Nigeria’s Population Projections – Asset or Liability?

August 5, 2022

Nigeria’s Population Projections – Asset or Liability?

Nigeria is one of eight countries expected to account for over half of the projected increase in global population between 2022 and 2050. The others are the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, and the United Republic of Tanzania. Nigeria is currently the world’s seventh most populous country, with about 206 million inhabitants as at 2020.

With population growth forecast to average 2.5% per year (the fastest among the world’s ten largest countries), it is projected to reach 401 million by 2050, surpassing that of the United States of America, making it the third largest country in the world.

Figure 1: Population Projections (millions)

Source: Populationpyramid.net

Recent data released by the United Nations (UN) in its World Population Prospects 2022 indicates that the global population will surpass 8 billion by November 15, 2022, and add another 500 million people to reach 8.5 billion by 2030. This is being driven by declining levels of mortality as reflected in the increasing levels of life expectancy globally – which is up by nearly 9 years since 1990 to 72.8 in 2019. The UN expects this trend to continue well into the middle of the century when it projects average longevity of around 77.2 years and a global population of about 9.7 billion. While healthcare advancements are at the core of this achievement, increased access to healthcare, particularly in developing countries, has also been critical.

However, as the world’s population continues to rise, the pace of growth appears to be decelerating. According to the UN, “in 2021, the average fertility of the world’s population stood at 2.3 births per woman over a lifetime, having fallen from about 5 births per woman in 1950. Global fertility is projected to decline further to 2.1 births per woman by 2050”. The UN believes that the global population will peak at around 10.4 billion people during the 2080s and stagnate at this level until the dawn of the next century primarily due to falling fertility rates globally.

Demographic Dividend

It is projected that the sustained decline in fertility will increase the proportion of the population that is of working age, creating an opportunity for accelerated per capita economic growth. In most of sub-Saharan Africa, parts of Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, falling fertility levels have increased the share of the population that is of working age – between 25 and 64 years. This shift in the age distribution presents a limited window of opportunity for accelerated economic growth, dubbed the “demographic dividend”. The UN defines it as… “A period in which the share of those who are working starts to outnumber the share of young and old dependents, and the increase in labour supply boosts economic growth”.

Figure 2: Nigeria’s Demographic Structure (%)

Source: Populationpyramid.net, Agusto & Co Estimates

An analysis of Nigeria’s demographic structure reveals a declining proportion of people in the “working age” – from 38% in 1960 to 34% in 2017, implying a steady rise in the dependency ratio over the period.

The evidence suggests that fertility rates in Nigeria have failed to decline as fast as in the rest of Africa. Over the past 30 years, the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) in Nigeria has declined by only 0.7 percentage points, from 6 in 1990 to 5.3 in 2018. Nigeria is one of only four African nations with a TFR above 5 and a TFR decline rate of less than 0.05 per year, along with Niger, the Republic of the Congo and the Gambia. The country’s population structure is currently heavily skewed towards young dependents because of high fertility rates, particularly in the northern regions, among adolescent girls, the poor, and those with low levels of education. This has slowed its demographic transition and threatens to derail it entirely.

Figure 3: Rate of TFR decline, Nigeria and comparator regions and countries, 1990–2020

Source: World Bank, Nigeria development Update, June 2022

Figure 4: Ratio of working age population (15–64) to young dependents (0–14), Nigeria and peer countries, 2020–2050

 

Source: World Bank, Nigeria development Update, June 2022

Unintended Consequences

Although several factors contribute to Nigeria’s high fertility rates, perhaps the most significant are those that result in high rates of teen pregnancy, early marriage, and low educational attainment among Nigeria’s adolescent girls. These factors include a lack of quality secondary schools and employment opportunities, poverty, and a low prevalence of and demand for modern birth control.

Sustained high fertility and rapid population growth in Nigeria present obstacles to achieving sustainable development. Educating the increasing number of children and adolescents, for instance, diverts resources from efforts to improve the quality of education. The Nigerian government has, over the years, been unsuccessful in equipping a significant proportion of its human capital with basic education and skills. Nigeria currently has the highest number of out-of-school (OOS) children in the world, with 11 million. This is despite the free and officially mandatory primary education in most states as well as the substantial increase in the access to education over the past few decades. It is estimated that 6 to 15-year-old Nigerians account for about one out of every 12 OOS children worldwide. This has given rise to a situation where many new entrants into the “working age” population are largely unemployable.

Figure 5: Unemployment & Underemployment

Source: World Bank, Nigeria development Update, June 2022

Unemployment is highest in the 15-34 bracket of the population. This is also feeding directly into Nigeria’s insecurity problem which has shown a strong correlation with rising unemployment and poverty levels, with an estimated 83 million people which is 39% of the total population, living in extreme poverty (less than $2 per day) as at April 2022. This is a significant 18% increase from 70 million people recorded in 2016. With youth unemployment at over 45% and high-income inequality (Gini coefficient of 35.1 in 2018), the real surprise is not that Nigeria is grappling with high levels of insecurity, but rather that the situation has not degenerated into civil unrest.

A Silver lining

Another major consequence of high unemployment has been a rapid increase in the level of emigration. Many Nigerians, even the highly educated and skilled, in search of proverbial greener pastures, have fled and are still fleeing the country. It is estimated that Nigeria lost over 9,000 medical doctors to the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States of America between 2016 and 2018. The UN’s world population review estimates that Nigeria had a net number of migrants (per thousand) of -76 in 2021, down from an average of 61 in the 1990s. This implies that 76,000 Nigerians emigrated to other countries in 2021 compared to an average of 61,000 foreigners immigrating to Nigeria annually in the 1990s. Whilst the brain drain presents a major economic loss, the emigrant demographic now constitutes one of the few bright spots for Nigeria in the form of Diaspora remittances which rose by 11.2% in 2021 to $19.2bn compared to 2020.

Figure 5: Nigeria’s USD inflows from Trading with the Rest of the World

Source: CBN, Agusto & Co Projections

This figure is about 28 times larger than Foreign Direct Investment flows ($698.8mn) and about 44% of Nigeria’s oil & gas earnings ($43bn) in the same period. Remittances have risen steadily for almost two decades, peaking at $25bn in 2018 before the COVID-induced 28% slump in 2020. Nigeria ranked 8th in remittance inflows in 2021 and remains the largest remittance-receiving country in Africa. In recent years, it has also been established that Diaspora remittances are a crucial enabler of access to education in Nigeria.

Recommendations

Regardless of the possible benefits of a large population, Nigeria’s current population dynamics mean we are sitting on a demographic timebomb. According to the World Bank… “to reap the demographic dividend, Nigeria must kickstart the stalled demographic transition and ensure that the children of today have the means to grow into healthy and productive adults”. Achieving this objective would necessitate, on the one hand, policy actions centred on education, especially for adolescent girls, on modern contraception and family planning. On the other hand, concrete measures to enhance both the accessibility and quality of education are required to substantially enhance the quality of Nigeria’s human capital. Only this can skew the current population structure away from the dependent population and accelerate the demographic transition.

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