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Nigeria's population boom: Path to poverty or prosperity?

July 14, 2023

Nigeria's population is growing at an exponential rate. Harnessing the potential of youth is possible if the right measures are taken, experts say. Otherwise, the country's problems could grow worse.

Bird's eye view of a market in Lagos
Nigeria's population is set to double to more than 401 million by 2050Image: Emmanuel Osodi/AA/picture alliance

Sani Umaru, a resident of the large slum of Makoko near Lagos, Nigeria's most populous city, has three wives and 18 children. "Having a large family is a blessing from God. I am a product of a large family. I like a large family. As a youth, I decided that, when I was older, I would have a large family," Umaru told DW.

According to UN estimates, Nigeria's total population will double from 200 million to more than 401 million by 2050. If the trend isn't stopped, it will exceed 728 million by 2100. 

Michael Ayamga, the director of the West Africa Center for Sustainable Rural Transformation, said Nigeria needs to take urgent preventive measures.

"We also need to start intensifying some birth control education," he said, emphasizing that growth in itself wasn't bad. But, he added, "we need to manage and be able to control the rate at which it goes."

Schoolchildren in Makoko buy food on the waterfront
The population is growing rapidly in Lagos' Makoko fishing community, where men marry many wivesImage: Emmanuel Osodi/UIG/IMAGO

Nigeria's fertility rate stands at 5.1 children per woman, compared with the global rate of 2.4 births per woman.  

Nigeria facing challenges of a growing population

According to UNICEF, more than 65 million people in Nigeria are between the ages of 10 and 24. 

"These young people will grow up and enter into what we call the reproductive age," John Oyefara, a professor of demography at the University of Lagos, told DW. He said this would cause the population to grow even further.

Oyefara said population growth could be an asset for Nigeria, but he warned that "we are not doing what we need to do to tap into these potentials, and we have not even started yet."

Lagos feels the pressure of population growth

Nigeria's difficulties, which range from acute poverty to political instability, will increase if population growth remains out of control, experts have said.

Citizens such as Joseph Blabo say they are aware of the problem and the need to do something about it. "Growing up watching the situation of the country, how the economy gets worse by the day, I think that I really made a good decision not wanting to have too many children," he told DW. He said it was hard to care for many children at the same time and ensure their future.

"The resources available are unable to meet the basic needs of the growing population," said Oyefara. "This has resulted in inadequate facilities in our health sector, food security, housing, transportation and even employment."

According to the World Bank, unemployment in Nigeria grew from 6.4% in 2010 to 33.3% at the end of 2020. Estimates point to an employment rate of more than 40% in 2023, and the situation is especially dire for the young.

'You have to turn the population into human capital'

"They now turn out to be available hands to be recruited by terrorists and bandits," said Oyefara, referring to the country's young population. 

He added that curbing population growth would be impossible; the only option was to properly manage the situation. Otherwise, "there will be more crises, insurgency, poverty and insecurity," he said.

Three young Nigerians waiting for work
Young Nigerians have been struggling with high unemployment rates Image: Thomas Lohnes/epd/imago images

Ayamga of the West Africa Center for Sustainable Rural Transformation was more optimistic about the future, provided some conditions are met. He pointed to China and India as countries that bet on educating the population, and called on Africa to do the same.

"Focus must be on reorienting our educational curricula and changing our educational system to provide relevant training for the future," he said.

Nigeria needed to follow the example of China and India and create an environment that allows its young to prosper, he added.

"India and China developed the capacity of the young people in IT and in other areas that have to do with technology," Ayamga said. "Then they started to outsource these competences to other jurisdictions that needed them. This is exactly what needs to start happening: You have to turn the population into human capital."

Samuel Olukoya contributed to this article

Edited by: Cristina Krippahl