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Can Africa’s most populous nation provide for 300 million people?

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Starting with the first head count of the Lagos Colony in 1877, there have been many attempts to determine Nigeria’s population.

The numbers have reflected steady growth over time, especially in certain towns and cities that are now recognised as the main population centres: LagosKanoIbadanBeninCity– but not without question marks over the accuracy of the final figures or what/who exactly was counted.

The most recent example comes from 2006. That year’s census pegged Kano at a population of 9,383,682. In the days after, many beer-parlours were asking if the census officers had counted cows as part of that figure.

Animal-related questions aside, that 2006 census is the last to have held in Nigeria. It put the population at 142.6 million people. Compared with the country’s population at independence; 45.14 million people, that’s a staggering increase of 215% in 46 years.

As of December 2016, that figure now sits at 193.3 million, courtesy of estimates from the National Bureau of Statistics; another 33% in a decade.

sarkin Kano mai martaba Muhammad SanusiplayKano is the economic and cultural center of Hausaland. The Sarkin Kano, Emir Lamido Sanusi is the very influential traditional ruler. (Press)

That figure is expected to rise to over 300 million before 2050. “Among the ten largest countries worldwide, Nigeria is growing the most rapidly”, a report from the United Nations’ Department for Economic and Social Affairs says. “Consequently, Nigeria’s population, currently the 7th largest in the world, is projected to surpass that of the United States.”

By this estimation, it will become the third largest country in the world shortly before 2050.

Nigeria’s large population is a major part of its identity. It is the world’s most populated black nation, and is often referred to as the “giant of Africa”.

Historically, major parts of the country have always been high-density areas.

Before the Portuguese and English first anchored their ships, the rich soil and fauna of the Niger Delta supported a large indigenous population. They make up over 40 tribes that now call the area their homeland.

In the North, Hausa kingdoms and the Kanem-Bornu Empire, which covered large parts of the North-East, prospered as trade posts. Large towns and cities grew in those areas.

The culture of the Hausa/Fulani also promoted large families and a high birth rate replaced the numbers.

Today, this is the single most important factor pushing Nigeria’s rising population.

While the global average birth rate sat at 2.45 per woman in 2015, according to figures from the World Bank, Nigeria had an average of 5.6 children to one mother.

Sky-high bills leave Nigerian mothers and newborns trapped in hospitalsplayIn cities like Lagos, large families populate the slums and inner city areas, where the standard of living is poor and health risks are constant. (Reuters)

In truth, Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest birth rate in the world. NigerUgandaMaliZambia and Burundi lead the pack, according to the CIA’s World Factbook.

ALSO READ: Nigeria’s population crisis is a ticking time bomb

Nigeria is projected to be one of the world’s largest economies in coming years.

Consistent economic growth, until 2014 at least, and the emergence of a Lagos as a commercial and financial hub have attracted higher net migration from other neighbouring countries.

That “You will find a Nigerian in every country in the world” is a common saying among the people. Most Nigerians would gladly leave the country to find “greener pastures” overseas.

In recent years, many, mostly young males, have explored various routes to South-Africa, Europe and the United States.

playMore than 600,000 immigrants have reached Italy through Libya since 2014. In the past few months, Libya has deported hundreds of Nigeria who were headed that way. (Press)

In the inverse, more people are crossing the borders from neighbouring countries such as Benin, Cameroon, Niger and Ghana.

Some come to get an education in one of the country’s many universities. Others come for menial work,  or to take a shot at making a living in Africa’s largest economy. Most of them never leave.

Developments in healthcare, yet minimal, have improved life expectancy by a long stretch.

At independence, the average Nigerian male could only expect to live for just over 37 years, according to the World Bank.

46 years later, that had improved to 54.5 years, for both genders, according to the World Health Statistics reportreleased by the World Health Organisation at the end of 2016.

The influence of cultural ideals cannot be ignored. Large families are often associated with prosperity and fruitfulness in Nigeria and most couples often go out of their way to have more than one child.

Whether they can take care of them is a question that comes later, sometimes, too late.

In the past, these large families helped with farm-work or trade. Nigeria’s population boom could have a similar effect on the country’s economy.

playWhile health-care has improved slightly, it is still miles behind the golbal standard. The Nationah Health Insurance Scheme, for instance, is a stuttering project. (The Guardian Nigeria)

More than half of the country’s population is under 30, according to a report by Alhaji Ghaji Bello, Director-General of the National Population Commission.

A young workforce could mean increased output and production in all sectors; ultimately lifting the country out of its dire economic straits and closer towards the level of growth that was previously expected.

That increase in output could also reflect in the emergence of new industries and sectors. An example is a fast-growing tech ecosystem.

In the last few years, the tech community has become one of few success stories and attracted global attention, including visits from Facebook CEOMark Zuckerberg and Google CEOSundar Pichai.

More people also means extra demand for products will be created. The size of the Nigerian market grows with its population: presenting attractive opportunities for investors.

ALSO READ: These ten trends will determine the future of tech in Nigeria

As things are, not many investors are trying to land at Murtala Mohammed International Airport. Nigeria has a lot to do before the weight of more millions begins to fall on it.

First, the government must bridge an infrastructure deficit. Some have claimed it will need over two trillion dollars to do this. Unstable electricity is an age old problem for individuals and businesses.

In 2015, companies blamed the costs of diesel for an exodus that saw many of them leave for neighbouring countries, including Ghana.

Mark Zuckerberg with Andela Lagos team.playAndela is one of the biggest sucess stories of Nigeria’s tech ecosystem. Mark Zuckerberg visited late in 2016. (Andela)

Boko Haram’s guerrilla terrorism has also put insecurity in Nigeria under the spotlight.

The Army claims that the Islamist terrorist group is on the retreat but attacks have become more severe.

In July, the group attacked a team of oil explorers and soldiers in the Lake Chad Basin. More than 50 people are believed to have died in the ambush.

A large population also means more mouths to feed. The country imports most of the food it consumes, mostly rice and other processed foods.

Local food production will have to increase. Successive government have deepened their voices on returning to the farms; but one of them must implement many of the latent policies on agriculture, remove the padding beneath budget figures and invest in preservation and processing to cater to the country’s needs.

On that path, there’s a future where it could possibly reach a surplus and create trade opportunities with neighbouring countries.

A child suffering from malnutrition in an IDP camp in BornoplayHealth workers attend to a malnourished child in one of Maiduguri’s IDP camps. (Today)

Right now, things are crawling down the opposite end. Extreme food inflation came with the recent recession. Insecurity in the North-East has many farmers dead, displaced or afraid to farm, creating food scarcity in many areas.

Presently, parts of Northern Nigeria that are most hard hit by Boko Haram face a famine eight years in the making.

Unemployment is also a major problem that could take on new implications in the future. 14.2% of the population is unemployed, according to a 2016 report from the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics.

ALSO READ: Our neglect of the educational sector is now official

An idle population of youths poses many problems. In the absence of legal alternatives, many of them could be radicalized into insurgency or turn to crime in a bid to earn a living.

Those problems are festering at the moment. Internet fraud supports a lot of Lagos’ flashy nights and a strong, ruthless sub-culture is growing around it.

In the North of the country, Boko Haram and other Islamist groups recruit young people to replenish their forces.

This year, there have been 83 suicide bombings by children — four times more than there were in 2016.

All this has happened, while disgruntled youth in the Niger-Delta have promised a return to militant violence. They protest the neglect of the region’s people and its environment.

playThe rice fields of Jos and Ebonyi provide local rice, but production is too low to sustain the national demand (Press.1)

As Nigeria nears the 300 million mark, these underlying issues of fragmentation and resource control must be resolved.

A larger population means more sectional leaders will emerge with ideas that question the basis and ideals of the nation’s unity.

In the East, the clamour for Biafra continues to get louder, spurred by Nnamdi Kanu’s colourful, apocalyptic rhetoric. There have also been calls for restructuring, led by many of the country’s politicians and lawmakers.

President Buhari has said Nigeria’s unity is non-negotiable, but that did not distract many from the reality that it is still a major question. Whether it remains a republic or explores “true federalism”, Nigeria is nearing a change that it did not vote for.

In July 2017, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Audu Ogbeh said, “By November we will be self-sufficient in rice production. We will no longer need to import rice” —  but the country only produces 500 thousand tonnes of rice, 2 million less than it consumes.

Except there are experts on their way from Thailand to start a compulsory rice farming scheme, claims like Audu Ogbeh’s will offer no recourse.

Can Africa’s most populous nation provide for 300 million people?

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