AfricaDemography and PopulationOpinionOPINION: Africa at the Center of Twenty-First-Century Demographic Shift

By John Campbell, Guest Columnist and Blogger


As the results of the 2020 U.S. national census become known, the American media is digesting the finding that the country’s population is no longer growing. The May 23 Sunday New York Times lead article “above the fold” highlighted how new a stagnant or declining birthrate and immigration is for the United States. The United States is joining Europe and East Asia, where a demographic decline and collapse of birth rates has long been underway—paradoxically often accompanied by a dysfunctional response to immigration. Demographic stagnation or decline is a worldwide phenomenon, except for Africa, where the population is exploding in size.

Nowhere is the African demographic boom more obvious than in Nigeria, where the current population of 219 million, according to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) World Factbook most recent estimate, is projected to increase to around 400 million by 2050, at which point it will likely displace the United States as the third largest country in the world by population. By the end of the century, some credible project that Nigeria’s population will be greater than China’s—where the birth-rate fall has been especially dramatic—leaving it second to only India in populational globally.

How is Africa to feed its enormous population increase? Nigeria in 1960 was a food-exporting country. But the economy has grown more slowly than the population, and Nigeria now imports food. Slow economic growth in tandem with high population growth will be a push factor for African migration, leaving aside other factors, such as insecurity and climate change. In North America, Europe, and East Asia, low demographic growth—if any—and an aging population will be a pull factor for African migration.

Migration, with its push-pull factors, can be destabilizing, as Americans have seen when facing migration from Central America or Europe has from the war zones of the Middle East and the cross-Mediterranean flow of African economic and political refugees. Successful management of migration flows will require a granular knowledge and understanding of the push-pull factors at play in Africa. One size does not fit all: those factors will be different in Nigeria, where the “push” is especially strong and, say, South Africa, where its developed economy is an important “pull” factor for the rest of the continent. Migration is yet another reason why Washington needs enhanced engagement with Africa that draws on expertise rather than an amateur absentmindedness in policy making.

The cover of Nigeria and the Nation-State: Rethinking Diplomacy with the Postcolonial World, by John Campbell.

John Campbell
 is the Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC. He was a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria. He writes the blog Africa in Transition.  This article first appeared in CFR.
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