The Dangerous Demographics of West Africa

by | Feb 18, 2009

I gave a talk to senior civil servants at the Home Office last week, as part of Demos’s Leadership Masterclass on International Challenges and Counter-Terrorism. My talk was on West Africa, and particularly on how looming demographic changes there are likely to increase instability in a region that is already the world’s poorest and one of its most volatile. I argue that, at least in the long-term, Western security policy-makers would do well to keep an eye on the region. For an edited version of the talk, see after the jump.

The Dangerous Demographics of West Africa

Talk given by Mark Weston at Demos Leadership Masterclass on International Challenges and Counter-Terrorism, Home Office 13 February 2009


Good morning, I’m going to talk about West Africa – a region not that well-known to most Britons but which has the potential in the next few decades to force itself into our consciousness.

I’ll be looking at the region primarily through the lens of demography. So I’m going to first discuss the concept of the demographic dividend, and its converse, the demographic disaster. Then I’ll provide a snapshot of the current security situation in West Africa.

Then I’ll look at how demographic trends are transforming the region and potentially heightening the security risks, before outlining some other key drivers of change and instability. Finally I’ll provide some examples of how these drivers of change are already having destabilizing effects in some parts of the region.

The demographic dividend

So before I get on to specifics about West Africa, I’m going to first take a couple of minutes to explain how the demographic dividend is transforming many developing countries.

For two centuries, since Thomas Malthus made his dire prediction that population growth would outpace food production and result in mass starvation, demographers have mostly been worried about the consequences of rapid population growth.

Malthus’s mass extinctions haven’t yet happened, however, mainly because people have had fewer children and because technological developments have enabled more efficient food production, which has more or less kept pace with population growth.

In recent years demographers have turned their attention to population structure. It seems that when a country has a large working age population compared to the population of children and the elderly, it has a chance to develop quite rapidly, as working-age adults swell the labour force without having too many dependents to support. They can therefore use their earnings to save and invest, which can provide a major boost to economies.

This happened in East Asia, where health improvements led people to choose to have fewer children – health improvements benefit children disproportionately, so as more children survived, East Asian parents didn’t need to have so many to ensure their ideal family size.

So as the health improvements kicked in, many more children were surviving to adulthood. Then after a while, fertility fell, leaving a baby boom cohort which when it reached working age was much bigger than its predecessor and successor generations.

Between 1965 and 1990 East Asia’s working age population grew nearly four times faster than the dependent population, and the Harvard economist David Bloom and others have estimated that this demographic dividend accounted for up to a third of East Asia’s economic miracle.

And it is important to emphasise that the demographic dividend is a one-off. Either you collect it or you don’t. Once the baby boomers reach retirement age it’s too late, because the boomers become a drain on resources and the population structure becomes more even and stable after that.

Demographic disaster

The reverse of this demographic dividend is demographic disaster. If the swollen cohort of young people is not well educated, and if there are then no jobs for them as they move into the workplace, countries will find themselves with huge numbers of frustrated, unemployed young people, which can result in serious unrest, possibly with consequences for developed countries, which I will go into in more detail later.

So with the dividend you get jobs and economic growth, and with the disaster you get poverty, unemployment, social unrest and maybe worse.

Many people are rightly worried about this demographic disaster in the Arab world, which has lots of young people but few jobs and has already seen many of those young people turning to terrorism or going off to fight in Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya and even New York.

But the Arab world generally has quite strong governments and institutions such as police forces, courts and intelligence networks that can snuff out much of the unrest. Many Arab countries are also relatively wealthy, so they can provide safety nets to the unemployed, such as unemployment benefit or subsidised housing.

A tour of West Africa

West Africa’s governments by comparison are both incredibly weak and incredibly poor. If we look at this map of the region’s 16 countries I’ll take you on a tour of them to show how unstable they are. 



Starting in the east of the region, with Nigeria, by far its most populous country. Nigeria suffers from periodic spasms of inter-ethnic or religious violence. The country has 250 ethnic groups, 50% of its people are Muslim (Sharia law is practised in some northern states) and 40% Christian.

Between 1999 and 2003, 800,000 Nigerians were internally displaced because of localised conflicts, and 10,000 died. 350 people died in riots in Jos last November, which is a city on the border between the predominantly Christian and predominantly Muslim parts of Nigeria.

To the north, Niger and Mali have experienced an ongoing Tuareg rebellion since the 1990s. The US has been training the Nigerien and Malian armies in counter-terrorism operations.

Moving back down south, Burkina Faso has been relatively peaceful, partly because it is ruled by a ruthless and powerful dictator who himself came to power in a bloody coup, but the country was rocked by serious riots last year as the price of food rocketed. Benin is peaceful, Ghana’s doing fine too, although it remains to be seen if the recent discovery of offshore oil proves a blessing or a curse. Togo suffered a military coup in 2005.

Further west is where the real trouble is. Cote D’Ivoire, which many had seen as an African success story, had a vicious civil war between 2002 and 2004. Liberia had two civil wars between 1989 and 2003, with over 250,000 deaths out of a population of about 3 million. Sierra Leone was at war between 1991 and 2002, with 75,000 deaths and many more serious maimings – the war was finally ended by a British military intervention. All three countries currently host UN Peace missions.

Moving further west, Guinea hasn’t had any civil wars lately but a military coup two months ago has left many observers extremely worried that one will break out. Guinea-Bissau’s civil war in 1997 and 1998 resulted in 25,000 deaths and over 350,000 being displaced – there is a UN peace mission there too.

The Gambia is at peace, partly because like Burkina Faso it has a strong dictator in charge, Senegal has endured an ongoing rebellion in its southern Casamance region since 1982, with up to 100,000 displaced. Cape Verde is at peace. And finally Mauritania saw a military coup last August, which overthrew the democratically elected president. Overall, West Africa accounts for over 70% of Africa’s coups.

So the governments of the region are pretty weak, with a few exceptions, but without exception they are poor, and therefore unable to educate or provide jobs or safety nets to their young people. Just to take one example, Guinea-Bissau’s police force has no handcuffs, its air force no working aircraft, its navy no ships, and there are no prisons in the whole country.

The government is so poor, in fact, that the Justice Minister has to go to an internet café to recharge her mobile phone as there’s no electricity in the ministry. The internet cafes have generators, of course.

Their countries are desperately poor too. Most of the wars and coups were driven in large part by poverty and the competition for resources. Of the 21 least developed countries in the world, according to the United Nations Human Development Index, 11 are in West Africa. 55% of the population lives on less than $1 a day. The region’s even poor by African standards – the average annual income is $309, compared to the Sub-Saharan average of $470. Ireland, which has a population of 4 million, produced more in 2000 than the whole of West Africa – whose population at that time was 200 million.

The region suffers from a serious dearth of jobs. Unemployment rates range from around 11% in Ghana to over 70% in Guinea-Bissau and Burkina Faso. Quite big countries like Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire have over 40% unemployment.

West African demography

So you have weak and unstable governments, widespread poverty and high unemployment rates.

And then into this already precarious situation you have a massive influx of young people. The overall population size has stands at around 245 million. Nigeria, which accounts for three-fifths of those people, has seen a five-fold rise in its population since 1950. Population growth is now slowing, as fertility has fallen, but the working-age population is beginning to explode as the baby boomers enter their late teens.

At the moment, 60% of the region’s people are below the age of 20, but taking the example of Nigeria again, which is by far the region’s biggest economy and its most important country in terms of its potential global impacts, the UN has forecast that the number of working-age people (that is aged 15-64) will rise from 75 million in 2005 to 125 million in 2025 and almost 200 million by 2050.

And Nigeria already has an unemployment rate of 41% today. So if the job situation doesn’t improve, more people moving into the labour force will mean many more unemployed and poor young adults, and the potential for serious unrest. If it does improve, on the other hand, the boomers could provide the spur needed to raise the region out of poverty, as they did in East Asia.

Unfortunately, a number of other key drivers of change make the former prospect more likely than the latter.

Drivers of change/instability

I’m going to focus on three of these drivers in particular. All of them contribute to the resource scarcity that is colliding with and being made more acute by the growth in Africa’s population.

The global economy

The first is the current global economic situation.

In the short-term, the current crisis is likely to have devastating effects on West Africa. For Nigeria, 90% of whose exports come from oil, the fall in the oil price will provide a severe economic shock. Other countries with fewer natural resources will also suffer from reduced exports, declining foreign investment, a slump in remittances from those living in wealthier countries that have now become impoverished, and a potential decrease in aid as Western countries turn in on themselves.

If recession leads to protectionism and wealthier countries raise tariffs on imports and give employment preference to their own people, all these effects will be exacerbated.

In the medium and long-term, the impact of global economic conditions on West Africa is less certain. If the long-term rise in oil prices resumes, as oil becomes scarcer and newly wealthy countries like India and China want more of it, countries like Nigeria will benefit, if they can at last use oil revenues to reduce poverty and create jobs, which they have failed to do so far.

If the increase in food prices resumes in the medium-term, driven again by the rise of China and India and increased scarcity because of climate change and population growth, West Africa’s farmers could benefit if they can become more productive and if tariffs don’t hinder their exports.

However, huge numbers of West Africans have left the land in recent decades and migrated from rural to urban areas. In Africa as a whole, 45% of the population will be living in urban areas by 2015. In 1950 it was just 15%.

These urban dwellers will suffer rather than benefit from rising food and oil prices. In 2008, the World Bank estimated that higher food prices pushed an additional 130-155 million people into poverty. Food riots broke out across Africa and Asia, including in Senegal, Guinea and Burkina Faso in West Africa. Hundreds died in the riots in Guinea.

Climate change

The second key driver of instability is climate change. West Africa already has a harsh climate, with frequent droughts and floods and unpredictable rainfall, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has forecast that the Sahel region of Africa will be among the worst hit by climate change. This includes Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, northern Nigeria and Senegal.

These areas are already troubled because of the competition for the scarce resources of land and water, particularly between nomadic herdsmen like the Tuareg and settled arable farmers. This competition regularly breaks out into violence. In a World Bank survey of 400 households in Guinea-Bissau, land and water were identified as the key sources of conflict, along with livestock and family problems.

As the world warms up, the Sahara expands and floods and drought become more frequent – and as the population continues to grow – those precious resources will become scarcer still.

Global crime

The third driver of change is the globalisation of crime. Terrorism, as you know much better than I do, has gone global, and the US is worried enough about its impact in West Africa to set up the Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Partnership, which aims to stop extremists gaining a foothold in the mainly Muslim countries of the region.

There’s some evidence that Islamic terrorism has already made inroads. Charles Taylor, the former Liberian leader, is thought to have had strong contacts with Al Qaeda, including harbouring terrorists, and Al Qaeda was also implicated in the smuggling of blood diamonds in the Liberian and Sierra Leonean civil wars. 


Here’s a quick overview of the proportion of Muslims in each country:

Mauritania, Mali, Senegal, Gambia


Guinea, Niger


Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Guinea-Bissau


Cote d’Ivoire


Benin, Togo, Ghana, Liberia


Cape Verde



So you have some countries where almost everyone is Muslim and others where Muslims are a small minority. And in the middle you have some quite troubled countries where around half the population is Muslim, although it must be said that religion hasn’t played a major role in most of their conflicts.

West Africans are also increasingly involved in drug smuggling. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has predicted that Guinea-Bissau will become the world’s first “narco-state,” as Colombian and Venezuelan drug traffickers have begun to use the country as a transit point on the cocaine route to Europe.

Taking advantage of the region’s weak, impoverished and corrupt governments and its huge supply of unemployed young people, the South Americans have appeared in Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Mali, Nigeria, and Ghana.

They land consignments of cocaine in the jungle or sometimes even in major airports – the chief of Sierra Leone’s airport police was arrested last year while allegedly assisting in the delivery of 600 kilos of cocaine to Freetown’s main airport. They then break up the drugs into smaller packages and use mules to ship them north to Europe.

Over 46 tons of cocaine have been seized en route to Europe from West Africa since 2005. The UNODC estimates that 27% of the cocaine consumed each year in Europe transits West Africa. Spain and Britain are the main destinations – half of the cocaine seized on commercial air flights was on its way to those two countries.

Once the cocaine reaches Britain it is usually distributed by members of the West African diaspora here. Nigerians and other West Africans are among the most frequently arrested foreign nationals involved in cocaine trafficking in Europe.

The South Americans and their West African partners are what the military futurist John Robb calls global guerrillas. I spoke to him last month and he told me that Nigerians are also involved in drug trafficking in South America. He made the observation that,

We have a global market system that is subverting the nation state, so gaps where local control is lost are going to spring up all over the place. There will be lapses where non-state groups like global guerrillas take control.

West Africa, as we have seen, is riddled with such gaps.

Robb noted that most of these groups don’t just deal in one commodity. They might start with drugs but also trade in arms, people and get involved in things like money laundering. The UNODC has already noted a massive increase in foreign investment and remittances to West Africa. Even countries with very little to offer like Guinea-Bissau have seen huge rises in remittances and foreign exchange reserves.

The UN thinks a lot of the foreign investment is money laundering. I interviewed Antonio Mazzitelli recently for an article I was writing on the cocaine problem. He’s the UNODC’s representative for West Africa, and he said that the money is coming in and being invested in tourism, property, hotels and the like in order to clean it.

Banks in the region are booming, with Gambia emerging as a financial hub and banks opening up even in dirt-poor Guinea-Bissau. Mazzitelli said that once financial institutions are corrupted by drug money, they can be used for concealing all sorts of criminal proceeds, possibly including terrorist financing.

The UN has warned that West Africa, which is on Europe’s doorstep, might end up like Mexico. It’s worth quoting their warning in full, as it shows how the trade is linked to some of the other key drivers of change such as demographic pressures:

The situation in West Africa could come to resemble that confronting Mexico today, in which some local police forces have been co-opted by trafficking groups, which engage in open warfare with both the state and one another. Except West Africa, as a whole, is both poorer and less stable than Mexico, and so more likely to be subsumed in the conflict. Large numbers of former child soldiers and other brutalised young men have few rival sources of income or alternative plans for their future.

And indeed, there is already violent rivalry between police and army factions over access to the trade. A feud between two police groups in Bissau last year left two counternarcotics officers dead, the body of one of them dumped in the street outside his group’s headquarters, in revenge for his shooting of a rival. And the coup in Guinea and an attempted coup in Guinea-Bissau in November last year may also have been linked to the battle for drug profits.

So you have in West Africa an extremely poor region, where there are already insufficient jobs. And within a very few years the number of young people looking for these jobs will shoot up.

And there are these three great forces – the changing global economy, climate change and international crime – that make it quite unlikely that the region will be able to create more jobs to keep these young people happy, and making it highly likely instead that the competition for scarce resources will become increasingly fierce.

The security risks

So given this bleak outlook, what are the options for West Africa’s burgeoning hordes of young people?

There are several ways they can improve their chances of accessing scarce resources.

One is moving to cities. Lagos, the biggest city in West Africa, already has over 10 million residents and is expected to have over 17 million by 2015.

70 per cent of those living in the city work in the informal sector, and it is already one of the crime capitals of the world even without yet having to deal with the unemployed baby boomers. And these people aren’t governed. They live in shanty towns, they work in the informal sector, they build their own houses.

The government isn’t even there, let alone in control. It doesn’t provide people with jobs, it doesn’t provide housing, it doesn’t provide services – fewer than five per cent of Lagos households have piped water. People are governing themselves.

Accommodating this increase in young adults without serious unrest is going to be a huge challenge for a government like Nigeria’s that has done a poor job of keeping violence down so far.

A second option for the young boomers is emigration. Most migration is within West Africa, but the number of West Africans in Europe has increased in recent years as the wealth gap between the two regions has grown. According to the International Organisation for Migration, there are 800,000 registered West Africans living in Europe. 25-35,000 enter Europe illegally every year. Emigration will become more tempting if demographic disaster unravels.

Britain is among the most popular destinations for West African migrants. In 2001 there were 176,000 West Africans living in the UK, mostly from the former British colonies of Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Gambia. The number of annual migrants from the region to the UK tripled between 1991 and 2003.

No doubt most migrants will earn an honest living, but the example of the cocaine trade shows that some are willing to build crime links between West Africa and Europe. These crime links also encompass people trafficking – women from Ghana, Nigeria, Mali and Sierra Leone in particular have begun to be trafficked to Europe as sex slaves. And people from China and South Asia have begun to use West Africa as a transit point on their own illegal route to Europe.

A third option is crime, as the cocaine trade example shows. There have also been reports of heroin transiting the region on its way from Afghanistan to the US. Piracy, money-laundering, smuggling of arms and diamonds are other alternatives, and the Sierra Leone and Liberia civil wars saw huge amounts of diamond and timber smuggling to Europe. As more young people reach working-age, the number of available potential criminals will sharply increase.

If none of these options works, social breakdown is likely, and Burkina Faso and Guinea’s food riots were early skirmishes in what might prove to be much more serious confrontations as the pressure on resources ratchets up. Ongoing strife in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria is a further example of long-term social unrest, which has had very damaging consequences for Nigeria’s economy as well as the European oil companies that invest in the country.

Finally, the last resort is likely to be war. In 2003 65% of West Africans lived in countries the World Bank described as “severely affected by conflict.” Things are a bit quieter this year but few would bet on the peace lasting very long.

War will result in more internal and international migration – Guinea, which has a population of 8 million, has hosted a million refugees in the last decade – a further destabilising influence on a country that has enough to cope with already. Migration to Europe may also increase in the event of war.

Unemployed former child soldiers, meanwhile, may be easy recruitment targets for international criminal gangs or terrorists.

So to summarise, West Africa is about to see a boom in its working age population, but if things don’t change quickly those boomers are going to have no jobs to go to. Some of them, naturally, will turn to illicit activity of some sort, and the effects of this could spill over West Africa’s borders into Europe.

Issues for consideration

So just to conclude with a few questions to consider in the discussion:

          Firstly, how much should the UK be worried about West Africa?

          Second, how do we help build institutions in these countries that can govern them effectively and keep a lid on illicit activities?

          Third, how can we work with governments, civil society and international agencies to reduce the incentives for illicit activity, given that the aid we’ve given to promote development hasn’t really worked so far?

          Fourth, how can we get development agencies, foreign policy-makers and military agencies to work together effectively in the region, especially given we don’t have any representation in quite a number of West African countries at the moment?

          And finally, what are we going to do about all these burgeoning cities that are likely to be basically ungoverned?

Thank you.  


  • Mark Weston

    Mark Weston is a writer, researcher and consultant working on public health, justice, youth employability and other global issues. He lived for two years in an informal settlement on Ukerewe Island in Tanzania and lived in revolutionary Sudan until being evacuated because of coronavirus. He is the author of two books on Africa – The Ringtone and the Drum and African Beauty.

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