and managed through policy interventions that aim to increase the state’s economic resources and forces”:

It is important to distinguish government, a terminal form of power, from governmentality, the heterogeneous assemblage of institutions, technologies, calculations, and tactics that are the conditions enabling the exercise of government. As we shall see, this distinction is crucial because it implies that even non-state actors and entities such as NGOs and civil society rely on and are part of the web of governmentality. (Cheah, 2006, pp. 200-201)

Indeed, by transforming the hitherto illiterate children of the Koma Hills into literate students, the Dominionist mission has helped “increase the state’s economic resources and forces” by enlarging the regional population of economically productive citizens. It should also be recognized that, despite their repressing and supplanting the traditional culture of the Koma people, the Dominionist mission served the biopolitical function of transforming human life into a productive economic resource (Cheah, 2006, p. 200). To understand this, we have to turn to Foucault’s gloss on neoliberalism. As Foucault (2008) reminds us, neoliberalism’s theory of human capital posits homo œconomicus as “an entrepreneur of himself,” such that the neoliberal economic agent is “for himself his own capital, being for himself his own producer, being for himself the source of [his] earnings” (p. 226). This comports with our earlier observations of atomistic individualism supplanting traditional group affiliations under neoliberalization. As Lawuyi (1993) notes of neoliberalism’s transformation of Nigeria’s traditional social order,

Within the economic time least encouragement is given to kinship relations. Indeed, in the Nigerian society, the family is increasingly informal as the development of individualistic entrepreneurship breaks kinship ties. As advances are then made in trade and industry, the bond between kinship affiliation and the new system of thought and order makes itself felt in the spirit of individualism: the need for setting the self-identity aside from that of the collective through ambitions for wealth and status. The economic time is for prudence. (p. 104)

Homo œconomicus, being his own capital, hence is responsible for nurturing his human capital, which Foucault (2008) explains is an “ability-machine” which “will be remunerated by income.” Apart from educational investments like schooling, a key element of human capital is mobility (pp. 229-230). Such mobility would be essential for the newly educated children of the Koma Hills, as they will eventually have to migrate to where jobs are to be found. Such migration counts as an investment, for the expenses incurred in the move will be remunerated with the income paid by the employer for the human capital possessed by the migrant (p. 230). Hence, by transforming the illiterate children of the Koma Hills into literate students and future productive members of Nigeria’s neoliberal economy, the Dominionist mission has made a strong contribution to “the cultivation of human capital,” reflecting not just the mission’s role in governmentality, but also its exercise of biopower (Cheah, 2006, p. 199). As Foucault (1978) notes, biopower emerged when “the ancient right to take life or let live was replaced by a power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death” (p. 138). Such cultivation of life includes educational investments like schooling which enhance the abilities-machines of the students. An important element of biopolitical schooling consists of the disciplining of the body for economic productivity: “the optimization of its capabilities, the extortion of its forces, the parallel increase of its usefulness and its docility, its integration into systems of efficient and economic controls” (p. 139). The polite manners and docility of the mission’s students that we observed on our visit reflect the thorough religious discipline they must undergo every day at the boarding school, and which will enable them to find employment when they eventually enter the workforce. Such discipline makes them ready for employment in the broader capitalist economy, which requires “the controlled insertion of bodies into the machinery of production and the adjustment of the phenomena of population to economic processes” (p. 141).

Apart from educational investments, the assemblage of governmentality that seeks to produce and reproduce an economically viable population of homines œconomici involves agencies whose policies “shape the population by affecting birthrates, health, and the distribution of the population” (Cheah, 2006, p. 201). I realized that this would offer a space for the student participants of the Freshman Seminar to learn about and contribute to development, as they could, through their involvement with AUN’s community development projects, positively affect the biopower that shaped the local community. AUN’s vision of itself includes an important role for community service. In its strategic plan, AUN views the student body as being “transformed for service and leadership to lead Africa and the world in what will be surely the challenging years ahead.” Indeed, the students are expected to create and to lead their own spaces for service, for AUN expects that “every graduate will internalize the basics of innovation and entrepreneurship” (American University of Nigeria, 2011, p. 5). The community development projects that I envisioned these students engaging in would hence not only bring them face-to-face with the local population which was struggling to survive under the neoliberal politico-economic regime, but would also provide them the practical space to offer their own solutions for these problems. I hoped that this engagement with the community would prevent them from falling into what Power (2010) describes as “market cynicism,” the neoliberal condition where the bachelor’s degree is “increasingly understood as the product purchased for a certain amount of money and a certain quantity of time served,” and students “think of themselves in purely economic terms” (para. 5). As it turned out, we managed to avoid this. When I finally coordinated the Freshman Seminar in the fall 2012 and spring 2013 semesters, our freshman participants were required to serve a minimum of ten hours with our community development projects, which ranged from “counselling drug addicted youth in the local Yola-Jimeta area, providing literacy and employability skills training to residents at a local women’s shelter, tutoring children at poor neighborhood schools, and providing information technology (IT) training to local youth, among others” (Lim, 2013, p. 105). The affective success of these projects could be seen in the voluntary participation of the freshmen in these projects beyond the mandated ten hours, with some students continuing to participate even after they had completed the Freshman Seminar. These suggest that community service can be deployed by local communities as a key pedagogical resource to confront the challenges of neoliberal development.


This paper was published in East-West Affairs (Lim, 2014). Since that time of writing, the global collapse in the price of oil has severely impacted the revenues of oil-producing nations like Nigeria (Donnan, 2016; Stein, 2016). To make up for the shortfall in its national budget, Nigeria’s government has had to seek emergency funding from the World Bank, and, as of this time of writing, will be approaching the Chinese government to negotiate up to 2 billion USD in loans (Laessing & Onuah, 2016; “Nigeria calls in,” 2016). Interestingly, the Nigerian government has not approached the IMF for a loan, despite the open offer of assistance from IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde made during her visit to Nigeria in January 2016 (“What Buhari told,” 2016). This is presumably due to the government’s justified concerns over possible conditionalities that could be attached to an IMF loan package. In comparison, development assistance from the Chinese government comes with considerably less conditionalities, and China already has a history of significant economic engagement with Nigeria (Lim, 2016).


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