Nigeria will be the third most populous country in the world by 2050. This is according to the United Nations (UN), which forecasts 370 million Nigerians by then, putting us ahead of the United States. That sounds like a lot of people and a large market for businesses. But if you are cautious like me, you are probably wondering if there will be enough infrastructure to support us all.
That big debate about population sustainability aside, let's take a step back. How exactly is that 370 million calculated? The projections are based on current population numbers, which are then used to estimate the future based on demographic changes that have occurred in the past.
There are many reasons why global population numbers won't be perfect. However, Nigeria deserves a special mention. As the Economist put it "Nobody knows how many Nigerians there are." Our current population numbers are so inaccurate that any future projections deserve extra scrutiny.
The History of Nigeria's Population
It won't be an exaggeration to say that no one has ever known how many Nigerians there are. During the 1959 election, the British allegedly skewed the census in favour of the North, their preferred region, to form a government.
Four years later, the census tampering was magical. The 1963 census estimated the population growth rate in the South at 70% in just four years, putting it ahead of the North. An innocent estimate? Hardly. Population numbers determined the number of Parliamentary seats each region got. Accusations of foul play grew until the then Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa ordered a recount. At the end of the exercise, an extra eight million people were "found" in the North, just enough to give the region an edge over the South once again.
Subsequent population counts up to 2006 have also suffered from manipulation. From 1991 to 2006, the incentive was a government revenue-sharing formula tied to population – more people, more money. However, a quick look at recent state allocations shows that population matters less these days; being classified as an oil-producing state matters more.
You would think that the waning relevance of population in revenue-sharing would reduce the incentive to rig the counts. Far from it. Some estimates suggest that Nigerian state populations as a percentage of the total population are unchanged from 1991 to 2006. This beggars belief, especially when you consider the movement towards urban cities such as Lagos. That the percentage share hasn't changed in those 15 years is near impossible, rendering the census obviously inaccurate. Some are convinced that the statisticians crudely allocate state populations based on the 1963 census.
17 million or 9 million? It matters.
Another piece of recount magic happened in 2006. The census showed that the population of Lagos was 9 million people, which allowed Kano to claim that it deserved more resources with 9.4 million. Lagos rejected the national census and "illegally" conducted a survey of its own. The results showed that Lagos had a population of 17.5 million – Nigerian history repeats itself.
The problem is that Lagos and all other states don't know how many people they have. And everyone is affected by this. Past allocations based on population would have meant that states were either under or overpaid. 9 million people worth of state allocation for an actual population of 17 million can prove detrimental, especially for states with struggling finances. Measuring progress would also be dodgy. How credible can statistics such as labour participation, unemployment or productivity be if they are usually based on population figures?
Then there's the political angle. The House of Representatives is elected based on proportional representation of the population of each of the 36 States. Lagos and Kano both had a population of 9 million people in the last census and subsequently have 24 seats each in the house. But apparently, Lagos had over 17 million people and should, therefore, have relatively more seats than Kano.
Those being misled are far beyond Nigeria. Multinationals or foreign investors always estimate the size of their market. For Nigeria, the population is a significant factor. While at a national level the difference between 180 million or 160 million might not be a deal breaker, differences in states such as 9 vs. 17 million will surely matter. Nigeria's consumer market is "less enticing".
We need to fix up, but the chance of an immediate recount is low because the apparent cost for a census is ₦270 billion, almost the entire 2017 health budget and double the cost of a more accurate UK count.
Till then, don't forget, Nigeria does not have 180 million people.