Nigeria Faces a Crippling Population Boom by John Campbell

At a population conference in New York, Chairman of the National Population Commission (NPC) Eze Duruiheoma estimated that the current population of Nigeria is 198 million, and that the population living in urban areas has been growing 6.5 percent annually over the past fifty years. He cites that World Population Prospects prediction that by 2050, Nigeria will displace the United States as the third most populous country in the world after China and India. He also noted the 2014 World Urbanization Prospects prediction that by 2050, 77 percent of Nigeria’s population will be urban. The NPC chairman also looked at the number of internally displaced Nigerians. With respect to the Boko Haram insurrection in the northeast, Duruiheoma estimated that the number of internally displaced is 1.76 million, which is lower than other estimates, some of which can be as high as 2.5 million.

Nigerians know they are by far the most populous country in Africa, and they are proud of it. Estimates of the size of the country’s population range from the World Bank’s 186 million to 205 million by UN agencies. An accurate census is difficult in Nigeria in part because of infrastructure shortcomings. In the past, too, census results have also fueled ethnic and religious conflicts exploited by political figures. Nevertheless, in 2017 the director general of the NPC raised the possibility of a census in 2018. Given the practical and political difficulties and with the prospect of national elections in 2019, that timeframe seems overly optimistic. In the meantime, it is necessary to fall back on careful estimates.

Duruiheoma pointed out in New York that Nigeria’s urban population growth has not been accompanied by a “commensurate increase in social amenities and infrastructure.” More generally, economic growth has not kept up with population growth. Hence, the enormous slums outside city centers. In effect, Nigeria has no population policy that would limit births, and Nigerians have traditionally valued large families. Yet the country’s rapid population growth, especially in urban areas, poses difficult economic, social, and public health challenges. A huge, rapidly growing population is not necessarily a source of national strength.

Despite this controversial tweet to the contrary, the unemployment rate is Nigeria is not actually that high on average. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), the unemployment rate is 5.5 percent (the official unemployment rate for the last quarter is 19 percent). For comparison, Ethiopia’s was 5.4 percent, South Africa’s was 27.3 percent, and the U.S. unemployment rate stands at 4.9 percent. In his book Poor Numbers (2013), Morten Jerven has taught us to be skeptical about African statistics, with the exception of those from South Africa. Nevertheless, the World Bank figures are probably the best to be had, and they try to take into account the informal economy. The reality appears to be that Nigeria has an unemployment rate similar to that of other African states, while South Africa is the outlier.

However, despite a relatively low unemployment rate, most Nigerians are very poor—more than half of the population lives on two U.S. dollars per day or less. Unemployment is certainly an important driver of poverty in South Africa, but poor and unemployed South Africans benefit from a government safety net, and still have a higher standard of living than many employed Nigerians.

Within countries, there can be big regional differences in unemployment. As anybody who has been to Lagos knows, the city is a hive of activity, with literally everybody working at something. The shear energy released in Lagos is striking to outsiders. George Packer’s brilliant 2006 New Yorkerprofile of Lagos comments on the huge range of services offered. Lagosians are never idle. Their civil culture appears to be unsympathetic to beggars, with the important exception of those with visible physical infirmities for whom spontaneous charity of biblical proportions is common. In general, however, the only able-bodied beggars to be found in Lagos, with an estimated population of up to 22 million, are from other parts of Nigeria or West Africa.

Begging and unemployment are more common in the sharia states of the north. The giving of alms is seen as an important religious duty. Beggars are ubiquitous and have long been a part of the social and religious fabric of communities. Children enrolled in Islamic schools, known as madrassas, often split their day between begging and religious studies. The region is poor and generally getting poorer, the result of exploding population growth, climate change, and under-investment in almost everything. Those economic and social realities, coupled with local custom that is sympathetic to it (unlike in southern Nigeria), drive begging. Even before the Boko Haram insurrection, Bornu’s state capital, Maiduguri, was notorious all over West Africa as “the beggar maker.” The treatment of begging distinguishes sharia states from the rest of Nigeria. With respect to unemployment and begging, as with much else, regional differences in Nigeria are important.

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