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Making sense of Nigeria’s rising population amidst staggering economic growth

A market scene in Lagos Nigeria

The attempt to create a nexus between population growth and the rate of economic development of a country did not just start today. Of a fact, the renowned eighteenth century economist, Thomas Robert Malthus, made copious discussions on the dangers of explosive, uncontrolled population.

Malthus who was an English scholar cum cleric argued that population grew at a geometric progression while food supply grew at an arithmetic progression, with the latter anchored on the law of diminishing returns. Consequently, Malthus posited that a time would come when the population would outstrip the food supply thereby leading to food shortage, all other things being equal.

Though the Malthusian theory of population has been criticised and its usefulness watered down in the context of present day realities where technological advancement has boosted food supply, controlled birth rate and slowed death rate, the case of Nigeria’s escalating population numbers somehow finds relevance in Malthus gloom and doom forecast advanced centuries ago. It begs the question, “What happens if Nigeria continues to grow her numbers in such a manner that it surpasses her rate of economic growth?” It is to this we now turn.

Nigeria’s current projected population figure is put at 198 million people according to the National Population Commission (NPC) and its said to be growing at 3.2 per cent per annum. This means that by the end of 2019, using the aforementioned population growth rate, the number of people in Nigeria would have hit 204 million, roughly about 2.0 – 2.6 per cent of the total world’s population. This trend is what makes the country the most populous black nation on the planet earth.

According to the United Nations Population Division, Nigeria will be the third most populous nation in the world with a population projection of over 410 million people by year 2050 behind India and China with 1.66 billion and 1.36 billion people respectively. But some observers have maintained that Nigeria’s population may be underestimated. More so, many believe that the 2050 projection may be too conservative especially in the face of increasing child marriage and alarmingly high rate of unwanted pregnancies. In 2018, a global planning family report puts the number of unwanted pregnancy in Nigeria at 1.3 million!

While the effect of a large population base on growth in the economic literature is mixed, the level and extent of development of the population is paramount. Although China is the most populous nation in the world, the high level of development of the Chinese has led to an agile, innovative and creative labour force that powers the vast Chinese economy. The reverse is the case for Nigeria where human development is at its low ebb. The statistics abounds to accentuate this fact.

Nigeria is home to the highest out-of-school children in the world – put at about 13 million. In the same vein, Nigeria was ranked 152 out of 157 on the recent World Bank’s Human Capital Index, an abysmal performance in the strictest sense of the word.

However, the mismatch between the economic and population growth rate is what should scare any right-thinking person. Frankly speaking, the rate of growth of Nigeria’s population should jerk the government into action.

Since 2015, there have been noticeable gaps between the population growth rate and the rate of economic growth in Africa’s largest oil producing nation. In 2016, the Nigeria economic slipped into recession underlined by a crash in oil price and concomitant drop in the oil production as a result of the activities of the Niger Delta militants. GDP growth rate stood at a -1.62 per cent at full year 2016. At this same time, population was growing at 2.62 per cent, indicating the disconnect between economic and population growth rates.

Nigeria finally heaved a sigh of relief in second quarter 2017 (Q2’17) when the economy recorded 0.72 per cent growth rate, a feat which finally signalled an exit from the recession. At full year 2017, GDP growth stood at 0.81 per cent compared to the 2.6 per cent rate of population growth.

While the economy continued to strengthened, albeit fragile, in 2018 on the back of fiscal and monetary consolidation, relative stability in the oil market, and commendable stability in the foreign exchange market, the population figure continues to grow unabated.

At this juncture, a curious mind would want to ask why many observers and analysts are drumming the beat of the negative effect of an increasing population given that a rising population do not only serves as a ready market for goods and services but equally serves as a good source of cheap labour.

First, should the rate of increase in population growth be higher than the economic growth rate as is the case with Nigeria since 2016, then the per capita income will decline. Unsurprisingly, data from the World Bank reveals that the per capita income fell from a 2015 high of $2,562.5 to $2,455.9 and $2,412.2 in 2016 and 2017 respectively. The IMF predicted in 2018 that Nigerians would see their real income per head fall every year until at least 2023.

Second, an increasing population reduces the availability of capital especially given that capital is scarce and its supply is inelastic. A rapidly growing population leads to a progressive decline in the availability of capital per worker. This leads to lower productivity and diminishing returns.

Third, a rising population with no adequate socio-economic infrastructural support could lead to massive unemployment. Nigeria’s labour force as at third quarter 2018 (Q3’18) was 90.5 million, data from National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) shows. Of these amount, 20.9 million were jobless which means that the unemployment rate as at Q3’18 stood at a whopping 23.1 per cent relative to 18.8 per cent in the corresponding quarter of the previous year.

However, it’s not all gloomy for Nigeria as there is something to cheer about. The demographics of Nigeria’s population reveal that majority are youth. This means that the numbers of adult dependents are quite low. However, the level of development is quite low, hence the need for government to take human capital development via heavy investment in social infrastructures such as health and education becomes sacrosanct to check against the debilitating effect of a population explosion.

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