Stepping on toes

Nigeria’s declining fertility rate contradicts population estimate

Nigeria’s fertility rate has declined every year since 1979 yet the country has assumed a fixed growth rate for its now over 200 million population based on a controversial headcount done nearly two decades ago.

From an average of 6.763 births per woman in 1978, fertility rate in Nigeria has fallen to 5.076 in 2023, according to data by research platform, Macro trends.

Although the country is only now gearing up for a fresh count in May, the declining fertility rate has not been factored into estimates showing that Nigeria is home to some 216 million people.

Nigeria’s population size has always been subject to debate with many doubting the accuracy of not only the last count in 2006 but even previous ones dating back to the colonial era.

Politicians have an incentive to inflate the numbers because seats at the National Assembly and cash from the federal government are handed out to states based on population.

The former head of the National Population Commission (NPC), Festus Odimegwu, lost his job in 2013 after the ex-managing director of Nigerian Breweries said in 2013 that the 2006 census and the others before it were all inaccurate.

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Yemi Kale, Nigeria’s former chief statistician and a man armed with enough data on Nigeria to know whether the population estimate is close to reality,
became the latest to contest the figures when he took to his twitter account last week.

“I don’t believe we are near 200 million,” Kale, now chief economist and partner at KPMG Nigeria said.

Birth rates have definitely changed significantly in the south and middle parts of the country, Kale said, adding that even in some parts of the north, the number of kids per household, though still high, has reduced.

“Average household size across the country has also been reducing,” he said.

“Also, I know that with surveys on fertility, I’m fairly certain this was a survey not from admin records, higher income households where kids per women have dropped tend to refuse participation so it’s usually biased in favor of lower income households which tend to push up rates.”

“This shows continuously declining fertility rates, if the trend is a persistent decline then adopting a fixed growth rate is problematic,” Kale said.

The last count done in 2006 put the total number of Nigerians at 140 million but it has been widely faulted for being exaggerated by politicians.

“I have the records and evidence produced by scholars and professors of repute; this is not my report. If the current laws are not amended, the planned 2016 census will not succeed,” Odimegwu, former head of the NPC, said at the time, claiming to have proof that the 2006 census was inaccurate.

The 2016 census never held but the government is planning to conduct a fresh count in May.

Ahead of that count which is expected to cost as much as N869 billion ($1.8 billion), there’s a fair chance that an accurate exercise may show that Nigerians are not up to 200 million.

Another data point that questions the accuracy of Nigeria’s population is the trend in voter turnout which seems to mysteriously reduce with every technological advancement made to curb multiple voting.

The voter turnout has declined every year since 2007. The trend was no different at the last general elections which showed turnout slumped to an all-time low of 26.72 percent with the adoption of the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS).

BVAS is an electronic device designed to read Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs) and authenticate voters – using the voters’ fingerprints – in order to prove that they are eligible to vote at a particular polling unit.

The BVAS technology was seen as key to delivering credible elections in a country that has been marred in the past by cases of over voting whereby the tally of votes sometimes surpassed the number of voters in some polling units.

Despite the use of the BVAS machines in February presidential elections and the heightened political consciousness ahead of the pivotal elections, voter turnout managed to decline to the lowest on record.

The official voter turnout of 24.9 million at the 2023 presidential election represents 26.7 percent of the 93.47 million registered voters and accounts for barely 11.5 percent of the country’s supposed 216 million population.

“The trend of low voter turnout hints at the fact that the numbers we have been made to believe as the voting population are not true,” a senior business leader said on condition of anonymity.

“With every step to check multiple voting, the turnout slumps. I think the most recent voting population is the most accurate we have when compared to every election since 1999.”

Indeed voter turnout has declined with every step taken to embrace technology.

In 2007, when INEC abandoned manual voting and began its journey to using technology to screen voters, the turnout declined by 12 percent.

In 2011, the turnout declined by a further 4 percent.

When INEC introduced the Smart Card Reader designed to halt multiple voting by authenticating PVCs, turnout declined yet again by 10 percent.

Voter turnout declined yet again in 2019 before bottoming in 2023.

It means Nigeria’s actual voting population has declined by 40 percent from the 42 million votes counted in the 2003 elections.

It remains to be seen if a new census will happen as scheduled next month but the world will watch with bated breath to see if Nigeria is truly on its way to having the world’s third-largest population.