For anyone interested in understanding the global economy of the recent past or in projecting the shape of things to come in world affairs in the near future, there are few fundamentals that condition the lives of nations more powerfully than population dynamics.
The past 50 years have served up this lesson repeatedly, most recently with the rise of China. Riding on the back of a dramatic bulge in the number of freshly educated young people who teemed onto the workshop floors of the innumerable industries that were just then being thrown together, China turned itself into the so-called factory of the world.
Today, most economists expect China’s growth to slow substantially in the decade ahead, not merely because it has become a more mature industrial economy, but also because of the rapid aging of its population. This will steadily impose immense new social costs, reducing the availability of cheap capital to sustain the extraordinary investment rates of the country’s takeoff era.
The mirror opposite of China’s high-growth period can be found in places like Japan, in many parts of Europe and increasingly in the United States, where population growth has badly stalled or even turned negative. Countries like these in the rich world are experiencing the opposite of the so-called demographic dividend—the shift in population structure toward young, working-age people that powered China’s rise. Nowadays in such places, children are few, and nursing home and chronic care facilities can’t be built fast enough to accommodate swelling cohorts of the elderly and infirm.
In the early 2000s, in China’s wake, India, the world’s other population giant, began its rise. This, too, was premised very largely on population structure. Like China before it, India was just then experiencing a surge in the number of its people ranging in age from their teens to their mid-30s—the kind of people who are eager to strive for a better future through education and hard work, and who demand far less from the state in outlays than they contribute through productivity and taxes.
India is expected to surpass China in overall population soon. In terms of national development and global competitiveness, a race is now on to see how much betterment can be achieved for the Indian people before the country’s demographic dividend eventually peters out like China’s and gives way, as will inevitably happen, to massive aging.
As well as all of this is understood, there is surprisingly little global awareness of the next great stage of the world historical demographic story, even though it will be the most powerful of all. It will take place in Africa, and this is no matter of speculating about the deep or distant future. As is usually the case with demographics, the effects to come are already well underway.
As you read this, Africa is experiencing an extended boom in fertility, meaning an average number of children born per woman—and a corresponding skyrocketing ratio of young people to old—on a scale never seen before. At nearly 1.4 billion people today, Africa’s population is projected to be just shy of 4.5 billion by the end of this century, according to the median projection of the United Nations Population Division. This means nearly 1.5 billion people more than in China and India combined today. Other projections, such as one by The Lancet, foresee the possibility of even more dramatic growth in these numbers.
Thinking about an entire continent is so abstract, however, as to sometimes be paralyzing. There are countries whose numbers exemplify the extraordinary impact of fertility more than the one I will now propose as warranting single-minded attention—countries that are politically unstable, landlocked, semi-desertified and severely poor, like Niger, Mali and Chad. I will come back to them in a future column. But because it is already so large, and growing on nearly the same pace as these, the real place to watch is Nigeria.
Already Africa’s most populous country by far, with over 200 million people, Nigeria is a mere one-third larger in surface area than the American state of Texas. It is on track, however, to have 700 million people by the century’s end, again according to the U.N. Population Division’s median projection. Think that’s too far out to be useful? The number by mid-century is 400 million, or larger than the United States.
Whereas China and India saw the same booming numbers of people of school-finishing age—the very grist of a demographic dividend—and capitalized on the surge, Nigeria, in the aggregate, is making little productive use of this ordinarily favorable ratio. That is because demography without national purpose, as well as well-articulated and well-executed policy, is the opposite of a virtuous X factor. As the Financial Times recently pointed out, because of Nigeria’s dismally corrupt politics and seemingly perpetually inept elites, its university graduates—the very flower of the country’s youth—are largely condemned to unemployment or emigration.
Africa’s demographic giant is a nation in deep and open crisis. Large and growing parts of the country are effectively ungoverned. As The New Humanitarian recently noted, the army is deployed to quell persistent insecurity in all but one of Nigeria’s 36 states. This is a country that produces people of legendary energy and talent, but whose post-independence era has been characterized by a selfish struggle over the spoils of an oil economy, to the neglect of almost everything else. Having never diversified, industrialized or even reinvested sensibly in the modernization of its agriculture, which employs huge numbers of its people, Nigeria now faces a future in which the global economic crisis likely to follow the coronavirus pandemic will increasingly disfavor poor petroleum states.
There are no easy answers for Nigeria, and it would not surprise this observer if the state, as it continues to fail its citizens, falls apart. That is not to say nothing can be done by outsiders to help avoid greater disaster. For the Biden administration and for the world more broadly, it is time to pursue a much more intense engagement with Africa via its most populous states, like Nigeria, Congo, Ethiopia and Sudan, rather than through easier, “small ball” diplomacy with smaller states and perennial favorites, like Ghana and Rwanda.
Concretely and visibly, this means that presidents and other global leaders should be regularly going there and sustaining much higher-level dialogue and cooperation. The future of Africa is a global issue, and it is time to stop pretending, through neglect, that it isn’t.
Howard W. French is a career foreign correspondent and global affairs writer, and the author of four books, including most recently “Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power.”