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Africa, Governance, Leadership, Nigeria, West Africa

Many People, Fewer Farmers,Congested Cities: Nigeria’s Demographic Dividend


Nigeria will face many complicated and divisive challenges in the next few decades.  How President Jonathan and his successors address these challenges, and attempt to meet and overcome them, will determine the ultimate fate of Nigeria and Nigerians, and also of sub-Saharan Africa.

Those challenges include an anticipated massive surge in population which, in turn, will create critical challenges concerning urbanization, education, health, personal and food security, and such troublesome matters as piracy and ethnic sectionalism and conflict. Not least, the coming demographic upheaval will test Nigeria’s ability to govern itself, stress leadership and all manner of politics, and prove (optimistically) an economic bonanza or (pessimistically) an economic disaster.

Stability is in question whenever there are cataclysmic demographic shifts being predicted, no less so in Nigeria.  The nation’s stability will be compromised if its leaders are unaware of their post-demographic choices, or if they ignore the demographic realities and do nothing to take advantage of population surges.




Africa has always depended on its people. Their industry; their intrinsic innovativeness; and their resilience in the face of the challenges of debilitating diseases, limited educational opportunities, poor soils, challenging rainfalls, and intense poverty have permitted many unexpected triumphs over adversity. But until now their total people numbers have not been worryingly large, compared to the rest of the world. Nor have those cascading numbers threatened to diminish the past decade’s healthy per capita economic growth advances.


Sub-Saharan African fertility rates hitherto have not greatly exceeded those of the rest of the globe, their youth proportions not grown exponentially, or their urban inhabitant percentages equaled those of Asia. Nor have their probable pressures on available national resources ever seemed so stark. Over the next decade, and for the remainder of the twenty-first century, all of these relatively comfortable expectations will shift. Nigeria, now 162 million and the ninth largest nation-state in the world, will grow and grow until at the end of the century it holds 730 million people and becomes the third largest polity on the planet. How Nigeria takes advantage of its new demographical opportunities and realities will determine how it advances, and how its people prosper.


Population Growth and its Implications


Nigeria will grow from 162 million now to 258 million in 2030, 390 million in 2050, and 730 in 2100. No other country will be so well-peopled in Africa over the century. More than one-fifth of all sub-Saharan Africans (3.4 billion in 2100) will be Nigerian compared to less than one-fifth now. (In 2030 there will be 1.3 billion sub-Saharan Africans, in 2050 nearly 2 billion.) This massive growth is based on the assumptions that local fertility rates per woman will decline only slowly, from 5+ to 4+ in the next twenty years, dipping under 4 per woman after 2035, and that the yearly percentage of population growth, now well over 2.5 percent, shifts under 2.1 percent (the replacement rate) annually only in the decades after 2045.


The median age of Nigerians is predicted to remain between 18 and 20 until 2040. Ten years later it will be 23. At that point, 420 Nigerians will inhabit the single sq. km of the country, contrasted with 173 now.


Implicitly, for Nigeria and the rest of Africa and the world, the UN Population Division presumes that natural disaster, increases in literacy and educational attainments, the results of catastrophic climate alterations, the spread of new and old diseases, intensive population planning, and major interstate wars and intrastate conflicts will not slow population growth severely.


Will the Nigerians who now feed themselves still be able to do so? Will agricultural pressure of people on the desiccated lands of the Sahel, combined with the probable effects of global warming, mean a rapid creep southward of Saharan desertification across Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, and the Sudan? Will the larger places, such as Nigeria, which have relied for decades on trading oil revenues for food imports, still be able to import foodstuffs and other consumables in the quantities necessary for such expanded populations? Will the poorest countries in the world on average manage to continue growing rapidly to provide education and health services for their ever larger populations? How will they manage the inevitable social stresses of enhanced populations characterized by prominent youth bulges? How and when will the necessary jobs be created? If they are not, what is in store for Nigerians?


Answers to these real questions depend on endless imponderables. But Nigeria does have both the opportunity and the responsibility to attempt to answer these questions beforehand – to take heed and plan.  If Nigeria’s leaders plan ahead they can counter desertification and diversify their food security resources.  Ultimately, if President Jonathan and his successors are able, they will guide Nigerians to acceptable and fair answers.


The Cities


More Africans than ever before will live in towns over 5000 and in much larger and much more crowded cities and metropolitan areas. In coming decades their numbers will triple, and sub-Saharan Africa will no longer be predominantly rural, with much of daily life focused on success in an urban surround rather than on subsistence or commercial farming. Today’s African population is already very heavily urbanized, at more than 40 percent of the total. In 2030, according to UN Habitat, half of all sub-Saharan Africans (800,000) will be city dwellers. In 2050, 1.2 billion sub-Saharan Africans, or 60 percent of the total, will be born, nurtured, schooled, and socialized in large urban environments. As the UN Habitat says poignantly, whereas in 2010 African cities held 410 million people, by 2050 they must find a way to include an additional 517 million, some in intermediate as well as capital cities.[1]  Nigerians will be the largest factors in this equation, as the numbers in the opening paragraphs show.


Nigeria has for centuries been a big state with an active urban tradition. Heinrich Barth, the German explorer, saw how industrious, vital, and populous northern Nigeria’s Muslim cities were in the middle of the nineteenth century, when they were hubs of a far-flung trading network. Others were impressed by the Nigerian city-states of the south, especially Benin.[2] Not only are Lagos, Ibadan, Kano, Kaduna, Port Harcourt, and Benin today overflowing with millions, but beleaguered Maiduguri holds almost 1 million persons, Zaria 899,000, and lesser celebrated entities such as Aba, Ogbomosho, Onitsha, Ilorin, Jos, Abeokuta, Warri, and Sokoto all count more than a half million people within their jurisdictions. Bauchi, Calabar, Akure, Ife, Iseyin, Minna, and Okene are not far behind, trailed by forty, mostly southern, cities with populations of more than 100,000. Nigeria is obviously urban, and becoming more so by the day. No end to this process of citification is in sight, at least not in this century. Since Nigeria already has many problems meeting the expectations of its vocal and long-suffering citizens, it is not clear how Africa’s largest nation-state will manage to satisfy them, and everyone as yet unborn, as they expand the country’s major cities and turn small towns into major new metropolises. Despite its almost limitless petroleum wealth, Nigeria today provides poorly for its citizens.

When their ranks are swelled, in 2020 or 2030, how will Nigerian governments perform and provide?


Additionally, nearly all of Nigeria major commercial cities will continue to draw in-comers from distant and near rural areas and from smaller towns and cities. Most Nigerian states have dominant commercial centers that attract people like giant magnets and suck the commercial air out of the countryside. Even when their slums are fetid and notorious, their jobs limited, and their infrastructures underwhelming, these central cities usually dominate the political and economic horizons of those who enter them and choose to reside in their midst. Transport is easier, markets fuller, and services more available. There is access to television, to the Internet, and to credit.


People, even the poorest of the poor, often choose unwisely. But in coming to central cities they are implicitly calculating a cost-benefit outcome that favors the city (with its promise or myth of comparable prosperity) over a stagnant or decaying village environment. Cocoa growers can stay on their farms. So can coffee growers and those raising vegetables and fruits for local markets. But the subsistence maize, manioc, or yam provider, dependent as she and he is on quixotic drops of rain and inputs of costly fertilizers, often feels unable to remain at home. He or she migrates along with the petty village trader fearing competition from Chinese entrepreneurs directly, or from their low-priced merchandise offerings.


There are political answers to all of these questions.  But, given how dysfunctional Nigerian politics remains, and how corrupt the states and the nation are, we should not be overly encouraged about Nigeria’s ability to meet the challenges posed by its exploding cities and its compromised rural areas.  Resilience is one thing, and political ineptitude another.



Clearly, Nigeria has already undergone a little known transition from villages and small rural trading centers to great agglomerations, with their myriad celebrated and uncelebrated square miles of shacks – “misery villas,” their social service problems (water and power), their overloaded or non-existent utilities, absent or overloaded sewage systems, their high rates of crime; their deficient and potholed roads; and their massive dependence on informal economic pursuits. All of these challenges will double and re-double in intensity if Nigerian demographical projections prove accurate. Even if those projections are only realized imperfectly, sub-Saharan Africa’s problems will have multiplied enormously. Again, can the resilient peoples of Nigeria  cope with these additional stressors? Major cities will become more overcrowded with squatters — perhaps half of the total everywhere, intermediate cities will escalate in size. Insignificant towns will become important urban places. By 2050, if not before, much of Nigeria will be urban to its very core. With very large youth bulges, insufficient school and employment opportunities, and a profound lack of housing stock, the challenges for the government of Nigeria could become overwhelming unless its leaders focus on how they can transform their nation and alter its approach from mere coping to progressive anticipation..


The Youth Bulge


In the decades ahead, Nigeria’s cities will feel the massive unsettling effect of its projected preponderance of young people. There will be many more Africans aged 15 to 35 than on any other continent, and for much longer. Policy makers in Nigeria (and beyond) will perforce become conscious of the powerful influence of youthful elements for much of the remainder of this century. The median age of Nigeria remains under 25 until 2050. As a bulge, its cluster of young people will thus represent a massive proportion of each Nigerian state’s population. As a succession of age-designated groups pulse through Nigeria’s decades, their potential political importance will only be equaled by their societal significance. In politics, they will be the largest voting bloc. They will demand social services. As potential members of the middle class, they will not remain content with Nigerian “business as usual.” If Nigeria is capable of educating them and providing sufficient health care, and if the state and private enterprise can together offer employment opportunities that equal net new jobs to match the bulges, the impact of these vast population bursts could become less sharp and disruptive. If not, if the aspirations and expectations of these young men and women are less than fully satisfied – if their disillusionment and sense of rejection becomes the norm – Nigeria by mid-century, if not well before, will find itself under intolerable strains from its surging, possibly aggrieved, people pressures.


Can sprawling and contentious Nigeria, with its outsize, unruly, ambitious, youthful populations cope satisfactorily? Will Nigeria be able to channel the energies and ambitions of its young peoples over the next several decades into constructive, productive, pursuits? Or will these youth bulges prove destructive and the fodder of intensified civil conflict, crime, and social unrest?


Answers to these important questions depend on leadership responses. If the coming of the youth bulge is ignored, Boko Haram and MEND may be regard in future as but minor social distractions.


The Demographic Dividend


Nigeria could emulate Asia. Much of Asia benefited significantly from growing population numbers in the 1980s and 1990s, and from the wedge of working-age citizens that naturally accompanied that surge. Asia was poised to educate its new young people, and did so to dramatic effect in Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, and Taiwan. Investment in the upcoming generations of their young people enhanced productivity, attracted foreign investors, boosted personal incomes and consumer spending, led through a healthy multiplier effect to great advances in national GDPs and consequent continuous improvements in the living standards of succession of youthful cohorts, and finally caused lowered fertility rates that boosted per capita incomes and improved dependency ratios (the ratio of children and pensioners to the entire national population). In the 1960s, Africa’s dependency ratio was ten points higher than East Asia’s; fifty years later the dependency ratio in East Asia was forty points lower than Africa’s. That, for East Asia, was the happy demographic dividend: more and more workers could support those younger than 15 and older than 35, leading to well-received and prosperous outcomes because official policies were put in place nearly everywhere in Asia to take full advantage of the dividend’s potential. The tigers (and some near tigers, like Indonesia) did so, and prospered as nations together with their many young citizens.


Nigerians could claim the same opportunity, and make it their own.  Nigeria could well follow Asia, and ride high anticipated population waves toward the long deferred goal of higher real incomes and social attainments. But transforming that claim into a substantive opportunity is far from guaranteed. What will make a major difference between success and failure is a replica or at least a near replica of the serendipitously wise policy solutions devised in Asia. Those included sensible macroeconomic decisions regarding the openness and stability of economies, meaningful attacks on prevalent patterns of corruption, the considered reduction of conflict and war-mongering, transparent elections and political stability, overall good governance, and – critically vital – responsible and far-sighted leadership.


A plethora of young people of working age capable of boosting production and providing an engine of growth for an entire country and an entire sub-continent offers the great hope. But, in order to take full advantage of the potential productive capacities of this youth surge, new jobs are critical. Yet accomplishing employment creation seems an unusually difficult recipe for Africa in 2012, when Nigeria is awash with unemployment and underemployment.

Thus, to provide even low-wage positions for new waves of job seekers seems a tall order unless Nigeria’s politicians can copy the Asian formula. To have any hope of meeting the needs of people in the bulge, and their nations more generally, they must seek ways to grow even faster than many sub-Saharan African countries grew in the 2005-2011 period, i.e. at 6 percent and more annually. Much will depend on China’s enduring appetite for African products and resources, on improving the skills of Nigeria’s young people, on measurably strengthening governance in the weaker sectors of Nigeria, on avoiding Dutch disease (always a Nigerian problem), and on minimizing intrastate tensions that roil the prevailing peace. Otherwise the dividend could become a disaster.


The downside of the many opportunities presented by this decade’s population explosion comprise the numerous challenges ahead: the vast array of new de-ruralized mouths to feed, to house, to educate, to care for medically, and to socialize. Still inchoate Nigerian states are fractured in ways that Asia’s polities were not; the modern Nigerian nation has still to be built. Nigeria, by providing conditions attractive to investors, must help to create net new jobs sufficient in number to address most of the needs of its expanding worker pool. Alternatively, the policies of an unenlightened Nigerian government may well discourage industries and service entities from employing more and more of the newly minted workers, and they may frighten foreign investors.


Bigger populations, year after year, will demand infrastructural improvements of all kinds – more and better-equipped schools and hospitals, paved roads and better bridges, deeper ports, longer airport runways, stronger and faster railways, storage depots, potable water and sanitation system upgrades, telephonic and Internet connections, larger and better hospitals, and much more. They will demand assistance to work the land more effectively, especially in those sections of Nigeria that have yet to be farmed intensively. Policies that help farmers stay on their farms, profitably, will have positive returns; those policies that drive farmers and their offspring into the cities will exacerbate existing urban problems and conceivably sabotage the realization of a demographic dividend.  Can Nigeria meet these challenges?  Experts have their doubts.


Feeding the Huddled Masses


Somehow, the new Nigerian urban masses will have to be fed. As the developed world urbanized in previous centuries and farmers left their distant agricultural holdings to crowd the industrializing cities, so the remaining people working the land became more productive. Malthus was wrong and the cornucopia believers right. But absent sensible new credit and modern tenure policies, favorable inputs, and enhanced security for their lonely operations, African agricultural possibilities could deteriorate alarmingly. Credit is everywhere scarce and seeds and fertilizer, like other essential inputs, either hard to obtain or wildly expensive. Agricultural extension or assistance services, widely available in colonial times, no longer exist. The Asian tigers were able to feed their urban populations by raising incomes generally, so the proceeds of industrialization easily purchased essential staples and other comestibles from abroad, or from their own productive farming sectors. To do so, they managed to offer their own farmers incentives sufficient and real prices high enough to encourage continued agricultural growth. Nigerians over the last few decades have done the opposite, subsidizing urban consumers for political purposes and devaluing and under-compensating farmers. If the urban masses are to be food sufficient, Nigeria will need to adopt more sensible and more effective policies that include an effective battle against corruption and crime. Otherwise the demographic dividend will indeed become disaster.


Since Nigeria’s people numbers will almost inevitably be immense, and since Nigerian leaders have no real way to stop the population juggernaut from pulsing through the coming decades, overwhelming their states and the nation, it obviously behooves President Jonathan and his successors to pay attention – quickly to craft sensible and far-sighted policies to harness the engine of population rather than to try, Canute-like, to hold population increases back or to wish them away. Good leadership gives the demographic engine appropriate fuel and steers it well. Only by developing that leadership in the appropriate political, economic, agricultural, and educational arenas will Africa be able to make the promised dividend pay, and pay well. The future social and economic betterment of Nigeria depends on leaders and governments coping effectively and intelligently  with the demographic juggernaut. Politics as usual will not be enough. Nor will an atmosphere of perpetual insecurity contribute to resolving the stresses of population growth. Those are among Nigeria’s greatest challenges.




[1] UN Habitat, State of African Cities, 2010,,  accessed 13 December 2011. See also UNFPA, “Planning Ahead for the Growth of Cities,” State of the World Population, 2011  77-92

[2]  See Heinrich Barth, Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa…1849-1855 (London, 1857-1858), 5v.



One thought on “Many People, Fewer Farmers,Congested Cities: Nigeria’s Demographic Dividend

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