By 2050 Africa’s most populous nation could have nearly 400 million people squeezed into a country one-tenth the size of the United States
Born in Enugu, Nigeria, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani is an award-winning journalist based in Abuja and London. Yagazie Emezi photographed Rwanda’s women of impact for the November 2019 issue
“Somewhere last fall, Earth welcomed its eight billionth human, marking the largest number of our species to live on the planet at once. No one knows exactly the time or place this landmark was reached or who number 8,000,000,000 is.
In November the United Nations bestowed the honor on an infant born in Manila, but baby eight billion could have been any one of the roughly 12 million infants born that month around the world. She could’ve arrived in a hospital in Tokyo, on a farm in Wyoming, or in a bomb shelter in Kyiv. He could’ve been delivered in a refugee camp in Rwanda, a village in the Amazon, or an isolated town in the Arctic. Number eight billion could even have been Eziaku Kendra Okonkwo, a six-pound girl born in Abuja, Nigeria, on November 12, 2022, the second child of Kenneth and Amara Okonkwo.
Nigeria is a reasonable guess since, with 224 million people, it’s Africa’s most populous country. Thanks in part to modest health-care advances, infant mortality has decreased to 72 deaths per thousand live births and life expectancy has inched up to 53 years (though both these figures still fall far below UN goals). Those and other factors, combined with traditions favoring large families, have created one of the world’s fastest growing populations. By 2050—when Eziaku will be 28 years old—Nigeria, with just about one-tenth the land of the United States, is projected to hold 377 million people, becoming the planet’s third most populous nation, just ahead of the U.S. and behind only India and China.
Assuming she stays in Nigeria, what will Eziaku’s country look like? One way to visualize it is to imagine every American moving into Texas and Oklahoma and spilling over into the western half of Louisiana. All the Californians and New Yorkers, all the New Englanders, Midwesterners, and Southerners, along with every man, woman, and child from all the other states, including Hawaii and Alaska—everyone crammed in. Picture it? OK, now add another 39 million people, roughly the population of Canada. All these people will bring their cultural preferences, their politics, and their religious practices. They’ll all need food, jobs, transportation, water, sanitation, electricity, health care, schools, and so forth. That’s what statistics say Nigeria will look like halfway through the century.
Statistics are crucial for projecting the future, but they’re also detached from the human beings they’re supposed to represent. So let’s look into the future of Nigeria, my home country, through the eyes of Eziaku, who will grow up in a place that will be far different from the one in which her parents and I grew up.
Eziaku rests quietly in her mother’s arms, her chubby brown face several shades darker than her mother’s, one of many features the baby shares with her grandmother, whom relatives say she resembles. Amara named Eziaku after her mother, a retired primary school teacher, who died at 71, four months before her granddaughter arrived. She’d suffered from diabetes and kidney problems and was on dialysis for most of her daughter’s pregnancy. Despite her ill health, she never stopped worrying about her daughter and her unborn grandchild. “I found out after she died that she had called my aunts and my elder sister to tell them to make sure that they took care of me after the baby was born,” Amara says. “I suspect she knew that she was going to die.”
Amara and Kenneth are from the Igbo ethnic group of southeastern Nigeria, among whom omugwo is a ritual requiring a maternal grandmother to provide postpartum care. During this time she helps take care of the new baby and eases her daughter into the role of mother, ensuring she eats nutritious meals with local spices believed to boost milk production and helping massage her belly with hot water to flush blood clots from the womb. Amara’s sister fulfilled the tradition in place of their mother.
Eziaku’s birth in a private hospital marked a change from how her mother arrived. Amara was born in a “maternity” in Benin City, in 1988, when Nigeria’s population was just 90.4 million. Amara’s father was a pastor, and the maternity was a sort of clinic owned by a church and staffed by women who were experienced but not professionally trained. “When I was growing up, my mother showed me the woman who helped her deliver me,” Amara says. “I don’t think she was a nurse or midwife or anything. Back then, health care was mostly do-it-yourself. I don’t recall ever going to hospital when I was a child. My mother would just ask people what to do whenever we were not feeling well and then give us medicine based on what they suggested. ‘If you have a fever, take this. If you have a stomachache, take that.’ ”
Many women in Nigeria still choose traditional birth attendants instead of going to hospitals, not only because they trust the knowledge that these experienced women provide but also because the attendants are nearer to their homes and are more affordable. The proportion of Nigerian babies born in health facilities has increased by over 85 percent since Amara was a child but still accounts for less than half the country’s deliveries.
Amara gave birth to her first child in a government hospital, but after hearing worrisome stories of inadequate care in some government hospitals in Abuja, the capital, she decided to deliver Eziaku in a private facility. “There was a difference in the care between my first and second,” she says. “You have better attention when you are in private hospitals.” At 140,000 nairas (about $310), the bill was also five times more, but Amara and Kenneth were willing to pay.
According to the World Bank, the ratio of doctors to patients in Nigeria is 1 to about 2,500, contrasted with 1 to 385 in the U.S. The Nigerian government subsidizes the training of physicians in the country’s medical schools, but poor working conditions and low pay cause many new doctors to seek better opportunities in places such as the United Kingdom, the U.S., and South Africa, leaving Nigeria’s medical system with insufficient personnel. Between December 2021 and May 2022, a total of 727 doctors trained in Nigeria migrated to the U.K. alone. If current trends continue, Eziaku will grow up in a country where more people have access to health facilities than when her parents were children, but there will still be an acute shortage of trained physicians.
Sitting in the only bedroom of their apartment in the Kubwa suburb of Abuja, Amara rocks a sleeping Eziaku while her two-year-old sister, Ifeyinwa, scampers around. The couple’s double bed is neatly covered with a blue bedspread; across the room a pink spread covers a smaller bed for the children. Amara smiles as she touches Eziaku’s tiny fingers and toes. She takes photos and videos of the baby being cuddled by her sister. For her selfies with Eziaku, she lets down her braids, allowing them to cascade down her full cheeks as she faces her baby toward the camera.
But this adoring mother was slightly disturbed when she discovered that she was pregnant again. “I was wondering how I was going to take care of the baby, because I am not working,” she says. Kenneth was more concerned about whether it would be a boy, his dream. “God will always provide for any child He brings,” he says. “It turned out to be a girl, but no problem. I’m going to give her all the best support she needs.”
Kenneth has a degree in business management and was working in the government’s science and technology ministry when the couple married in 2019. At the time, Amara was studying for a master’s degree in computer science. Kenneth is still in the same job, where his monthly earnings are nearly four times the national minimum wage of 30,000 nairas ($66) a month, while Amara has struggled to find work since graduating, despite dozens of online applications. The number of Nigerians without work has risen steadily for the past decade. Now more than a third of Nigerians are jobless, with 17 percent of the unemployed holding advanced degrees. Each year around two million students gain admission to Nigeria’s universities and polytechnical schools, and some 600,000 new graduates enter the labor pool, but there aren’t enough opportunities. The World Bank estimates the country currently needs to produce 2.5 million jobs every year to meet the demand. That number will need to grow by the time Eziaku graduates from college, as her parents plan, in the 2040s.
Kenneth and Amara live paycheck to paycheck, with funds often running out before the month ends. They rarely buy new clothes, often run out of credit on their prepaid phones, and can’t afford a car. Amara’s older brother, who lives in Abuja, had to drive her to the hospital to have Eziaku. Kenneth’s parents are dead, and Amara’s 76-year-old father is retired. “We contribute money with my siblings to take care of him,” she says. Still, their situation puts them in Nigeria’s middle class, ahead of over two-thirds of their fellow citizens.
Amara had hoped to get a job before having a second baby. “The pregnancy wasn’t planned,” she says. “I don’t think it’s just about having money. There are a lot of things needed to cater for a child.” Kenneth believes that they will somehow be able to provide for all Eziaku’s needs, but there’s just one area where he concedes they may come up short. Growing up, Amara was the youngest of five siblings, while Kenneth’s parents had seven children. Kenneth describes his home back then as a beehive of activity, with usually up to 19 children staying there at a time, including cousins and other extended family. “Because of that, going home was always fun,” he says. He always had people to play with. “My children will lack the kind of large family we used to have.”
Nigeria’s fertility rate was more than seven births per woman when Kenneth was born in 1983. In 2004 the government launched a 10-year plan to reduce the fertility rate to just over four births per woman and increase the use of contraceptives to 30 percent of the nation’s sexually active population. Over the next decade the fertility rate dipped but only to 5.5 births per woman, while less than 10 percent of couples used contraceptives. The policy’s failure wasn’t that surprising. From the beginning, many Nigerians denounced the government’s recommendation that a woman have no more than four children—even though it was based in part on research showing a mother’s health begins to decline after the fourth pregnancy. “People always misquote that policy,” says Akanni Akinyemi, a professor of demography at Obafemi Awolowo University. “They say that it said we must not have more than four children, as if it was a law. No, that was not the case,” he tells me. “It simply said: Have a rational decision around family planning.”
Amara is aware of the government’s family planning initiatives and thinks that they’re a good idea. “Look at the number we are now, and people are struggling to survive. The rich in Nigeria are crying, the poor are also crying. Everyone is having a tough time. Imagine how much more difficult it would be when our population grows more,” she says. However, she does not use any modern contraceptives, preferring natural family planning methods instead, such as prolonged breastfeeding, which reduces fertility, and avoiding sex during her ovulation cycle.
“My mother advised me not to put any of these things people are putting inside their bodies for family planning,” Amara says, citing stories she’s heard of side effects from using contraceptives. “She believed that things can happen naturally, especially when you pray and believe in God. For now, I am still trying to stick to her advice.” Amara chuckles as she admits shyly that she may have up to four children, as she does not plan to stop giving birth until she gets a son. “If I have a girl as a third child, I will still try for one more,” she says.
While Amara is not under any particular pressure from her husband or extended family to have a boy, most Nigerian cultures place a higher value on male children. “In some cultures, when a woman doesn’t have a male child, it is like a problem for her,” says Chidera Benoit of Population Explosion Awareness Initiative, a nonprofit in Nigeria that counters beliefs that lead couples to have many children. In some families, when the man dies, he says, “they will throw the woman out, seize all the property of the man, and say that the woman doesn’t have a male child to continue the lineage. So you see, a woman who has four or five girl children, she will continue … to have more children, hoping for a boy, because that male child is an insurance for her for the future.”
According to the UN, easy access to family planning and education, especially for girls, is a major driver of declining fertility. If Nigeria were to make both universal by 2030, as some demographers have suggested, the nation might cut its population boom in half, meaning that in 2100, when Eziaku is 78, the country would have 400 million people, rather than the nearly 800 million that one estimate predicts.
The attitudes toward male children are similar in Nigeria’s predominantly Muslim north, but the situation is exacerbated by its having the nation’s lowest percentage of children attending school and nearly half its girls marrying before they turn 15. As a child born to Christian parents from southern Nigeria, Eziaku will probably have a life far different from that of girls born in the north. She’s likely to begin formal education as a toddler and continue to university. Her parents plan to send her to private schools to avoid the turmoil of Nigeria’s government-run schools, where classrooms are often overcrowded and many teachers are poorly trained and regularly strike in protest over not being paid. Eziaku’s sister already attends a private preschool, which costs 48,000 nairas ($105) a term. “If you want good education, you need to have good money in your pocket,” Amara says. “We’ve been taught that education is key, even though in our country now, whether or not you are educated doesn’t determine how successful you are. But I think education is the basic thing every parent should give their child. Give them a good education, and hopefully they can find a better path and better opportunities.”
Even as a highly educated adult, Eziaku will likely face one of her country’s starkest challenges: finding enough to eat. Nigeria spends $22 billion a year on food imports, yet it’s one of the hungriest countries in the world, with more than 19 million people experiencing critical levels of food insecurity in 2022. Kenneth and Amara are not among them, but they keep a careful eye on their budget. “We buy food first, then save for other bills,” Amara says. And yet, an ongoing crisis in Nigeria’s agricultural sector may mean that when Eziaku is an adult, groceries will take up a much larger part of her family’s budget. Last fall, Nigerians saw food prices increase by 20 percent over the previous year, the highest increase in 17 years. Even if Eziaku has the money, there may not be enough food to buy.
Nigeria’s former president and one of the country’s most famous farmers, Olusegun Obasanjo, alluded to this during a 2021 event in Lagos. “My heart sinks with the sea of heads that flit across my eyes in parks, marketplaces, and under bridges,” he declared. “How are we going to feed this exploding population?”
Last fall, I traveled to the town of Abeokuta to see Obasanjo, who’s been obsessed with Nigeria’s food supply for nearly 50 years. I met him at the penthouse of the building that houses both his private residence and his presidential library.
Prior to the discovery of oil in 1956, Nigeria was famous for a long list of cash crops, such as palm oil, cacao, and groundnuts, but the government’s hyperfocus on crude oil led to the neglect of other sectors, and a once thriving agricultural economy petered out. Obasanjo is a recurring figure in Nigeria’s postcolonial history. He rose to power in 1975, during a decade of successive military governments, and later was elected to two terms as president. He tried to steer Nigeria back to agriculture during his first stint in power, which lasted until 1979. He launched Operation Feed the Nation, which encouraged every Nigerian to farm. “The idea was that even at the back of your house, just grow vegetables,” he says. “We cannot all be farmers, but we can all be producers.” However, the project lost steam after he handed over power to a civilian administration and retired to a private life of full-time farming.
As I chat with him about those ideas, a line of guests waits patiently outside the parlor for their turn. Obasanjo, even at 86, remains a very busy man, consulting with aspiring politicians, government agencies, and African heads of state, but his passion for agriculture gets the better of him. When my 30-minute slot is over, he asks me to wait for a few hours so that he can show me some of his farms on the outskirts of town.
He takes me to a greenhouse roughly the size of a soccer field, where I dip my shoe soles in disinfectant and put on a white lab coat. Obasanjo plucks a ripe tomato and takes a bite, then offers me a fresh one to taste. “A diet of just this and some vegetables, and your body will shine!” he says. During his four decades in professional farming, his Obasanjo Farms conglomeratehas spread across the country, including not just greenhouses but also granaries, aquaculture, poultry, and processing plants. “This is what science and technology has done,” he says, explaining some of the latest advancements his farms employ, such as using ground coconut husks to enhance soil, which boosts water retention among other advantages. “Our population is increasing. We need to ensure that our productivity also keeps increasing.”
Obasanjo made another policy push to revive agriculture when he returned to office in 1999. Momentum carried over into subsequent administrations, and young people rallied to join the national effort to reinvent Nigerian agriculture. Then came the pandemic, along with widespread violence, and things went awry.
During the COVID-19 lockdowns, people began robbing trucks hauling food, says Mezuo Nwuneli, co-founder of Sahel Capital, an agriculture investment firm. “Hunger spiked, kidnapping spiked … That spike in crime has made it harder to farm.”
In the past two years, armed gunmen on motorbikes have kidnapped thousands of people in Nigeria for ransom. The staff of prosperous agricultural enterprises have been particularly targeted, forcing many farms to abandon or reduce operations. Many of Nigeria’s largest farms are in the fertile northern region.
In March 2022, in the northwest state of Kebbi, several people were killed in an exchange of gunfire between security agents and bandits who attacked the premises of GB Foods, the country’s second largest tomato-processing plant. Nationwide, more than 350 farmers were kidnapped or killed in the 12 months up to June 2022 alone.
Nwuneli says guards must escort workers to and from farms his company invests in. Under such a specter of fear, he tells me, “you cannot run a company’s operations.”
As Nigeria’s population grows, the rising insecurity, especially in the north, is Kenneth’s greatest concern for his family. It’s also the reason he’s usually away from home, leaving Eziaku alone with her mother and sister. About a year after the couple got married, he was transferred from the southern city of Enugu farther north to Jos, the scene of several violent incidents over the past two decades. Kenneth was reluctant to move his family there with him. The nearest safe place he could think of was Abuja, more than 150 miles away. “I’m not saying Abuja is totally safe, but it is safer than anywhere else in the north,” Kenneth says. “So I decided that they should stay here while I stay in Jos, so that whenever it is time to run from danger, I know that I am running alone instead of carrying my family with me.”
Amara spends a lot of time whispering prayers over Eziaku, Bible passages she has memorized. “The Lord will cause His face to shine upon you,” she says. “You shall continually lie in green pastures.” She holds the baby’s tiny hands and feet and talks to her. “You will not be like me. You will not struggle,” she says, believing in the power of positive words to shape a child’s future. Eziaku is Igbo for “good wealth,” and among Amara’s prayers is that her daughter’s name ends up being prophetic.
“I know we work hard and there is dignity in labor, but there are still times when favor supersedes your hard work,” Amara says. “My prayer for her is that she will not struggle in this life, whether in Nigeria or anywhere. Anywhere she finds herself, her hands will not struggle to open doors. She will just meet open doors.”
When Eziaku turns 34, her mother’s age when she was born, the world’s nine billionth baby will have long since arrived, and number 10 billion will be just a few years away. “Will there be enough food for everybody by that time? I wonder,” Amara says. “But I believe that Eziaku will be outstanding, no matter the number of persons in the world.”