YESTERDAY, I gave the 9th Annual Population Lecture Series of the National Population Commission on the theme of population, rights and peace. I agreed with Bode Augusto that the popular saying that: “Nigeria’s population is a strength” that could provide a demographic dividend, is false. As he argued: “Population is only a strength if it is well educated, healthy, the economy has the capacity to provide them with employment and households have enough income to buy goods and services produced by businesses.”

He adds correctly, that one of Nigeria’s biggest problems is uncontrolled population growth:
“Every year, we add 5 million people to our population. This is roughly the size of Liberia or Montenegro. In 1960, the population of the UK was 52 million while that of Nigeria was 46 million, by 2015 the UK was 62 million while Nigeria was 185 million and by 2070, Nigeria will be 550 million while the UK will be only 80 million! This means that over a period of 110 years, Nigeria will add over 500 million to her population whilst the UK would add only 30 million and the UK was coming from a higher base. This is frightening!”

The most important contemporary problem for Nigeria is the lack of opportunity for the youth. The country has developed a huge youth bulge that has been growing rapidly. This is happening at a time in which formal opportunities for employment are declining and having a job has become a minority experience. The North is the most affected region in the country in this regard. The North, especially the North East and North West are the most backward region of Nigeria in all social sectors. It has the highest birth rate in the contemporary world, the lowest level of economic development, the least access to education and the poorest network of health facilities and staff. The population of the North is growing at a higher rate than the rest of the country thereby deepening poverty rates.

The population growth rate is a problem because Nigeria has been characterized as the poverty capital of the world, with 93.9 people currently living below the poverty line says Mr. Bismarck Rewane – seven million Nigerians fell into extreme poverty in 2020. Nigeria, he says, with its 200 million plus population, was first declared world’s poverty capital in 2018 in a report by the Brookings Institution, knocking off India from the position. According to the report, the number of Nigerians in extreme poverty increases by six people every minute.

No regime in Nigeria’s history has borrowed as extensively as the Buhari Administration. According to Dr. Doyin Salami, the Chair of the Economic Advisory Council to the President, Nigeria’s current debt stock is unsustainable with a service to revenue ratio of 98% and increasing, even if the debt to GDP ratio is a relatively low 35%. We have been borrowing massively to pay for recurrent budget expenditure while revenues have not been reducing rather than growing. The main concern is the high rate of growth of the debt stock. We are leaving a toxic legacy to young Nigerians who would be left with the debt burden. No generation of leaders should be so wicked.

Poverty in Nigeria is not evenly spread. The number of people living in poverty in the Northern region has been increasing since 2011 and in 2016, it represented 87 percent of all poor in Nigeria. In contrast, the South is achieving greater progress, with around 12 percent of its population living in poverty in 2016. In general, inequality has increased in recent years, as indicated by the Gini coefficient increase from 0.36 to 0.42 between 2011 and 2016, a situation that fuels instability and conflicts which is our concern in this report.

The most important contemporary problem for Nigeria is the lack of opportunity for the youth. The country has developed a huge youth bulge that has been growing rapidly. This is happening at a time in which formal opportunities for employment are declining and having a job has become a minority experience. The North is the most affected region in the country in this regard. The North, especially the North East and North West are the most backward region of Nigeria in all social sectors. It has the highest birth rate in the contemporary world, the lowest level of economic development, the least access to education and the poorest network of health facilities and staff. The population of the North is growing at a higher rate than the rest of the country thereby deepening poverty rates.

Nigeria’s most feasible policy option is to begin to engage in public education about the advantages of smaller families where resources to educate and maintain the children are more available. Nonetheless, cultural resistance to such a policy might be very high. By simply keeping girls in school until they are at least 18-years old, there would be a significant reduction in the fertility rate. As Famoroti has argued: “Education is the least invasive contraceptive”. He also points out that historically, female empowerment has even been more essential in bringing down birth rates. Empowering women in and outside the home – in the workplace, politics, religious institutions, etc. will lead them to make different decisions regarding bearing and raising children.

In Nigeria, in 2015, fertility rate was 5.5 births per woman but increased in 2016 to 5.8. This means that women in Nigeria will have on the average 5.8 children each during their entire childbearing years. The North has higher fertility rates than the rest of the country with Jigawa State recording the highest fertility rate of 8.5 and Kano 7.7 according to the 2016 survey conducted by the National Bureau of Statistics. The problem generated by this very large family sizes has manifested itself in the persistent trend of sending boys off to almajiranci and girls into child marriage in the North East and North West. The practice is often justified on religious grounds. The pressure of feeding large families with lots of children is significant and might very well play a push factor role in getting these children out of the family responsibility in their early teens. If it is not a poverty issue, why do most elite families from the same zone not send their children on almajiranci and early marriage?

For too long, the rate of economic growth in the country has been lower than the rate of population growth, which means the average Nigerian becomes poorer every year. This unfolding scenario is one of demographic explosion due to the time bomb of the growing population. Part of the solution is to reduce the population growth rate. China’s one-child policy has been the most drastic and most successful attempt to reduce the population growth rate and accelerate economic development. I doubt that any other country in the world can successfully implement such a drastic policy.

Nigeria’s most feasible policy option is to begin to engage in public education about the advantages of smaller families where resources to educate and maintain the children are more available. Nonetheless, cultural resistance to such a policy might be very high. By simply keeping girls in school until they are at least 18-years old, there would be a significant reduction in the fertility rate. As Famoroti has argued: “Education is the least invasive contraceptive”. He also points out that historically, female empowerment has even been more essential in bringing down birth rates. Empowering women in and outside the home – in the workplace, politics, religious institutions, etc. will lead them to make different decisions regarding bearing and raising children.

According to Henrik Urdel, a review of population dynamics worldwide, between years 1950 and 2000 shows that high fertility rates produce a youth bulge, which in turn is a precursor to domestic armed conflict. It is therefore not surprising that the state of insecurity in Nigeria has reached an unprecedented level. On a daily basis, well-coordinated commando-like operations by gunmen are organised against rural communities where people are kidnapped for ransom, their houses burnt and their property looted.

Similar attacks are also conducted against the army and police. These attacks are now occurring in virtually all geopolitical zones in the country. According to Governor Bello Matawalle of Zamfara State, there are no fewer than 30,000 gunmen spread across more than 100 camps in and around the state. He said such is the grip of bandits on the state that they collected N970 million as ransom from the families of their victims in the eight years between 2011 and 2019. During the same period, the bandits killed 2,619 people and kidnapped 1,190 others. For some years now, significant proportion of farmers cannot go to their farms out of fear, so food insecurity is on the horizon.

General Abdulsalam Abubakar, Chairman of the National Peace Committee, told Nigeria in April this year that there are six million weapons circulating in the hands of non-state actors in Nigeria and they are using them. The death toll, he estimates is 80,000 while about three million people are internally displaced.

The country finds itself at a point in our national trajectory where young Nigerians feel sufficiently marginalised from the STATE and SOCIETY to procure arms and engage in self-help which they define variously as banditry, scotched earth attacks on innocent village communities accompanied by mass rape and other forms of sexual violence, in addition to killing security agents, and even declaring an Islamic Caliphate in Nigeria.

There are too many groups that have discovered that obtaining an AK47 can be their pathway to wealth because they are not in government where you can be wealthy by stealing without arms. This is the demographic time bomb in which we find ourselves today.

Ibrahim is a professor of Political Science and development consultant/expert, and Senior Fellow of the Centre for Democracy and Development. He is also the Chair of the Editorial Board of Abuja-based online newspaper, Premium Times.

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