Country profile: Nigeria

Almost half of Nigerians want to move abroad in the next five years, Nosmot Gbadamosi writes, and the country’s population is expected to surpass that of the US by 2050.

10-year-old Ruth Bitrus from Michika, in northeastern Nigeria, whose parents were killed by Boko Haram following the invasion of her hometown. IMMANUEL OFOLABI
10-year-old Ruth Bitrus from Michika, in northeastern Nigeria, whose parents were killed by Boko Haram following the invasion of her hometown. IMMANUEL OFOLABI

The popular pidgin phrase ‘Naija no dey carry last’, which roughly translates as ‘Nigerians strive to finish first’, encapsulates the entrepreneurship of Africa’s largest economy. It has exported highly successful figures to other countries, particularly in the fields of literature, art, music and science. More than half of Nigerian immigrants in the US in one survey held management positions. Nigerians also form the largest group of African migrants in the UK labour market, with more than 5,000 working as doctors.

In politics, however, Nigeria is less high-achieving. For 50 of the 60 years since the country won independence from British rule in 1960, it has been led by someone linked to the military. Its first president, Nnamdi Azikiwe, strove with prime minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa to unify a country with over 250 ethnic groups. They failed, and northern-born Balewa was assassinated in what was seen as a coup led by Igbo soldiers. It would be the first of many military coups.

Tensions rose further as the military became dominated by people from the north – mainly of Hausa and Fulani background. It soon led the Igbo people to declare the separate republic of Biafra in the southeast. The resulting civil war between the rest of the country (armed by Britain) and Biafra (armed by France) led to the deaths of more than a million people between 1967 and 1970.

 Rubberneckers view the damaged vehicles following the crash of a fuel tanker on the Kara Bridge in Nigeria’s capital, Lagos. ADEYINKA YUSUF
Rubberneckers view the damaged vehicles following the crash of a fuel tanker on the Kara Bridge in Nigeria’s capital, Lagos. ADEYINKA YUSUF

Its lasting legacy remains the distrust of European intervention. When the Yoruba general Olusegun Obasanjo gained power in 1976, he sought to sever all ties with the UK by establishing the current constitution – based on that of the US – and splitting the country into 36 states largely based on cultural makeup. But economic, environmental and social disparities continue. The country has more people living in extreme poverty – with less than $1.90 a day – than any other in the world.

The poorest regions in the north are plagued by insurgencies and violent farmer-herder conflicts, as well as kidnappings of schoolchildren by terrorist group Boko Haram. Meanwhile, oil pipeline bombings are frequent in the Niger Delta, where communities have been left with contaminated rivers and poorer health outcomes. These issues are largely ignored by wealthier citizens in the commercial hub, Lagos, where most of the estimated 30,000 millionaires live.

Yet even Lagos does not escape the insecurity fuelled by inequality. Power cuts are the norm. Kidnappings are a lucrative business for gangs. Corrupt police engage in bribery and extortion.

A runner poses with students during the Lagos Women Run. ADEYINKA YUSUF
A runner poses with students during the Lagos Women Run. ADEYINKA YUSUF

In October 2020, protests erupted after a video allegedly showing a SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad) officer fatally shooting a man went viral. The SARS police unit, created in 1992 to tackle a rise in armed robbery, had long operated unchecked and was infamous for the unlawful killing, robbing, rape and torture of mainly young citizens. When the army responded by shooting unarmed demonstrators, protests soon evolved into a wider outcry over government accountability.

Even the transition to democracy in 1999 did not shake the military’s hold. Military officials control large stakes in the oil, agriculture, shipping and telecoms sectors. Muhammadu Buhari, another former coup leader, is currently president.

There are not enough jobs for the country’s growing population, which is predicted to surpass that of the US by 2050. Almost half of Nigerians hope to move abroad in the next five years. More than 40 per cent of the 206 million population are under 14 years old. Many of those youths want the better infrastructure and governance they observe overseas and are campaigning for change. Their determined efforts have gained global attention – the EndSARS hashtag used by protesters has accumulated more than 28 million posts on Twitter alone.

Women from waterfront communities under threat of eviction for property  development confront Lagos police. OSAKPOLOR OMOREGIE
Women from waterfront communities under threat of eviction for property  development confront Lagos police. OSAKPOLOR OMOREGIE

LEADER: President Muhammadu Buhari.

ECONOMY: GNI per capita $2,030 (Cameroon $1,500, UK $42,220).

Monetary unit: Naira.

Main exports: Petroleum, natural gas, cocoa beans, gold, coconuts, brazil nuts and cashews.

Nigeria is Africa’s biggest crude oil producer and the economy depends heavily on this export. A fall in oil prices triggered a recession in 2016 and another followed in 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic slowed production. A strong tech industry contributes over 13% to GDP. Remittances from abroad amounted to $21.7 billion in 2020.

POPULATION: 206 million, of which 2.7 million have been internally displaced in the northeast. Annual population growth rate 2.6%. People per sq km 223 (UK 275).

HEALTH: Infant mortality rate 74 per 1,000 live births (Cameroon 50, UK 4). Around 10% of the population have been infected with Hepatitis B, most of them in childhood. HIV prevalence rate 1.4% – but the world's largest population of babies born with HIV. The government spends just 4% of its federal budget on health – way below the global average of 9.9%.

ENVIRONMENT: Carbon emissions 0.6 tonnes per capita (Cameroon 0.3, UK 5.8). Global heating has hit hard. Droughts have risen sharply in the north, causing dust storms and desertification. The country pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2030.

RELIGION: Nigeria’s population is equally split between Christians and Muslims, while a small minority follow traditional beliefs.

LANGUAGE: More than 500 languages are spoken, with Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo predominant. English has remained the official language since colonial rule.

HUMAN DEVELOPMENT INDEX: 0.539, 161st out of 189 countries (Cameroon 0.563, UK 0.932).

Star ratingS


Nigeria is Africa’s wealthiest economy and one of the world’s largest oil producers but 40%, or 83 million people, live in extreme poverty. Each successive government has ignored the gap between rich and poor. An Oxfam global inequality index put Nigeria last in a list of 152 countries ranked by their ‘commitment to reducing inequality’. Spending on health and education was ‘shamefully low’.


62%. Nigerians overall are highly educated compared to other African countries although there is a vast disparity in female literacy between the south at 89% and the more conservative north at 50%.


54 years (Cameroon 59, UK 81).


Women make up a large proportion of the Nigerian workforce. But representation in government is low. The country has more child brides than any other in the world; 70% of child marriages occur in the north.


A proposed social media bill aims to suppress anti-government critics and impose prison sentences for online posts that the government decides are false statements. NGOs and media houses are threatened with closure and journalists jailed. Peaceful protests often end in armed conflict with the military.


Homosexuality was criminalized in 2014 under former president Goodluck Jonathan and is punishable by 10 years in prison. The law is rarely applied but LGBTQI+ citizens face police extortion, bribery and rape.


President Muhammadu Buhari won a second term in 2019 on a promise to further tackle corruption and insecurity. He has made some gains in seizing back embezzled money and jailing corrupt officials. But since then his government has veered towards authoritarianism with harsh fines for media houses critical of the government as well as inaction on armed violence. Buhari’s administration, like those before it, has failed to tackle wealth inequality and poverty is at the root of Boko Haram’s foothold in the northern region.

★★★★★ Excellent

★★★★✩ Good

★★★✩✩ Fair

★★✩✩✩ Poor

★✩✩✩✩ Appalling