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How Many Nigerians in Nigeria? A Continuing Controversy

By Alex Agbo

Two of  the world’s greatest  mysteries are a woman’s real age and the accurate number of the Nigerian population.

The exact population of Nigeria is not known at the moment, since the last official census was held in 2006.  Whereas statista.com says there are 219 million, www.worldometer.com contends that there are close to 300 million people. As with all things Nigerian, the devil is in the details.

The population in 2006, according to the National Population Commission,  (www.nationalpopulation.gov.ng), was 140.3 million.

An aborted attempt to hold another census in 2018 ended in cancellation, according to the Daily Trust newspaper, which explained it this way:  

“Censuses in Nigeria have always been politicized, as population figures are a significant metric for the federal allocation of funds to federating units such as regions, states, and local government areas.” Indeed, the higher the number of citizens, the more federal largess will be shared, and for starving orphans, that may mean a lot.

“A youthful population like Nigeria requires accurate information on characteristics like the age and sex of the population and how they are distributed spatially. This is the basis of policy and planning for education, employment, and health systems,” according to Quartz online paper  https://qz.com/africa/1944964/why-nigeria-census-has-a-difficult-and-politicized-history on December 11, 2022.

Political Fiddling of the Numbers while Nigeria burns

Nigerians say the incessant  census postponements are political.

This is the view of a former census official in Nasarawa State, Mr Ezra Zagbayi, who told truthnigeria.com that they were either bribed or forced to corrupt the census process, at the end of which the numbers were fake.

“In Nasarawa State, we were told to fill in data for people who didn’t exist. In Jenkwe local government area, we conjured names and ages. At the end, a village of about 100 people had a population of over 2,000 people,” Zagbayi told TruthNigeria.

Jenkwe is mainly a Muslim dominated with large households.

Inflated census figures are more common in the Muslim north where people have many wives and many children, Zagbayi said.

“The population of the North is usually large due to actual large family sizes and concocted numbers as against the south,” he said.  Muslim heads of household may claim to have as many as 60 children, when in fact they have only 7 or 8, according to some TruthNigeria sources.

Segun Adewale, a National Identification Number enrollment agent in Lagos told truthnigeria.com that the government’s inability to conduct a census is not only political but financial. He said the government is not thinking of digital means of capturing the population.

“They have billions to spend on fixing official residences for government officials and buying world class automobiles for themselves. But I don’t understand why they won’t conduct a census,” Adewale said,

Another population census was slated for May, 2023 but was postponed again, fueling speculations that the government was financially unable to execute the project.

Nigerians were  jittery in post-election periods because violence could break out any time over contentious election results. Thus, the need arose to postpone the May 3-7, 2023 national housing and population census to keep Nigeria from a crisis, according to National Population Commissioner in Plateau State, Mrs. Cecilia  Dapoet.

Population Surges from Migration

Migration is a key factor contributing to Nigerian population growth. Typically, Nigeriens and others in North Africa migrate into Nigeria and quickly blend in. Nigeria’s estimated population as at Friday, November 3, 2023 is 225,614,518 a 2.4% increase from the 216.7 million in 2022, according to World Population Review.   Migrants from the Niger Republic and others in North Africa migrate into Nigeria and quickly blend in.

Thousands of cattle block a highway in Adamawa State on their migration from north to south. Photo By Lawrence Ikeh.
Thousands of cattle block a highway in Adamawa State on their migration from north to south. Photo By Lawrence Ikeh.

Populations migrate from the north to the south through the Middle Belt region of Nigeria, therefore fueling violent contentions for lands.

Plateau, Benue and Nasarawa States are among the Middle Belt states that have witnessed  massacres over land grabbing  in the recent past.

“The middle belt is a transit route to the east and River Benue then to Onitsha and Delta regions because these places are rain forest,” according to Mr Tayo Abeni, an environmental expert with the Kogi State Ministry of Environment.

“If any negative event occurs in Niger, for instance, Nigeria will bear the brunt of migration,” Abeni said.   

Ethnic immigrants from other parts of the subregion include the Hausa, Tuaregs, Zarma and Fulani.

“Free migration granted by ECOWAS is a burden to Nigeria, and particularly the Middle Belt,”  according to Dr. Haruna Lumi Zamani,  an Urban and Regional Planning lecturer at the Federal University of Technology, Akure. It allows unhindered entry into the country by herdsmen and their cattle, he argues.

“The Fulani are majorly herdsmen. During the dry season, which is usually long in the north, they migrate to look for grass for their cattle. They move towards the Middlebelt which includes  Niger State, Abuja, Benue State, Kogi State and Kwara state,”

Dr  Zamani said.

The contest for the available resources in the Middle Belt is fierce because the migrants and their hosts are all focused on owning the land and using it for their economic benefits.

Clashes in the Middlebelt region of Nigeria have always been around land grabbing. While the indigenous people are trying to farm, the herds by the herdsmen eat up the crops as forage. This causes food scarcity and inflation in the Middle Belt.

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Alex Agbo,  an economic analyst, reports on trends for TruthNigeria from Lagos.

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