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Welcome to the Nigerian Century

By Roger Weber

Politically and culturally, the American zeitgeist around international trends is largely fixated on the growing economies of India and China, with a nervous side-eye on Russian malfeasance. As usual, the popular news is old news. The biggest story of the 21st century will be the population growth of Africa, of its largest country, Nigeria, and the emergence of its largest city, Lagos, into both the world’s largest city and arguably its greatest economic powerhouse.

How much is Nigeria growing?

Today, Nigeria’s population is slightly over 200 million, already Africa’s largest nation. By the year 2100, Nigeria’s population is projected to grow to around 800 million. By the year 2100, Nigeria will likely be more populous than China, and become the second-largest country in the world, rivaling the population of India. Nigeria will take on around 1/3 of the world’s total population growth in the next 80 years. By the year 2100, Nigeria is projected to have more than three times the population of any other country in Africa.

Why is Nigeria growing?

The story of Nigeria’s growth is similar to that of many urbanizing nations around the world. Countries tend to grow the most when they have large populations of young residents, low rates of urbanization, and high rates of poverty. Right now Nigeria has all three. Its population today is mostly young, mostly rural, and mostly low-income. Over the course of the next century all three of these trends are likely to change, and with that change Nigeria’s birth rate will come down. More acutely, as Nigeria’s rural young people grow up, many will flock to urban centers in pursuit of opportunity. As they do this, they’ll gradually start to realize greater economic fortunes and also will start to live more urban lifestyles, both of which will gradually cause them to have fewer kids. Assuming Nigeria’s urbanization does in fact grow the country’s GDP, the birth rate will eventually stabilize.

While these trends are in place, however, Nigeria will grow rapidly. In this way, Nigeria’s growth trajectory today closely resembles the growth trajectory of China a few decades ago, before it experienced the levels of growth and urbanization that today have made it the world’s largest nation. Placing Nigeria along China’s growth trend for comparison’s sake, Nigeria’s GDP today, of a little over $2,000 per capita, is tenfold greater than it was 30 years ago, and about where China’s was 15 years ago. At its current pace, Nigeria’s population will stabilize the latter half of this century.

How much is Nigeria’s capital city of Lagos projected to grow by the year 2100?

Nowhere will Nigeria’s transformation from a mostly rural country to a more urban one be felt more acutely than in its capital city, Lagos. By the year 2100, Lagos’ population will be nearly 90 million, with some projecting it to reach 100 million, making it far and away the largest city in the world. Along the way, Lagos is projected to gain 65 to 85 million inhabitants, making it substantially larger than it is today.

Why is Lagos projected to grow so much?

While Lagos is a congested and developing city by the standard of large western metropolises, in the Nigerian context Lagos is a bastion of opportunity and continues to be the most attractive destination for the nation’s young people as they endeavor to chase a better life for themselves and their families. Lagos today has a GDP three times higher than that of Nigeria overall, and is home to higher rates of education and lower birth rates than the country as a whole. Average life expectancy in the city has increased from 37 in 1960 to the mid-50s today, and it has near universal electricity service, something that is rare not only in the context of the rest of Nigeria, but also compared to competing metropolises like Kinshasa, where only 13 percent of residents have electricity.

Moving forward, Lagos will be a critical lynchpin for Nigeria’s economy overall, something that will attract outsiders as well as insiders. Like most cities, Lagos’ growth has been driven by a transportation nexus between a central rail hub and water port, which will ensure it continues to be attractive as a key intermodal hub for the nation’s economy. As an international marketplace, it will soon, if it is not already, battle Johannesburg for supremacy as the international trade and financial capital of Africa.

Can Lagos meet the challenge of becoming the world’s largest city?

Lagos’ growth is cause for concern for several reasons. For one, the growth anticipated in the city is unprecedented for any city in the history of the world, meaning there are significant concerns about whether the city’s infrastructure can handle it. Lagos is expected to grow by some 65 to 85 million people over the remainder of the century, meaning it will add approximately two Tokyo’s worth of inhabitants to augment the already congested city. Lagos will add nearly double the number of people housed in total in the largest city in the world today, adding the entire present day population of Germany or France to its urban form.

Whether Lagos can accommodate such growth is uncertain. Even today 60 percent of Lagos residents live in slums, which can be breeding grounds for disease and malnourishment. Even where the city is more developed, day to day life in Lagos is unlike life in the United States. The city is expensive and congested. More than four people live per room on average, commute routes get so congested they transform into informal marketplaces during rush hour, and gas is hard to come by. Whether this is the kind of environment that can accommodate a rate of increase in economic opportunity great enough to eventually slow the country’s birth rate is an uncertain equation.

Managing growth will also be compounded by Lagos’ geography. Like many massively growing cities, Lagos’ original geography isn’t conducive to a city so large. Having started as a settlement on a few small islands, it has now spilled over onto the surrounding mainland, creating transportation bottlenecks. Its metropolitan area also crosses state boundaries, making concerted governance hard. Because of these confusing jurisdictions, the local government is hard to distinguish from the national government. These governmental challenges are particularly concerning because of how important it will be for Lagos to develop the infrastructure, public health protocols, and security within the city to be able to effectively manage its growth.

The concerns for Lagos are indeed astronomical. We should watch closely over the coming years to see how well Lagos is able to evolve, and whether its evolution is able to keep pace with the evolution of other cities that started out underdeveloped and congested but later became major hubs that facilitated major economic and population transitions for their countries. While many people are skeptical because of Lagos’ aggregately low per capita GDPs and birth rates today, the fact that both metrics have grown exponentially over the last 30 years suggest Lagos can in fact catch up. But it’s at an early stage, and the project before it is a multi-generational undertaking.

Will Lagos actually reach 100 million inhabitants?

The fact that Lagos’ growth faces so many challenges is actually cause to believe that the city may grow larger than anticipated, given that it may take longer to facilitate the kind of broad-based economic transition there that will be necessary to slow the country’s birth rate. The longer it takes the city to realize per capita GDPs equivalent with those in the west, the longer it will be before the city’s birthrates come down. On the other hand, Logos’ many infrastructure constraints mean that it is likely many Nigerian residents seeking a better life may seek out other cities outside the country for opportunity if Lagos’ size becomes too unwieldy. Given that the world has yet to realize even a 40 million resident city, much less a 100 million resident city, it seems unlikely that a city with such extensive infrastructure challenges would become the world’s first to 100 million. It doesn’t mean Lagos won’t be huge, though, nor that a huge amount of the world’s growth energy in the back half of the 21st century won’t belong to Nigeria. In fact, it’s a safe bet that it will.

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