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In Resources

The Nigerian Population Challenge

Daily Trust Newspaper Pg. 56 Publish Date: Apr 16 2018

Most Nigerians currently have their eyes fixed on 2019 and may not see the bigger existential threats that are barrelling down on us.  Last week, at separate forums in New York and in Lagos, two eminent Nigerians warned us to take the population threat much more seriously than we are doing now. Delivering Nigeria’s statement on Sustainable Cities, Human Mobility and International Migration at the 51st Session of Commission on Population and Development, Chairman of the National Population Commission [NPC] Eze Duruiheoma said our country’s population currently stands at 198 million. This is twelve million more than the World Bank’s estimates of our number two years ago. It is like worrying about a leaking roof when a hurricane is barrelling down on the town.

A simple calculation shows that the average population of a Nigerian state [including FCT] in 2006 was about 5million, meaning we have added the population of two and a half states to Nigeria within two years. This figure also makes us the 7th largest country in the world after China [1.4billion], India [1.35bn], USA [326m], Indonesia [266m], Brazil [210m] and Pakistan [200m]. Not only that; Duruiheoma said in the last 50 years, Nigeria’s urban population grew at an average annual rate of 6.5 percent “without commensurate increase in social amenities and infrastructure.” Our urban population grew from 17.3% in 1967 to 49.4 percent in 2017 and the 2014 World Urbanisation Prospects report predicts that by 2050, 70 percent of our population will be living in cities, overcrowded and short of facilities as they already are.

Separately at the Vanguard Economic Discourse in Lagos on Saturday, top accountant Bode Agusto also sounded a warning.  He said, “When we got independence in 1960, the population of Nigeria was 46 million, Great Britain and Northern Ireland was 52 million – 6 million people more than us. By 2015 the UK moved from 52 million to 62 million but Nigeria moved from 46 million to 185 million. That’s not the end of the story. In another 55 years, by 2070, the UK will be 80 million while Nigeria will be 550 million,” according to Population Pyramid. Let me add here that there is a lot of migration into the UK whereas a lot of people have fled Nigeria through the Sahara Desert to Europe and through planes and ships to South Africa. Without immigration, the disparity between UK and Nigeria would have been starker. 

Even before Duruiheoma and Agusto spoke, I saw UN figures a few years ago projecting that our population will double to 400m by 2050. Phew! Many Nigerians do not see anything alarming about these numbers. They say, as some indeed said at the Vanguard Discourse, that it is what you do with your population that is the issue, not its size. They are right, except that if what we have done with our population so far is any reliable indicator of what we will do with it in the future, then we are heading for a demographic catastrophe. I was looking up at Gross Domestic Product [GDP] figures by countries of the world. Though we are the seventh in population, we are only the 27th in GDP, far behind countries such as Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, Thailand and Iran, all of them with far fewer people than we have.

This combination of a large population but a relatively small economic output translates into a much lower GDP per capita, which is a rough measurement of living standards. In that one we rank number 163 worldwide with a GDP per capita of $5,900. Among those that surpass us are Burma, Angola, Republic of Congo, Fiji Islands, Sri Lanka and Mongolia. Tiny countries with miniscule populations such as Qatar, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Macau, Luxembourg, Falkland Islands, Singapore, Bermuda, Isle of Man and Brunei top the chart with the highest GDP per capita. 

Before we jump to the escapist Nigerian conclusion that high GDP per capita is due to small size, let me remind you that huge countries such as China, India, Brazil, Indonesia and Pakistan [to mention only Third World ones] are also far ahead of us in GDP per capita, which means it is not just a matter of small size. Whether your population is small or big, it is up to you to make it very productive, something that has so far eluded us.

Some speakers at the Vanguard Discourse reportedly said that a big population is not the problem but what we do with it. Frontline labour leader Issa Aremu was reported to have said that “Nigeria’s population can be an asset if government pays workers adequate and proper remuneration. If government channels its spending properly Nigeria’s population could be an advantage.” For now this looks like a chicken and egg problem. How can government pay workers a very good remuneration when the GDP is so small compared to other countries? In any case, with an economy and society such as we have, the danger is that most of the higher wages will be channelled into consumption of foreign goods, which will worsen rather than ameliorate our problems.

Agusto also acknowledged that “population could be turned into a huge asset but only if you do so many things. I believe that our population is only strength if it is well educated, if it is healthy, if the economy in which they reside has the capacity to provide them with jobs and the people living in the households earn good income and are able to afford the goods and services provided by businesses.” When will that happen, at the rate we are going? He also pointed out that if we continue to grow in numbers then “demand for primary schools would be much bigger, the number of teachers we have to pay would be more, the number of schools and classrooms we need to build will increase, the number of vaccines we need to buy to inoculate these children will be more. We need to send them to secondary schools, keep them healthy and after they finish school, we need to find work for them. Otherwise, they’ll become non-earning assets and because we will feed them and clothe them, they are liabilities to the nation.” 

The situation reminds me of the First Law of Holes. It states that “when you are in a hole, stop digging.” We cannot reduce our population because we should not kill anybody, but we should at least reduce the growth rate. If we don’t do so now, it will one day be done much more painfully, like India’s forced sterilisation program of the 1970s or China’s one child per couple policy. We must stop multiplying at some point before we come up against the ultimate limiting factor, which is physical space. Even before that we will run short of farming and grazing land, the increasing clashes between farmers and herdsmen being a good reminder. 

Even if we reduce our ruinous population growth rate, there is the second law of holes which says that “even after you stop digging, you are still in a hole” so you must find a way to climb out. That is to say, we must still find a way to greatly increase national productivity and enhance the quality of our current population. Those of our countrymen that are not happy with my application of the First Law of Holes to our demographic crisis have an alternative law. The Connecticut journal My Left Nutmeg once said President George W. Bush had a different law of holes. It is, “When you find yourself inside of one, deny that you are in a hole.” It also attributed to Bush a Second Law of Holes. It is, “When you find yourself inside of one, keep digging.”