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Nigeria’s Growing Population Can be an Advantage, With Policy for Young People

Jul 26, 2023 02:00PM ● By The Conversation via Reuters Connect

Image: Youth in Nigeria. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Nigeria’s population is currently estimated at over 222 million, with the median age - the age at the midpoint of the population - 18.1 years. This poses challenges and opportunities. Akanni Akinyemi explains in this interview with The Conversation Africa that better data and greater focus on its huge young population are essential in managing the population well.

What are the distinguishing features of Nigeria’s population profile?

Accurate census data is lacking. But the country has a high population growth rate at 2.4%, which is sustained by high fertility at about 5.2 children per woman compared with 3.6 in Ghana and 3.3 in Kenya. Most of these births are unplanned, unwanted and burdensome to the mothers. In many cases, most of these unwanted pregnancies are from unmarried adolescents and young people. The consequences are huge in terms of unsafe abortion, poor maternal and health outcomes.

The country has the largest population of youth in the world and a median age of 18.1 years. About 70% of the population is under 30, and 42% is under the age of 15.

The overall quality of life for the population is of concern. There are high levels of poverty, unemployment and insecurity – of food, lives and property. Nearly 12% of the world population in extreme poverty lives in Nigeria, as measured by a poverty threshold at US$1.90 a day.

The social and economic situation makes migration attractive to young people – it’s termed the “Japa syndrome”(after the Yoruba word for escape). In 2015 the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs estimated that the number of Nigerian international emigrants was 1,256,114. This had grown to 1,438,331 in 2019.

According to the International Migration Organisation, emigration more than doubled between 1990 and 2013 – from 465,932 to 1,030,322 in the period.

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Which of these population features poses risks?

All are of either high risk or a contributing factor to high risk of health, poverty and insecurity at the individual, family or community level.

Lack of accurate data means that policies and planning are guided by political expediencies rather than evidence. Without accurate data, it becomes almost impossible to align the complex interaction between individual, community and societal needs to government planning. What guides the establishment and locations of schools and health infrastructure? Housing estates are sometimes abandoned and isolated because they are situated in the wrong place. Data guides development in the right direction.

Without data, there is no planning.

High population growth without socio-economic and infrastructural support puts huge pressure on the country’s limited resources. The consequences are reflected in various forms of social disturbances and ills.

A high birth rate carries a number of risks. Firstly, having too many children leads to more poverty and increases vulnerability.

Secondly, a high birth rate is risky because each birth poses a threat to the woman, child, family and community. On top of this, early pregnancy and childbirth put the lives of the young woman and the child at high risk. Having a birth closely spaced or at older ages is also a high health risk.

The Japa syndrome, where young people are leaving the country, is quite worrying. Nigerians with a tertiary education represent 51% of the migrant population. Of the 72,000 doctors registered with the Medical and Dental Council of Nigeria, more than half practice outside the country.

Most of the young people leaving are highly skilled and well educated. The long-term implication of this is the potential danger of a vacuum in critical sectors of the economy. Unless there is an urgent intervention, the consequences for development may be very challenging in the near future.

Despite the mass movement, and the huge remittances profile of Nigeria’s diaspora community, the government approach towards maximizing the benefits of emigration is not at optimal level and Nigerians in the diaspora have not been well integrated into the national development planning.

Photo of Lagos traffic by David Iloba

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Which features present opportunities?

Large population with the right investment in health and education can spur economic development. 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 accurate data would be needed to guide the government policies and program implementation.

What policies need to be put in place to manage the risks?

The government needs to prioritize data and evidence-based policies and programs. An accurate census is important and government needs to revitalize the administrative and civil registration data.

Government at all levels needs to prioritize investment in quality education, particularly for girl children, and also in family planning. These will empower women to be able to make rational decision on when, how and number of children they want.

What policies are needed to make the most of the opportunities?

The size and youthfulness of the population offer great potential to expand Nigeria’s capacity as a regional economic hub of Africa as well as globally. A young, large population could be an economic asset because population growth and urbanization go together and economic development is closely correlated with urbanization.

Leaders must invest through health and education and adopt strong policies to create an environment where this human resource is used optimally. There should be coherent and structured policies of socio-economic and political empowerment of young people.

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