Nigeria’s Population Predicament, By Chris Ngwodo
Ten years ago, observers warily noted Nigeria’s surging population growth and predicted that she would either reap a demographic dividend or suffer all the deleterious effects of a population explosion. Many Nigerians erroneously conflate their country’s huge population with a wealth of human capital, but sheer numbers are not in themselves synonymous with human capital.
Beneath the din of a politically charged news cycle, the raw underlying realities of Nigerian existence can escape us but there is perhaps a metanarrative that explains all narratives. After the end of the civil war, Nigeria’s elites decided that the best way to avoid a reprise of that tragic conflict was to ensure equitable distribution of oil revenues among all sections of the country. Under this brand of rentier socialism, each state would get a fair share of the national cake. Several decades and aborted development plans later, this elite consensus is now unravelling under the quadruple assault of a fast-growing population, declining oil revenues, climate change and bad governance.
In 1970, Nigeria’s population stood at 55 million. Since then the country’s population (now put at 193 million) has almost quadrupled but its economy has remained a static mono-resource economy built almost entirely around oil extraction – an activity which cannot sustain long term economic growth. To underscore this vulnerability, in 2015, oil price shocks wiped out 55 percent of the country’s oil revenues.
There are 90 million Nigerians under the age of 30 who require education, jobs, healthcare and social infrastructure. If this population were reckoned as a single constituency, it would be Africa’s second most populous nation. To put the scale of the need in perspective consider that in 1973 when the National Youth Service Corps was established, the intake consisted of 2,634 pioneer members. The NYSC now mobilises between 300,000 to 400,000 youth corps members annually. If there is any valid summary of Nigeria’s developmental debacle, it is surely that she is a young country that does not know what to do with her youthful population.
Ten years ago, observers warily noted Nigeria’s surging population growth and predicted that she would either reap a demographic dividend or suffer all the deleterious effects of a population explosion. Many Nigerians erroneously conflate their country’s huge population with a wealth of human capital, but sheer numbers are not in themselves synonymous with human capital. India and China transformed their vast populations into world class talent pools through deliberate investments in education. In Nigeria, the demographic dividend has not materialised. Just as she failed to maximise her wealth of hydrocarbons and other natural resources through value addition and beneficiation, Nigeria has failed to translate her population into a skilled workforce by investing in education.
An estimated 10.5 million out-of-school children – a figure five times the population of Botswana – surely do not constitute human capital. And this is apart from the distressingly large population of young unskilled persons of working age. Nigeria would at least have represented a lucrative market were most of that population not so poor. Thus, by every indicator, her population is less a propulsive force than a burden.
The Ghost of Malthus
In 1982, The Economist observed that “In Nigeria, as in all tropical Africa, the economic theories under test are not those of Marx or Marshall or Keynes, but of the more ancient Malthus.” Thomas Malthus was the 19th century English scholar who theorised that population growth would exceed food production and trigger destabilising food shortages in Europe. At the time of Malthus’s writing, Europe was experiencing a population boom with overcrowded cities, rural areas wracked by under-employment and overcongested jails, countryside hovels, pauper houses and asylums. Malthus believed that “the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.” An ever-widening gap between the people’s food demands and the land’s capacity to meet them would result in increasing starvation and deprivation, mass deaths through famine and disease, and a rending of the social fabric.
The industrial revolution, the emergence of technologies which dramatically boosted agricultural productivity and the expansion of trade, which enabled cheap food imports meant that Malthus’s demographic apocalypse did not materialise. In Nigeria, which is still significantly agrarian, these buffers do not exist. Food production has not kept pace with population growth. Although agriculture accounts for two-thirds of the labour force, agricultural productivity is undermined by the preponderance of small-holder farming, dependence on rain-fed agriculture, limited adoption of technologies and a weak agricultural extension system.
The progressive shrinkage of arable land due to desertification and deforestation, especially in Northern Nigeria, has taken a toll. Between 1990 and 2005, Nigeria lost 39.2 percent of its forest and woodland habitat. The loss of arable land and the resultant dislocation of disinherited farmers from their rural homesteads is an unremarked factor of the rising insecurity index. These economic refugees have flocked to cities where, lacking the skills to earn livelihoods, they marinate in urban poverty, and inevitably fall into the vortex of crime or under the sway of extremist preachers.
The most dramatic social consequence of climate change is the increasingly bloody conflict between farmers and herders, as both economic groups battle over control of shrinking arable land with the added fuel of toxic identity politics further compounding issues. Conflicts over ecological resources are a significant motif in the mosaic of violence in Nigeria. In 2003, in Yobe State, an altercation between an ultraconservative Islamist sect and a local woman over fishing rights in a communal pond during which the latter was assaulted, led the state government to expel the sect and is a little-known footnote in the genesis of Boko Haram’s insurgency.
The Rwandan genocide is probably the most pungent example of how Malthusian pressures ignite conflict. The ecologist Jared Diamond has linked the genocide to the decline in per capita food production in an agrarian economy compounded by drought, overworked soil and deforestation.
Fight or Flight
The Nigerian society is responding to these stressors the way a human body would in accordance with the neurobiological imperative of “fight or flight”. Confronted by diminishing oil money, scarcity of social and economic opportunity and rampant inequality, the generations that emerged as part of Nigeria’s post-civil war baby boom are locked in the suffocating funk of existential hopelessness. Since the 1980s, Nigerians have simply voted with their feet, fleeing in droves to foreign climes, in the quest for self-actualisation in an epic migration of talent that has swelled one of the world’s largest diasporic communities. The spectacle of Nigerians risking everything in perilous journeys across the Sahara and the Mediterranean to reach Europe underscores the undying allure of the myth of the foreign El Dorado and the desperation of their local circumstances.
Those who lack the means of joining this exodus seek more unorthodox forms of escape. Existential hopelessness is undoubtedly behind the escalating crisis of opioid addiction – a contagion that is stealthily destroying lives and fueling a public health crisis and a national security emergency.
The alternative to fleeing is to simply fight for survival or for a niche at the top of the totem pole in what increasingly resembles an experiment in social Darwinism. When a wildlife population spirals out of control, it is culled. Think of the society as an ecosystem seeking to reestablish balance. Crime, conflict and punishment are how state and society attempt to achieve this balance. It is no surprise that the state has long abandoned even lip service commitment to reformative outcomes from the criminal justice system. Kidnapping and armed robbery are capital offences. When armed robbery spiked after the end of the civil war, the government’s response was the public execution of convicts at the Bar Beach, turning what should have been a tourist destination into a theatre of grisly spectacles.
Extrajudicial executions by law enforcement authorities and vigilantes are common. Communal conflicts frequently verge on near mutual genocide and ethnic cleansing. These tensions will intensify as birth rates continue to surge beyond all other indices. The retention and potential expansion of capital punishment, chronic conflict and violent crime may be regarded as inadvertent population control measures.
The Rwandan genocide is probably the most pungent example of how Malthusian pressures ignite conflict. The ecologist Jared Diamond has linked the genocide to the decline in per capita food production in an agrarian economy compounded by drought, overworked soil and deforestation. As Rwanda’s population rose after independence in 1962, the country persisted in its traditional agricultural techniques. It failed to modernise, to introduce more productive crop varieties, to vary its agricultural exports or to implement effective planned parenting to curb runaway population growth. To accommodate the growing population, forests were cleared, and marshes were drained to gain new farmland. Fallow periods were shortened as farmers tried to extract two or three consecutive crops from a field within one year.
The confluence of these factors led to a drastic increase in violence carried out by an unsustainably high population of landless and hungry young males. While political elites orchestrated the killings for political reasons, the scale on which they were carried out by ordinary Rwandans, the sheer availability of murderous mobs intent on annihilating their enemies, was due to prevailing socio-economic conditions that made violence inevitable.
In Nigeria, climate change, a rising population and shrinking revenues all constitute a perfect storm, but they are not in themselves deterministic. The critical accelerants are bad governance and toxic politics. There is no shortage of rogue populists, demagogues and extremists seeking to capitalise on mass discontent and sectional resentments…
The Politics and Geopolitics of Numbers
In Nigeria, climate change, a rising population and shrinking revenues all constitute a perfect storm, but they are not in themselves deterministic. The critical accelerants are bad governance and toxic politics. There is no shortage of rogue populists, demagogues and extremists seeking to capitalise on mass discontent and sectional resentments for their own narrow ends.
The politicisation of population figures, which determines access to resources and accounts for Nigeria’s chronic inability to conduct a credible census also creates perverse incentives. The inter-regional scramble for power and resources means that there is not a great deal of political enthusiasm for population management policies. The belief is that having more people guarantees access to more resources but the no-holds-barred struggle for resources, which defines Nigerian politics amounts to little more than a gaggle of bald men fighting over a comb. With a diminishing revenue profile, a surging population and most states bankrupt and laying up debt burdens for future generations, what lies before millions of Nigerians is not a national cake but the bread of adversity.
Not all these challenges emanate from government. Many Nigerians oppose population policies and there is great cultural resistance to birth control and planned parenthood. High birth rates are sustained partly by the belief that prolific reproduction fulfils a divine injunction. The rejection of vaccines in Northern Nigeria during the mid-2000s was driven by the widespread belief that it was a Western ploy to reduce the region’s population. To be sure, foreign nations can probably be accused of something even more insidious. Although the news is dominated by the xenophobic anti-immigrant sentiment of right-wing groups in Europe and America, Western nations which are grappling with low birth rates are using social engineering to renew their aging societies.
Their strategically selective migration policies harvest high value persons – Africa’s young highly skilled citizens – while locking out low-skilled citizens and leaving poor countries shorn of the human capital that they desperately need for growth. These underdeveloped and often conflict-prone enclaves eventually become sites of opportunity for the foreign aid industry and military industrial complexes.
It will take good governance – as it did everywhere else – to reduce child mortality which is the main driver of high birth rates, as anxious denizens try to hedge their reproductive bets against hostile existential conditions. This also calls for an aggressive focus on educating girls, which historically has been one of the factors that have led to reduced birth rates. Even so, procreative profligacy is a problem that calls for much sociocultural advocacy and well-thought-out policy interventions. In his book, The Trapped Economy, the economist Ibrahim Ayagi noted that Nigerians believe that the welfare of all Nigerians regardless of their number is the responsibility of the Nigerian government; to educate them, look after and provide for their health and general wellbeing and create jobs and provide employment for them. This paradigm must now be discarded.
The situation is lent an added urgency by the high cost of governance. Politics must be refocussed on productivity and innovation rather than the self-destructive bickering over spoils. Nigeria can no longer subsidise the unhinged appetites of her governing elites who constitute a minority of the population, and at the same time purport to adequately invest in her people. Something must give. Choices are upon us.
Chris Ngwodo is a writer, consultant and analyst.