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Nigeria will overtake China as the second most populous country. How prepared is it?

The world is fretting about population decline. Everyone is talking about a fall in humanity’s numbers, with most Western and Asian nations predicted to have an ageing and declining population. But for Nigeria, the projection is about population explosion! This country is predicted to overtake China and become the world’s second most populous nation. If that sounds outlandish, well, just reflect on Nigeria’s exponential population growth to date.

At independence in 1960, Nigeria’s population was 45 million, while that of Britain was 52 million. Today, Nigeria’s population is 211 million, Britain’s is 68 million. So, within 60 years, Nigeria added 116 million to its population, while Britain added just 16 million. In other words, within 60 years, Nigeria’s population grew by 369%, Britain’s by only 30%. Why?

Well, social scientists would argue that nations with wealthier and more educated people tend to have smaller populations than those with largely poor and illiterate people. The theory is that as people get richer, their birth rate declines. The Financial Times pointed out in an editorial: “Lower fertility rates can reflect economic success: wealthier, freer women generally chose to have fewer children, instead spending more time and effort on just one or two”. Poor women, with little or no voice, hardly think of such family planning.

Of course, religion and tradition also play an important role. Predominantly Christian countries, which practise monogamy, are more likely to have smaller families than countries with large numbers of Muslims and traditional believers, who practise polygamy.

Read Also: How Nigeria can bank its unbanked population

So, Nigeria’s exponential population growth can be explained in terms of poverty, illiteracy, religion, tradition and lack of gender equality!

Yet, no cultural, religious or social factor can justify the alarming predictions about Nigeria’s future population. If, indeed, these predictions are accurate and if Nigeria remains an unproductive economy, then, this country is sitting on a ticking time bomb.

Where a country has a large but unproductive population that’s growing faster than its economy is growing, the result would be falling per capita income, and declining living standards

Every well-run country plans for its future population growth. But Nigeria plans for nothing. For instance, this country is not prepared for a post-oil or post-fossil fuel world, and, clearly, it’s not prepared for a widely predicted population explosion. Or is it?

Nigeria is currently the world’s 7th most populous country, with a population of about 211 million. However, according to the United Nations, Nigeria’s population will reach 400m by 2050, overtaking the United States to become the third largest country in the world. Then, by 2100, Nigeria is projected to overtake China to become the world’s second most populous country after India.

That’s scary! Nigeria is already the poverty capital of the world. If that doesn’t change and Nigeria then becomes the world’s second most populous country, it goes without saying – doesn’t it? – that this country faces an economically catastrophic demographic destiny in the future, with acute poverty and an unprecedented socio-economic retrogression.

Theoretically, there have long been concerns about over-population. The most famous person to draw attention to this phenomenon was Thomas Malthus, the 18th-century economist, who argued in his treatise “An Essay on the Principle of Population” that unfettered population growth could trigger acute poverty. In his 1968 book “The Population Bomb”, Paul Erlich made the same point, predicting that an exponential growth in population would lead to widespread famine and social disruption.

Of course, critics have pointed out that these apocalyptic predictions about the impacts of growing populations on natural resources and long-term living standards have not come to pass. But that’s because, globally, economic growth has matched, even outpaced, population growth! The world’s natural resources have been managed prudently and innovation and technological progress have generated productivity and economic growth.

To be sure, a large population is not necessarily a problem. Given that a country’s wealth derives from its gross domestic product (GDP), that is, the value of goods and services it produces annually, it follows that a large but productive population can actually be a driver of economic growth. A large population of young, energetic and innovative people can drive entrepreneurship and thus economic growth. But where a country has a large but unproductive population that’s growing faster than its economy is growing, the result would be falling per capita income, and declining living standards.

Sadly, Nigeria has a large but predominantly unproductive population that’s growing at a faster rate than its national output. Currently, Nigeria’s annual GDP growth rate averages 1.9 per cent, while its population growth rate is about 3 per cent per year, resulting in a negative per capita income. Clearly, Nigeria is not harnessing the demographic dividend, where a large working-age population leads to accelerated growth. The question is: Why?

Undoubtedly, the first problem is Nigeria’s abysmally low human capital. Consider the following statistics from the World Bank’s 2019 Nigeria Economic Update: about 50 per cent of Nigerian workers have only a primary education or less; 30 per cent never attended school; just 20 per cent of Nigerian adults aged 18 – 37 years who completed primary school can read; among workers aged 15-24, only 59% of women are literate compared to men; less than half completed secondary school; only 51 per cent of Nigeria’s estimated labour force of 90m are literate!

Truth is, Nigeria has an appalling human development index, ranked 161st out of 189 countries in this year’s Index. Successive Nigerian governments failed to invest in Nigeria’s human capital. For instance, President Buhari wants to be remembered for railways and roads, but not first-class educational and health systems. His government is paying lip service to human capital development.

Yet, you can build as many passenger railways and roads as you like, if your labour force is low-skilled and unproductive, your economy will not grow. That’s why serious governments build physical infrastructure largely with private investment while they build human capital with public funds. China has one of the most highly-skilled and productive labour forces in the world. But Nigeria fails to invest in the human capital, including digital skills, that it badly needs to harness the demographic dividend.

The second problem is that Nigeria is not an open and competitive economy. It lacks the capacity to produce and export quality goods and services and can’t attract quality foreign direct investments. China lifted 746million of its people, 65% of the population, out of poverty between 1990 and 2015 by pursuing an aggressive export-oriented strategy and attracting massive job-creating inward investments.

By contrast, beyond crude oil, Nigeria is not an export-oriented economy, and not an attractive investment destination. According to the World Bank, Nigeria is “one of the most closed economies in Africa with a concentrated export-based.” Well, such a country can’t prosper economically!

Surely, Olusegun Awolowo, Chief Executive Officer of the Nigerian Export Promotion Council (NEPC), deserves commendation for his organisation’s “Zero-oil” campaign. But Nigeria must first decide whether it wants to be an import-substitution or export-led economy. Nigeria must choose between protectionism and economic openness: It can’t have it both ways!

Finally, Nigeria is too centralised to make progress. One of the strongest arguments for restructuring is economic. No country can succeed by overcentralising economic governance. Nigeria needs regional economic powerhouses. It needs strong regional governments that can harness regional comparative advantages and economies of scale to boost productivity and growth. That’s an antidote to poverty and an effective way to manage a large, diverse population.

If predictions are accurate, Nigeria faces a population explosion; but if, in that context, its economy continues to stagnate or decline, it faces a catastrophic future. The solution lies in ensuring its economic growth outpaces its population growth. For that to happen, Nigeria must invest heavily in human capital; make itself attractive to the world as a major non-oil exporter and FDI destination; and restructure to engender the emergence of regional powerhouses. Is Nigeria prepared for that transformation? Doubtful!

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