Destroying the Great Northern Nigerian population myth

I still remember where I was when I heard the news on the radio. The year was 2006 and I was a greasy teenager studying for my A-level exams the following year. My favourite subject was Geography, and despite the British syllabus we were using, Mr. Adeleke liked to localise the knowledge and make the class more interesting and interactive that way. Population dispersion and distribution were among my favourite topics because I was so good at them.

The announcement on the radio that day however, made me briefly wonder whether I knew anything at all. Whereas my Cambridge A-level Geography education was showing me how to calculate Nigeria’s subnational population distribution using economic data, geological data and basic forecasting, the voice on the radio was calling me a fool. According to the newsreader, Kano State had a population of 9.4 million people, and was Nigeria’s most populous state.

Lagos was apparently in second place with 9.1 million inhabitants. In a few short moments, I learned more about Nigeria than all the 1980s-1990s newspapers and dad’s anecdotes had ever shown me. I learned that in Nigeria, “population” is not a simple geographical calculation carried out by careful enumeration and complex calculations. It was actually equivalent to the manifesto of a political party, and often worth exactly the same as that. Which is to say, nothing at all. That was the day I first understood that Northern Nigeria’s population is one giant, egregious and ongoing lie.

“But Polygamy!’: The demographic myth

During a call-in session on the radio that day, not a few callers expressed their shock and disgust at this most absurd of census outcomes. The 2006 census had effectively codified the narrative of Nigeria being a northern majority country into official data. People were upset. But then came a wave of radio callers, newspaper column writers and TV appearance-havers over the next few days who all had one particular line to repeat – “Yes you don’t think the northerners are that many, but do you know how many wives every man in the north has? Do you know that one man can have 30 children?”

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Several variations of this narrative were aggressively drip-fed to Nigerians over the next few weeks until tempers were calmed and the people moved on to the next topic. Maybe it was my A-level Geography, but this explanation never quite cut it for me. It sounded too convenient; too contrived; too rehearsed. But of course, without the willingness or ability to go physically to every Tundun-Wada and Sabon Gari to find things out for myself, I too had to swallow the “Northern industrial polygamy” excuse. It was not as though anyone had a better explanation after all. Until recently.

It turns out that as far back as 1980, a Cambridge University study titled “Polygyny and the rate of population growth” had already established something that many Nigerians reading this will probably be shocked to read. I quote:

“No significant variation in fertility between polygynous and monogamous women was found but substantial gaps in standards of living, child mortality, and educational attainment were noted for polygynous households. The findings imply that during the transition from polygyny to monogamy family size will tend to diminish, although initially fertility may not decline concurrently with changing socio-economic status.”

The implication of this is that there is in fact, no evidence that polygamous marriage results in increased childbirth. In other words, the entire “Alhaji Musa married 4 wives and has 19 children” excuse, that was used to justify the patent falsehood of Kano having more inhabitants than Lagos, has been kneecapped since 1980. Furthermore, a statistical evaluation of population demographics across Niger and Chad – which very closely mirror Northern Nigeria – show nothing similar to Northern Nigeria.

Niger for example, is about 1.3x the size of Nigeria. Despite its huge land size, its total population is just about 22 million people. Ditto Chad which is about 1.2x Nigeria’s size, but sustains only 15 million people. Supposedly, once you crossed the border into Northern Nigeria, you would find a dramatic population explosion based on nothing at all except Alhaji Musa’s prolific childbearing. Since the science disagrees with the existence of this polygamy-fuelled population utopia, what is actually going on here?

The economic and political argument

Have you ever danced to a pop song from Kano? Enjoyed a new product conceptualised and manufactured in Bauchi? Perhaps listened to a podcast or watched a YouTube channel from Gombe? The answer to all these questions is obvious. In the cultural and economic retail space, Northern Nigeria might as well be Atlantis. It is a ghost – completely nonexistent. Now here is the problem with this picture. Supposedly, Kano hosts more human beings than Lagos according to the 2006 nationwide census. If we can accept that, then we can also accept that Kano has similar economic potential to Lagos.

So then, where is the economic or cultural presence of Kano or anywhere in Northern Nigeria outside of its immediate neighbourhood? On any given Saturday, young punters in Kano dodge the Hisbah police and find their way to secret hangouts where they groove to the sounds of Zlatan and Naira Marley, swig smuggled alcohol and watch TV shows like Big Brother Naija. It is impossible to dodge the south’s economic and cultural impact on the north, despite it being allegedly smaller. So where is the corresponding influence from a purportedly bigger north to south?

Except you tenuously count Eedris Abdulkareem and Aliko Dangote as products of Kano, you would really struggle to find anything like a corresponding cultural or economic influence going back over 3 decades. Every major economic uptick Nigeria has recorded in its post-independence history has come out of the South. The GSM revolution that changed the face of Nigeria’s economy forever was a southern affair – even now, the “larger” northern population which should be attracted to low prices and thus driving mobile and internet adoption, is M.I.A.

Where are all the people? Where are the consumers? Where are the artists? Where are the entrepreneurs? Where are the creatives? Where are the professionals? Where is this huge “Kardashian” population that apparently bursts into existence once every 4 years, conveniently during Nigeria’s elections? I have never actually seen them before.

Have you?

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