Facing Crises in Urban Life, Nigeria Keeps On Growing

Unlike Asia and South America, sub-Saharan Africa did not see birthrates fall in the second half of the 20th century. As a result, urban life in Nigeria heralds the challenges facing an increasingly populous planet, Elisabeth Rosenthal reports.
April 18, 2012, 9am PDT | Ryan Lue
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Currently the sixth most populous nation in the world, Nigeria is expected to double in size over the next twenty-five years, compounding already-disastrous living conditions for city-dwellers.

In Lagos, its largest city (indeed the largest in Africa), entire families often crowd into 80-square-foot apartments so narrow, they're referred to as "Face Me, Face Yous," with as many as 50 people sharing a kitchen and bathroom – assuming they still have access to running water. And with almost 50 percent of young people unemployed, the threat of crime and civil unrest are growing.

"Population is key," said Peter Ogunjuyigbe, a researcher from the small central city of Ile-Ife. "If you don't take care of population, schools can't cope, hospitals can't cope, there's not enough housing – there's nothing you can do to have economic development."

The Nigerian government is scrambling to develop new infrastructure, but it's impossible for construction to keep up with the booming population. While developing countries in Asia and South America have successfully curbed birthrates over the last few generations, it may not be easy for Nigeria to duplicate those results. "That transformation was driven in each country by a mix of educational and employment opportunities for women, access to contraception, urbanization and an evolving middle class," writes Rosenthal. "Whether similar forces will defuse the population bomb in sub-Sarahan Africa is unclear."

Even with rapid urbanization, fertility rates have only fallen one-fifth since 1975, from 6.8 children per woman then to 5.5 now. In addition to cultural pressures to embrace large families, Rosenthal explains, historical factors have forestalled the shift to low birthrates in countries like Nigeria. "Because Africa was for centuries agriculturally based and sparsely populated, it made sense for leaders to promote high fertility rates. Family planning, introduced in the 1970s by groups like Usaid, was initially regarded as foreign, and later on, money and attention were diverted from family planning to Africa's AIDS crisis."

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Published on Saturday, April 14, 2012 in The New York Times
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