Africa’s unsolvable demographic equation

L'impossible équation démographique de l'Afrique

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ANALYSIS. Africa’s current population will double by 2050. This is a “time bomb” for the continent, which creates huge doubts about its ability to become the new economic “El Dorado” of the century.

“If we don’t reduce the size of our families, our country will continue to suffer from poverty, because available resources will no longer be able to satisfy our needs”. This warning, which was made in October by Goodluck Jonathan, former president of Nigeria, at the forum held by the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute on Rhodes Island, clearly indicates how this question is worrying leaders on the African continent.

In fact, the demographic forecast for Africa leaves no doubt that decisive actions are needed. By 2050, the population of Africa will nearly double relative to 2017 to become 2.5 billion, whereas it is currently 1.25 billion. And this trend is continuing. According to research by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, by 2050 more than half of the growth of the global population, which will reach 9.7 billion, will come from Africa. A continent whose population was less than 260 million when the former colonies gain independence.

Exponential growth

Nigeria is experiencing exponential growth: the current population is 191 million, but by 2050 it will reach more than 410 million, and Nigeria will become the third most populous country in the world after India and China. Leaders of western countries are also concerned by this demographic explosion. At the G20 summit held in July, President Emmanuel Macron made an unexpected statement: “As long as seven or eight children are born to each woman in a country, you can spend billions of euros, but you won’t manage to stabilise the situation”.

This is a sensitive topic, and some experts have not understood that demographics may be the reason for poor growth. They believe that the causal link here should be reversed.

Demographic dividend

But this criticism only goes so far. Unlike China, Africa is not experiencing an acceleration in economic growth amid the renewed population growth.

According to Adair Turner, Chairman of the Institute for New Economic Thinking, the “demographic dividend” is really an illusion, “an exercise in denial”. The population growth can be explained by a lower child mortality rate and the more than 20-year increase in the average lifespan that has been observed since 1950, from 36 to 57 years of life.

But these two trends have not been accompanied by a drop in the birth rate. Though the fertility rate in Africa has now fallen to 4.7 children per woman versus the rate of 5.5 children that existed 20 years ago, it remains high relative to the rest of the world. It has fallen to 2.1 in Asia, 2 in Latin America, and lower than the reproduction rate (2.1) in North America (1.9) and Europe (1.6).

There is a significant gap among African countries in this regard: Niger has the highest fertility rate (7.6 children per woman), while South Africa, Tunisia, Morocco, and Libya are lower (2.4). French Institute for Demographic Studies (INED) recently studied another indicator – the fertility rate of men, which was found to be higher in African countries south of the Sahara and especially in Sahel. This metric amounts to 13.6 children per man in Niger and 13.5 children in South Sudan.

Africa lags behind

But this is a difficult demographic equation. Because, as Goodluck Jonathan reminds us, the population growth depends largely on religious and cultural factors. These factors also explain the extremely slow spread of contraceptives in Africa.

Demographic pressure is one reason why Africa still significantly lags behind Asia and Latin America. According to the World Bank, the per-capita GDP in Sub-Saharan Africa doubled only over a quarter of a century – from 1638 USD in 1990 to 3710 USD in 2016, and also with a considerable gap between mineral-rich countries and the most resource-poor countries, for example, Niger and Burundi. GDP in China increased by a factor of 16 (from 986 USD to 15,534 USD).

Fertile ground for terrorism

Africa’s population growth is also currently one of the main factors of endemic unemployment on the continent, especially among youth. Eliminating unemployment in Africa in the next 20 years would require the creation of 450 million additional jobs. According to most available data, Africa will be able to offer at most 100 million jobs.

It is also the source of a significant political imbalance in Africa amid sweeping urbanisation and indirect consequences, conflicts, and terrorism. Many young people, who feel deprived by society, are joining the ranks of organisations such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and the Lake Chad region, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Al-Shabaab in Somalia, or they are participating in the various uprisings that are undermining stability on the continent.

In 1976, Emmanuel Todd predicted the “final collapse” of the Soviet Union based on demographic indicators, including an increase in the child mortality rate. Africa may also become a victim of its own uncontrolled demographic situation. If the situation does not change drastically, the continent’s status, sometimes described as the planet’s future economic paradise, will remain far from reality.

Jacques Hubert-Rodier

International political commentator for Les Echos