Thought Leadership

Insights from a Roundtable with Traditional and Interfaith Leaders on Nigeria’s Demographic Dividend

6 Mins read

By Ibukun Oguntola and Kenneth Ibe (Lead Writers)

Nigeria’s population of approximately 220 million people has great potential for economic growth and development. However, to fully realise this potential, the government must focus on harnessing the demographic dividend. A demographic dividend refers to the economic benefits of having a higher proportion of working-age people in a population. Changes in mortality and fertility rates influence the age composition of a population, and when there are fewer births each year, the number of the younger, dependent population reduces relative to the working-age group.

To reap the benefits of demographic dividends, Nigeria must make suitable investments and adopt focused policies aimed at reducing fertility and mortality rates. These actions create a favourable demographic window of opportunity, known as a demographic transition, in which mortality and fertility rates decline, and the proportion of the working-age population increases relative to dependents.

Image credit: Nigeria Health Watch

Nigeria has been recognised as a pre-dividend country, requiring strong commitment from the government, religious, political, and traditional leaders as well as policymakers to drive the country’s transition towards a demographic dividend. Recognising traditional and interfaith leaders as a critical stakeholder group in achieving Nigeria’s demographic dividend ambitions, the National Population Commission (NPC) organised a round table engagement with traditional and interfaith leaders to advocate for partnerships to improve human capital development through girl child education, with support from World Bank Nigeria,

Partnerships to improve human capital

In Nigeria, traditional and interfaith followers wield significant power in decision-making processes since their voices carry weight, and their community members and followers seek guidance on a variety of critical matters.

Alhaji Nasir Isa Kwarra, Chairman National Population Commission (NPC), emphasised the role of traditional and faith leaders in shaping health-related choices and stressed the importance of involving them early in discussions on demographic dividends. These leaders have a thorough understanding of cultural and religious norms and can play critical roles in addressing sensitive issues such as fertility rates, adolescent pregnancies, and early/forced marriages. “The traditional and interfaith leaders are critical in decision-making in Nigeria. If we want to get things right in this country, we must always involve them,” Alhaji Kwarra said, stating that for the country to achieve progress, it was critical to engage these influential people on a consistent basis.

In his welcome speech, Alhaji Nasir Isa Kwarra highlighted the pivotal role of traditional and interfaith leaders in shaping health-related choices and decision-making processes in Nigeria. Photo credit: Nigeria Health Watch

Senator Ibrahim Oloriegbe, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Health in the 8th Assembly, emphasised the critical need to strengthen efforts to uplift the girl child. He emphasised the critical link between girl-child education, health outcomes, and societal development, stressing that this link should not be underestimated.

By providing girls with access to quality education, they are equipped with knowledge, skills, and opportunities that can break the cycle of poverty, improve health outcomes, and contribute to the economic and social progress of the nation. Reiterating the link between a nation’s development and the well-being of its girl children, Senator Oloriegbe stressed the need to prioritise their welfare in all decision-making processes. “If a country has to develop, the girl child must be developed. A link exists between girl-child education, health outcomes, and societal development. We don’t need to underestimate this,” he noted.

Image credit: Nigeria Health Watch

Senator Oloriegbe also acknowledged the critical role that traditional rulers and religious leaders could play in educating and campaigning for the importance of educating the girl child, especially in reaching out to men and gaining their support. “Whatever decision we make, we must prioritise girl child welfare. We call on our royal fathers and religious leaders to educate and advocate to the public, particularly the men, on the issue and why it is key to educate the girl child,” he charged religious and interfaith leaders.

Unleashing Nigeria’s demographic dividend: a call to action

Dr Eyitayo Oyetunji, Chairman of Public Affairs Committee, National Population Commission, emphasised the importance of channelling proper investments towards unlocking the untapped potential of Nigeria’s young population and transforming them into valuable assets. “This is what it means to enhance Nigeria’s demographic dividend,” he said, adding that these investments can propel Nigeria towards development and economic success in a variety of industries, including agriculture.

According to Dr Oyetunji, enhancing Nigeria’s demographic dividend means channelling proper investments toward unlocking the untapped potential of Nigeria’s young population and transforming them into valuable assets. Photo credit: Nigeria Health Watch

Drawing attention to the possible outcome if a government fails to invest in its youth population, Oyetunji discussed the possibility of a “demographic miscarriage”, resulting in a demographic “disaster” rather than a “dividend”. A demographic disaster can result in various problems, including labour shortages, strained healthcare systems, higher dependency ratios, economic decline, social unrest, and reduced overall well-being.

According to Dr Olumide Okunola, Senior Health Specialist at the World Bank, if the correct age structure is achieved, Nigeria can become a regional and global economic hub. While acknowledging the economic challenges associated with a large population, he emphasised that it also represents a significant opportunity to boost economic growth. The key lies in capitalising on the “window of opportunity” that exists when a country’s working-age population accounts for a larger share of its population relative to those who are either too young or too old to work.

Dr. Olumide Okunola highlighted the economic potential of Nigeria’s population and the consequences of not leveraging Nigeria’s demographic advantage. Photo credit: Nigeria Health Watch

The transformative role of traditional and faith leaders in empowering girls through education

Dr Mairo Mandara, Special Adviser and Coordinator for Sustainable Development, Partnerships, and Humanitarian Response to the Borno State Governor, emphasised the critical importance of girl-child education in driving positive outcomes in maternal, newborn, and child health (MNCH) and accelerating Nigeria’s demographic transition. “Improving girls’ education can lead to large changes, the empowerment of women and girls can have major effects on economic and social development over and above its simple economic benefits,” she stated.

Image credit: Nigeria Health Watch

By prioritising and enforcing the completion of secondary education before marriage, traditional and faith leaders can provide a conducive and supportive environment for girls to thrive, acquire knowledge, and cultivate essential skills for their future. His Eminence, Alhaji Muhammad Sa’ad Abubakar, CFR, mni, Sultan of Sokoto, underlined the broader role of traditional and faith leaders in improving the well-being of the people in their communities. As respected custodians of cultural and religious values, they can initiate positive transformation and advance societal development. “As traditional and religious leaders, I believe we have a lot we can do to enhance the quality of life for those living in our communities. It is crucial that we keep track of the outcomes of this meeting and commit to doing more to improve girl child education in our communities,” he charged.

Image credit: Nigeria Health Watch

To achieve this, traditional and faith leaders must work with the government, civil society organisations, and communities to dismantle barriers hindering girls’ access to education. This includes challenging cultural norms, ensuring access to quality education, and creating safe learning environments. By leveraging their influence and authority, these leaders can advocate for policies and initiatives prioritising girl child education and fast-track Nigeria’s development.

Key takeaways

The roundtable provided stakeholders with a road map to follow; however, it is crucial to recognise that driving the demographic dividend agenda is a shared responsibility, especially at the sub-national level. These ten takeaways are critical next steps in the collective effort to advance Nigeria’s demographic dividend.

  1. Nigeria’s large and youthful population presents opportunities and challenges for the country’s development. Harnessing this youthful population by prioritising investments in education, health, and employment opportunities is critical.
  2. Youth empowerment and skills development programmes should be prioritised to provide young people with opportunities for education, employment, and entrepreneurship, thereby increasing their productivity and economic contribution.
  3. Girl child education plays a pivotal role in improving maternal and child health outcomes, preventing child marriage, and promoting economic and social development. Efforts should be directed towards ensuring that every girl completes secondary school or attains the highest level of education available to her, before marriage.
  4. A high fertility rate of 5.3 children per woman and a 17% low contraceptive prevalence rate is contributing to rapid population growth in Nigeria. To enable a demographic transition, it is necessary to achieve a substantial decline in fertility rates and a reduction in child mortality rates. This can be achieved by improving access to modern contraception and providing comprehensive reproductive health information and services, empowering women and girls to make informed decisions about their reproductive health.
  5. Investing in maternal and child health services, like prenatal care, skilled birth attendants, and postnatal care, is vital in reducing maternal and child mortality rates and improving overall health outcomes.
  6. Advocacy and continuous engagement with policymakers should be encouraged to raise awareness about the demographic dividend agenda and garner support from all relevant stakeholders.
  7. Building strong partnerships and coalitions is critical to driving change at the national and local levels.
  8. Achieving sustainable development requires a holistic approach that addresses the interplay between cultural and religious beliefs, political economy, and issues related to fertility, early/child/forced marriage, and adolescent pregnancy. Policies and interventions should be tailored to specific contexts, engaging all relevant stakeholders.
  9. Traditional and faith leaders are vital in influencing health decisions and play a critical role in advocating for girl child education and promoting positive social and cultural norms.
  10. Accurate demographic data is critical for effective planning and decision-making. It is imperative to strengthen data collection and monitoring systems to ensure accurate tracking of progress, identification of gaps, and provision of evidence-based policies and programmes.
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