Debunking the ‘While Elephant Project’ Myth


By Okebugwu, Onyinyechi F. and Omajeh, Enoch Oghene-Mairo.

Department of Project Management,

Federal University of Technology

Owerri, Nigeria


Everything that a term classifies should have similar features and characteristics, yet it is observed that what have been termed white elephant projects by people have very differing characteristics.

This paper aims to show that there is an error constantly made in the definition of white elephant projects. It uses a literature review to establish that there are two descriptors in the term “white elephant project”, which are: (i) white elephant and (ii) project; and that for anything to qualify as a white elephant project, it must meet the descriptors (i) and (ii), that is, it must be a white elephant and must also be a project.

An analysis of certain undertakings that have famously been termed white elephant projects was done. The analysis revealed that not all of them met (i) and (ii). Thus, not all of them are correctly white elephant projects. Those not meeting (i) and (ii) have erroneously been called white elephant projects. This paper then proffers a correct definition for “white elephant projects”.

Keywords: Project, White elephant, White elephant projects, Project phase, Operations phase


Over the years, what scholars and researchers have termed ‘white elephant projects’ have very differing characteristics. The following four examples illustrate this.

  1. In 2012, the Nigerian Aviation Minister proposed to set up cities (Aerotropolis) in some airports in the country, and a leading Newspaper in the country ran the caption ‘Nigeria: Airport Cities as White Elephant Project’ (The Nigeria Sun, October 7, 2012).
  1. In 2013, Bayelsa State (in Nigeria) Governor deposited a mobilization fee of N3 billion to the management of a construction company for two flyover bridges to be constructed in Yenegoa, the state capital. In response to the news, SaharaReporters (February 16, 2013) reported that ‘Bayelsa state embarks on N15.6 billion white elephant flyover projects’.
  1. After the commencement of construction works in the Lekki Airport (in Lagos, Nigeria), a Nigerian online discussion forum ran the topic “Lekki Airport: White Elephant Project?” A number of responders gave varying reasons why they felt it was a White Elephant project (Nairaland, 2009).
  1. Wikipedia listed the Capetown stadium that was built for the World Cup in South Africa as an example of “some allegedly White Elephant Projects” (Wikipedia, 2013)

The first example was still just a proposal; in the second example, execution work was yet to commence; in the third example, execution work was on-going; and in the last example, execution work has long been completed.

Given that these undertakings have very differing characteristics, should they all be classified by the single term ‘white elephant project’? What sets of criteria should an undertaking meet to be correctly called a White Elephant Project?


To read entire paper (click here)

About the Authors

pmwj19-feb2014-okebugwu-AUTHOR1 OKEBUGWUOnyinhechi F. Okebugwu flag-nigeria

Owerri, Nigeria

Onyinyechi F. Okebugwu has a B.  Tech in Project Management Technology, and is currently writing her thesis, having completed course work for the award of MSc in Project Management. Her area of Interest is Project Human Resource Management, Team Formation, and Team Development.  She can be contacted at [email protected]


pmwj19-feb2014-okebugwu-AUTHOR2 OMAJEHEnoch Oghene-Mairo Omajehflag-nigeria

Owerri, Nigeria

Enoch Oghene-Mairo Omajeh has a B. Tech in Project Management Technology, and is currently writing his Master’s thesis for an MSc in Project Management.  His particular areas of interest are assessing causes of project failures and determining critical factors to project success. Omajeh can be contacted at [email protected].