Nigeria’s Large, Youthful Population Could Be An Asset Or A Burden

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With a population estimated at 206 million in 2020, Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa and seventh in the world.

The country’s population is growing at 2.6% a year, one of the fastest rates globally. At this rate, Nigeria’s population could double within the next 25 to 30 years.

Nigeria’s population structure is potentially an economic asset. The country has the largest population of youth in the world, with a median age of 18.1 years. About 70% of the population are under 30, and 42% are under the age of 15.

The size and youthfulness of the population offer great potential to expand Nigeria’s capacity as the regional economic hub of Africa and globally. A young, large population could be an economic asset because population growth and urbanisation go together and economic development is closely correlated with urbanisation. Population growth increases density and, together with rural-urban migration, creates higher urban agglomeration. This can help companies in producing goods in larger numbers and more cheaply, serving a larger number of low-income customers.

But the potential needs to be properly harnessed. Leaders must invest (through health and education) and adopt strong policies to create an environment where this human resource is used optimally. Such was the case among the Asian Tiger countries, which invested massively in technology, infrastructure and education.

Nigeria is, by every measure of socioeconomic progress, failing to develop its endowment of young people. Millions of young people have a poor quality of life, including a lack of education, low living standards and poor health outcomes.

Nigeria is not reaping the benefits of its current population structure and must do more to mitigate the negatives. A large population of unskilled, economically unproductive, unhealthy and poorly educated young people is also a burden to society.
Poor human development

Nigeria was ranked 158 of 185 countries in the 2019 Human Development Index. A 2022 World Bank report also says about 40% of Nigerians live below the national poverty line of U$1.90 per day and about 95.2 million are in poverty. About 19.4 million Nigerians are likely to face food insecurity in 2022.

According to UNICEF, Nigeria accounts for 20% of the world’s children who are out of school. In absolute terms, about 10.5 million children, the majority of whom are girls, do not have access to education in Nigeria.

Unemployment is high at 33.3%. Most of those who are unemployed are women and young people. Of those with jobs, over 20% are underemployed as they don’t earn enough.
Health indicators

Most of the health indicators in Nigeria are disturbing. Health is key for human development and this means that Nigeria is lagging behind in development.

Health facilities are at sub-optimal levels. Nigerians currently have a lower life expectancy (54 years) than many of their neighbours. The country’s burden of chronic and infectious diseases is high. While infectious diseases remain the primary causes of death in the country, non-communicable diseases account for 3 out of every 10 deaths.

While Nigeria is failing to develop her human capital, Nigerians are making more babies, adding to the potential burden.

The national fertility rate stands at about 5 children per woman. There are regional variations. It is also lower in urban areas (4.5) than in rural areas (5.9); lower in the Southwest (3.9) than in the Northwest (6.6). In other words, poorer households are worse off, particularly those in the rural areas. Also, poor women and those with no or low education are disproportionately affected.

There were 20 adolescent mothers (aged 15-19) among every 100 adolescent girls in Nigeria, with wide variations across states and regions. This is among the highest in the world and is associated with high risk births, adverse social-economic consequences, limited opportunities and a likely pathway to intergenerational poverty.

The unmet need for modern contraception has been estimated at over 20%. Modern contraceptives help to prevent unwanted pregnancy. This is imperative for improving maternal and child health. A lack of access to contraception perpetuates the high maternal and infant mortality, and high fertility in the country.

Currently, the infant mortality is 72 deaths per 1,000 live births. Maternal mortality is estimated at 512 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. The national target is to reduce maternal mortality to 72 per 100,000 live births and zero deaths by 2030.
High dependency

Nigeria has a relatively high and growing population of dependants. This could put a strain on those who provide for them. Young people account for a bigger share of the dependants, a situation which will get worse unless there is a deliberate public policy to address high fertility.

The age structure of the population suggests that for every 100 people in the economically active age group (15-64), there are 86 dependants (under 15 and over 64). This compares with the 78.1 average for the African continent, 52 for South Africa.

There are about 6 million people aged over 65. Though this equates to only 3% of population, it is numerically larger than the population of some states in Nigeria. In 2020, the elderly dependency ratio in Nigeria stood at 5.1. This means that there were about five people aged 65 years and older that depend on every 100 people of working age (15 to 64 years). This number of dependants, in addition to children, can reduce the capacity of the working age population to save and invest.

Other groups with high dependency in Nigeria are those with disabilities and the displaced.

The percentage of disabled Nigerians stands at about 2.3%, comparable to Ghana’s 3%, but far less than South Africa’s 7.5%. But Nigeria doesn’t have plans for addressing the needs of its disabled.

The country is also home to over 3 million internally displaced people and over 82,000 international refugees, mostly from neighbouring countries.
Demographic dividend

Nigeria needs to balance population growth with economic prosperity. This makes it possible to achieve a demographic dividend – faster economic growth arising from a favourable population age structure and favourable social and economic policies.

Some countries in Asia including China, Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore have benefited substantially from this. Nigeria should aim to make a transition to low birth and death rates. Government at all levels must invest towards addressing high fertility and mortality.

Read more: Nigeria's 2022 census is overdue but preparation is in doubt

Nigerians need to embrace family planning and address some of the root causes of high fertility, including sociocultural factors. A reduction in fertility by one child per childbearing woman would lead to a 13% increase in Nigeria’s GDP per capita in 20 years or a 25% increase over 50 years.

As stated in the population policy document, Nigeria should aim to reduce fertility from the current 5.3% to 4.3% by 2030. Family planning should be available to all and there should be no maternal deaths by 2030.

Education is key to good health, empowerment, employment and peaceful societies. It offers the best return on investment. Graduates in sub-Saharan Africa earn 21% more than those without tertiary education.

Nigeria must prioritise investment in education, health and infrastructure to harness the opportunities of its huge population. But Nigerians have a role to play too. They must make rational decisions and choices. These include choices about investment in quality of life, healthy living, fertility reduction and the empowerment of young people.