Nigeria is a globally important country. It is larger in area than France and Germany combined. Its GDP has recently overtaken South Africa’s to become the largest in Africa. It has the largest population in Africa and some predictions have it reaching nearly 1 billion people by the end of this century. We’ve talked before on this blog about western worries due to Nigeria’s population growth and looked at a couple of views from Nigerians themselves (here and here).  

However, today I want to highlight an issue that the Economist has highlighted that is good to keep in mind when discussing population numbers, and, even more importantly, when discussing population growth predictions. That issue is that we rely on official censuses and figures at our peril. Especially when those numbers have important economic and political implications.

The current estimates of Nigeria’s population stand at a bit over 180 million people. In 2050 the United Nations Population Division is predicting Nigeria to be more populous than the USA. As the Economist notes, this entices investment to Nigeria as “a potentially vast consumer market”.  Unfortunately for investors, there are reasons to doubt the official Nigerian population figures.  The Economist explains:

“In colonial times the numbers were probably roughly right, but the first post-independence census in 1962 was already shamelessly rigged. An initial count suggested massive growth in eastern and western districts, which claimed that their population had increased by an average of 70% over the previous decade, compared with a 30% increase in the north. That would have shifted power from the northern elites who controlled the country, so they quickly scrapped the count and started again. This time, miraculously, the north’s population was found to have increased by 84% (an extra 9m people), just enough to ensure it had slightly more than half Nigeria’s population Almost every census since then has been disputed. One in 1991 was ditched when it seemed to show that the country’s total population was about 30% smaller than expected.”

The latest census (held in 2006) placed the Nigerian population at about 140 million and this number provides the basis for current estimates and predictions. However, some academics believe that the population of some of the northern states were inflated by about a quarter and some of the southern areas were reduced due to political pressure. Thus, Lagos was said to hold 9 million people, which allowed northern officials to claim that Kano (the main northern commercial centre) had more people was thus entitled to more resources. Lagos officials subsequently claimed that the city had 17 million people based upon their own count.

“Even allowing for all these swings and roundabouts, some researchers, using sophisticated satellite imagery and geographical information systems, reckon that the 2006 census considerably overstated Nigeria’s urban population, mainly in the north but also in some southern cities. That means Nigeria’s current population may be closer to 160m than 180m. The forecasts suggesting that Nigeria’s population will overtake America’s within a few decades are probably also wrong because they are based on high fertility rates observed in the past, whereas newer data suggest those rates are falling fast, especially in the south.”

Much of the country’s inflated population has come in counting in the cities which could explain why Nigeria has not had as large a productivity gain from urbanisation that many economists would expect to find. Moreover, if the rural population is a larger proportion of Nigeria’s total population then the government should be diverting more of its infrastructure resources to rural areas than it is currently doing.  This may help to lift rural Nigerians out of poverty and perhaps reduce the appeal of groups like Boko Haram.

When bandying about population figures and predictions, we must remember that these are inexact numbers for a great many countries. Such figures are useful, but not necessarily the truth.

And this is another great excuse to include this video, a satire on western attempts at pontificating on complex matters. Enjoy!

Marcus Roberts is a Senior Researcher at the Maxim Institute in Auckland, New Zealand, and was co-editor of the former MercatorNet blog, Demography is Destiny. Marcus has a background in the law, both...