An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of Nigeria’s Rapid Urban Transition
An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of Nigeria's Rapid Urban Transition
Kyle Farrell 0 1
0 Department of Economics, Harvard University , 1805 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, MA , USA
1 Division of Urban and Regional Studies, KTH Royal Institute of Technology , Drottning Kristinas Vag 30, Stockholm , Sweden
Owing to the dramatic pace and scale of its transformation, Nigeria is considered Africa's next urban giant. Between 1960 and 2010, Nigeria added approximately 62.5 million inhabitants to its urban population, with forecasts to 2050 projecting an additional 226 million. As Nigeria forges ahead into the next chapter of its urban transition, there is an unmet need to take stock of past experiences, identify trends, and speculate on future growth trajectories. Taking advantage of recently available datasets from the United Nations and the Africapolis Project, this paper launches an inquiry into the nature and causes of Nigeria's rapid urban transition between 1960 and 2010. It disaggregates urbanization into its individual components of urban growth and calculates their contributions to the overall urban increment. Several notable findings are highlighted. Nigeria, which is considered a late urbanizer, is currently in the accelerated stage of its urban transition and is projected to enter the terminal stage by 2030. Urban natural population increase has been the dominant component of urban growth in the post-colonial period and will likely continue to be so in the immediate future. Despite this, policies aimed at stemming rural to urban migration appear to have been the preferred mechanism for lessening the pressures posed by the contemporary urban transition, suggesting a potential policy mismatch.
Nigeria; Urban transition; Urbanization curve; Rapid urbanization; Rapid urban growth; Components of urban growth
Nigeria, which is home to Africa’s largest population, is currently undergoing one of
the most dramatic urban transformations in history. Following independence in 1960,
Nigeria has added approximately 62.5 million inhabitants to its urban population; with
forecasts to 2050 projecting an additional 226 million
(United Nations 2014)
. Owing to
the dramatic pace and scale of its transformation, Nigeria is anticipated to be Africa’s
next urban giant.
This paper is premised on the concept of the urban transition, which posits that as a
country develops, it undergoes a transformation from a society that is predominantly
rural to one that is predominantly urban
. The progression of the urban
transition is best illustrated through the urbanization curve, which navigates three
stages: an initial stage reflecting a predominantly agricultural society with the majority
of the population dispersed throughout the rural countryside, to an accelerated stage
reflecting a structural transformation of society and a shift in the concentration of the
population toward urban areas, and to a final terminal stage reflecting a predominantly
industrial society with the majority of the population concentrated in dense urban areas
(Northam 1975; Mulligan 2013)
.1 As the African country set to experience the largest
increase in urban population over the coming decades, Nigeria represents a rather
insightful case study in which to launch an inquiry into the nature and causes of its
rapid urban transition.
Nigeria is ranked 152 out of 188 countries on the United Nations Human
Development Index and has remained in the BLow Human Development^
category since the establishment of the report
(United Nations 2016)
. It currently has
approximately 46% of its population living below the poverty line, nearly two
thirds lacking access to adequate sanitation, an average life expectancy of
53 years, and an average per capita GDP of USD 5900
(World Bank 2017)
Although urbanization is often associated with higher incomes, increased
productivity and overall improvements in one’s standard of living, the
unprecedented pace and scale of the contemporary urban narrative unfolding in developing
countries means that these outcomes are not guaranteed
(Annez and Buckley
2009; Quigley 2009; Glaeser 2013)
. While urbanization is believed to have a
role in the social and economic development of a country, this is only realized
when the benefits that accrue from agglomeration economies outweigh the urban
(Turok and McGranahan 2013; Glaeser and Xiong 2017)
. All too
often, however, governments are unaware of the dynamics underpinning the
urbanization process, resulting in misaligned policies and poorly targeted
interventions. Needless to say, effective management of the urban transition becomes
a critical aspect of development. Taking this as the point of departure, the
objective of this paper is to take stock of past experiences, identify trends, and
speculate on future growth trajectories. It aims to contribute by putting forward a
more nuanced account of Nigeria’s rapid urban ascent, in hopes of providing
insight for managing the urban transition in a more strategic way.
1 In today’s developed countries, the transition has largely been completed, with the majority of the population
urban (Beall et al. 2010). Whereas developing countries, most of which are currently in the accelerated stage of
their urban transition, exhibit potential for future growth.
Taking advantage of recently available datasets from the United Nations and
the Africapolis Project,2 this paper examines Nigeria’s urban transition between
1960 and 2010. It disaggregates urbanization into its individual components of
urban growth (rural to urban migration, urban natural population increase, and
reclassification of rural areas as urban) and calculates their contributions to the
overall urban increment. Several notable findings are highlighted. Nigeria, which
is considered a late urbanizer, is currently in the accelerated stage of its urban
transition and is projected to enter the terminal stage by 2030. Urban natural
population increase has been the dominant component of urban growth during the
post-colonial period and will likely continue to be so in the immediate future.
Despite this, policies aimed at stemming rural to urban migration appear to have
been the preferred mechanism for lessening the pressures posed by the contemporary
urban transition, suggesting a potential policy mismatch.
The paper has been structured as follows: BCaveats, Materials, and Methods^
provides some brief notes of caution and an overview of the materials and methods,
BHistory and Trends of the Urban Transition in Nigeria^ provides a historical account
of Nigeria’s urban transition accompanied by some stylistic trends, BThe Components
of Urban Growth^ summarizes the results, and BDiscussion^ discusses the
findings against the backdrop of policy before concluding.
Caveats, Materials, and Methods
Given the complexity of the urban transition in developing countries, it is
prudent to begin by pointing out some areas of common confusion and
misconception. Firstly, it is necessary to distinguish between the processes of
urbanization and urban growth; the former of which refers to the proportion
of the population living in urban areas as opposed to rural areas, and the latter
referring to the absolute number of people living in urban areas
. Secondly, both urbanization and urban growth are underpinned by
what the United Nations refers to as the components of urban growth: namely,
rural to urban migration, urban natural population increase, and reclassification
of rural areas as urban
(Kasarda and Crenshaw 1991; Chen and Valente 1998;
United Nations 2001)
. Finally, although urbanization and urban growth occur
hand in hand, there are certain circumstances in which urban growth can occur
without urbanization.3 If careful consideration is not taken, such misconceptions
can result in severe policy implications.
Another area of concern has to do with the availability of quality data. This
hinges on the documentation of detailed statistical records and a common
definition of what it means to be urban. In terms of the former, this is
dependent on the capacity of the statistical offices, which tends to vary by
2 The Africapolis project consists of a comprehensive and standardized geospatial database on urban dynamics
in Africa. It uses demographic sources, satellite, and aerial imagery and other recognized cartographic sources
to inventory all urban agglomerations over 10,000 inhabitants in western Africa.
3 This is especially important in the case of Africa, where at times rural growth has outpaced urban growth,
resulting in an increase in the absolute number of people living in urban areas (urban growth), but with no
corresponding increase in the proportion of the population that is urban as opposed to rural (urbanization).
country. As for the latter, unfortunately, no universal definition exists to date,
with definitions varying between countries and in some instances across
different periods in time within a country.4
In the case of Nigeria, a settlement is classified as urban if it exceeds a
population threshold of 20,000 inhabitants; this was revised upwards from a
previous definition of 5000 inhabitants that existed between 1951 and 1962
(World Bank 2016)
. Unfortunately, Nigeria’s census data has been riddled with
inconsistencies over the years and is considered to be of questionable quality.
Owing to the use of population indicators to determine the allocation of
military and political resources (including representative seats in parliament),
national population counts have been accused of being inflated
(MoriconiEbrard et al. 2016). This political manipulation led to the cancelation of the
census results in 19615 and again in 1973, leaving Nigeria with a total of only
five population censuses: 1951–1953, 1963, 1991, 2006, and 2011. Fortunately,
through modern demographic accounting methods and geospatial mapping
techniques, recent efforts have been made to retroactively adjust these counts and
generate more detailed population tables based on consistent 10-year intervals
(see United Nations 2014; OECD 2017)
. Although these approaches will never
replace a comprehensive census count, such attempts to enhance the quality of
existing data are praiseworthy, offering new opportunities to explore historical
trends. With United Nations and OECD Africapolis datasets considered the best
available population estimates in Western Africa to date, this paper will rely on
a combination of these sources. Where necessary, supplementary datasets are
turned to in order to further enrich the findings.
To empirically examine the changing nature of Nigeria’s urban transition, this paper
employs a number of quantitative techniques that are commonplace in development
economics; namely, demographic accounting methods, spatial analysis and statistical
analysis. Quantitative approaches to knowledge production have been favored over
alternatives, as they are considered to offer a higher degree of objectivity and
History and Trends of the Urban Transition in Nigeria
With the urban transition having largely completed in most countries throughout
North America, Europe, and South America, the urban transition today is
almost entirely confined to countries in Asia and Africa. These two regions
are projected to account for nearly 90% of urban population growth by 2050
(United Nations 2014)
. Nigeria, which belongs to the club of countries that
have been dubbed late urbanizers, is the African country poised to experience
the largest increase in urban population; making it a particularly fascinating
4 A survey conducted by the United Nations (2014) identifies a wide array of criteria for determining an urban
settlement: administrative criteria, population thresholds, population densities, proportion employed in
nonagricultural sectors, and the presence of infrastructure and amenities. In some cases, a combination of criteria is
5 The canceled population census in 1961 was replaced by a new census conducted again in 1963.
A Brief History of Nigeria’s Urban System
The contemporary history of Nigeria can ultimately be divided into three periods: the
pre-colonial period (before 1854), the colonial period (1854–1960), and the
postcolonial period (1960 to date). During the pre-colonial period, the majority of Nigeria’s
population was scattered throughout the country, with nomadic tribes grazing the land
and practicing a predominantly subsistence lifestyle. Early settlements during this time
began to appear in the Northern region, comprising the great Hausa Kingdoms and the
(Ayedun et al. 2011)
. These settlements were located along the
Trans-Saharan trade route connecting North Africa and West Africa, eventually
growing into large trading posts and serving as commercial hubs to facilitate the trade of
goods and services
. Kano, Katsina, and Zaria are examples of
important trading posts that still exist today. As a result of Yoruba colonization,
additional trading settlements began to sprout up in the southwest, further enriching
Nigeria’s complex system of trading economies
(Bloch et al. 2015a)
. Former Yoruba
trading posts include: Ibadan, Ijebu-Ode, and Ife.
The arrival of the colonial period, around the middle of the nineteenth century,
disrupted Nigeria’s existing settlement hierarchy
. With resource
extraction as the main objective, colonial powers began to explore the region, leading to
discoveries of hides and ground nuts in the north and coal in the east
This was followed by the establishment of new settlements throughout the country, to
serve as administrative headquarters and colonial outposts
private enterprise and industrial production led to the growth of cities in the south, those
in the east and west tended to rely more on government investment
facilitate the extraction of goods, the British constructed a complex network of roads
and railways, connecting these outposts to the important port cities of Lagos and Port
Harcourt for the purpose of processing and exporting raw materials
Okwuashi et al. 2008)
. Settlements—new and old—that were favorably located along
these transportation corridors, emerged as vital industrial, administrative, and port cities
(O’Connor 1983); many of which have become pivotal cities in the twenty-first
century—Enugu, Jos, Kaduna, Lagos, and Port Harcourt are notable examples.
It was not until the post-colonial period, however, that Nigeria’s urban transition
really began to take off. Much of this dramatic surge in urban population can be
attributed to frequent political restructuring and an oil boom, both of which resulted in
the widespread establishment of new urban centers and infrastructure investment
throughout the country
. With the arrival of new sectors, including
banking, construction and tourism during the 1970s and 1980s, and the onset of
globalization during the 1990s, urbanization continued to accelerate
. According to Ikwuyatum (2016), it was the Yoruba people, with a
preference for living in close proximity, that were the first to embrace urbanization.
This helps to explain the higher concentration of urban settlements in the south-western
region of the country; an area primarily inhabited by the Yoruba.
Figure 1 illustrates the evolution of Nigeria’s urban system from the colonial period
(represented by red points) to the post-colonial period (represented by blue points),
reflecting a significant increase in the number of officially designated cities. What is
interesting to note is that although the national urban system has become more
widespread over time, economic development has not necessarily followed. The States
that have demonstrated the highest levels of GDP per capita in 2010, more closely
resemble the pre-colonial and colonial urban structures as opposed to the post-colonial
one. This raises questions as to the relationship between urbanization and economic
development in Nigeria; a topic explored in detail in
Fox et al. (2017)
Nigeria’s Urbanization Curve
Despite a tumultuous economy, Nigeria’s urbanization has continued to forge ahead,
with the most substantial increases in urban population projected to come. Nigeria’s
urbanization curve, depicted in Fig. 2, is characterized by three distinct stages: an initial
stage reflecting a relatively gradual increase in urban population prior to the 1980s,
followed by an accelerated stage reflecting a comparatively rapid increase between
1980 and 2030, and a terminal stage, again reflecting a rather gradual increase around
2030. The stages of the urban transition have been delineated in accordance with the
corresponding speeds and levels of urbanization in Table 1 and 2 below. Over the
course of this period, Nigeria will have gone from a country in which 15.4% of its
population inhabited urban areas in 1960, to one in which 67.1% are expected to
inhabit urban areas by 2050. This structural transformation of society, in which more
than 288 million inhabitants become urban, denotes one of the most dramatic urban
transformations the world has seen; certainly, the most substantial in Africa.
Pace and Scale of Nigeria’s Urban Transition
Perhaps the most dramatic feature of Nigeria’s urban transition is the increase in the
absolute number of urban dwellers and the speed at which it has unfolded. The speed or
tempo of the urban transition can be measured in a number of ways: the annual rate at
which the urban population is growing, the annual amount by which the level of
urbanization is rising, the annual rate by which the level of urbanization is rising,
and urban-rural growth differentials
(United Nations 1974)
. The former provides a
measure of urban growth, which refers to the rate of increase in the absolute number of
urban dwellers, whereas the latter measures calculate urbanization, which is the
difference between rural growth rates and urban growth rates
. Tables 1 and 2 provide an overview of the urban and rural
population trends and the speed of urban growth and urbanization between 1960 and
What is immediately noticeable about Nigeria’s urban transition in the post-colonial
period is the significant population growth experienced in both urban and rural areas.
Between 1960 and 2010, urban areas added approximately 62.5 million inhabitants to
their population, while rural areas experienced an increase of approximately 52 million.
Despite the annual rate of urban growth being higher than that of rural growth during
the initial stage of the urban transition (1960–1980), rural growth rates were
comparatively higher than in subsequent periods, which appears to have had an abating effect
on the rate of urbanization (as can be seen by the urban-rural annual growth
differentials). However, by the 1980s, this began to change. Dramatic increases in urban
growth rates coincided with simultaneous decreases in rural growth rates, accelerating
the overall urbanization process. The annual rate of urban growth reached a record high
of 5.9% during the 1980s, with an urban-rural annual growth differential of 4.3%,
signifying the pinnacle of Nigeria’s rapid ascent. The subsequent decades were
characterized by a rather steady decline in the rate of rural population growth, with rates of
urban population growth remaining high. Nigeria has since experienced a period of
Source: United Nations (2014). Author’s own calculations
accelerated urbanization and urban growth that has lasted more than three decades. If
the United Nations projections are accurate, Nigeria will continue to experience
relatively accelerated speeds of urbanization and urban growth for another two decades,
before eventually slowing. By 2030 it is expected that the urban transition will return to
similar levels as experienced before takeoff, marking the beginning of the terminal
stage of Nigeria’s urban transition with approximately 60% of its population inhabiting
The Components of Urban Growth
The aforementioned overview illustrates the origins of urban settlements and the
overarching trends behind the urban transition in Nigeria. It falls short, however, of
capturing the detailed complexity underpinning Nigeria’s rapid urban transformation.
These rather vague accounts are frequent among the urban studies discourse, with few
studies attempting to examine the determinants behind the urban transition. Instead
most take for granted that the urbanization process is already underway
The few studies that do attempt to examine the drivers have often done so in
isolation. Economists have a tendency to explain the growth of cities through rural to
urban migration as a response to changing labor markets; demographers turn to natural
population increase as a result of changes in mortality and fertility rates; and those from
the political studies discourse tend to view reclassification of rural areas as urban as an
artifact of governance reform
. There is thus a need for a more nuanced
understanding of the urban transition
(Beall et al. 2010)
. There are, however, some
recent studies that have made a concerted effort to offer a more detailed explanation of
the urban transition at the country level; Brazil
(see Martine and McGranahan 2010)
(see Songsore 2009)
, and the Philippines
(see Porio 2009)
to name a few. In an
attempt to refute the stalled urbanization hypothesis in Nigeria
(see Potts 2012a)
recent paper by
Fox et al. (2017)
provided a more holistic account of Nigeria’s urban
transition; underscoring the significance of demographic factors in explaining the
growth of Nigeria’s cities. This has helped make sense of Nigeria’s persistent
urbanization despite continuous economic stagnation. Building on this, the remainder of this
section empirically examines the components of urban growth and computes their
individual contributions to Nigeria’s urban transformation between 1960 and 2010.
Natural Population Increase in Urban Areas
Natural population increase is best understood through the demographic transition
model proposed by
. This model is used to depict changes in birth
and death rates as a country develops over time. In the first stage of the demographic
transition, birth rates and death rates are high and population growth is stagnated; in the
second stage of the transition, there is a decline in death rates while birth rates remain
high resulting in rapid population growth; and in the final stage of the transition, birth
rates adjust to the decline in death rates and population growth becomes limited
(Todaro and Smith 2012)
. Nigeria, as the most populous country in Africa, is
considered to be in the accelerated stage of its demographic transition. Table 3 displays
Nigeria’s demographic transition between 1960 and 2010, highlighting the changes in
birth and death rates and the overall rate of natural increase per 1000 persons.
In accordance with the demographic transition, as of 1960, Nigeria was experiencing
high birth rates accompanied by high death rates, resulting in a rate of natural increase
of approximately 20 per 1000 persons. Since then, the widespread provision of basic
services and improved access to public health services have led to death rates being
nearly halved; however, birth rates still remain high. This has resulted in a rate of
natural increase of approximately 27 per 1000 persons; a 35% increase. Although this
high rate of natural increase represents a deviation from historical accounts of the
demographic transition, such a large window of high birth rates and low death rates is
not particularly uncommon among countries in sub-Saharan Africa
Agunwamba et al. 2009)
Declines in fertility rates can be brought about through a number of economic,
social, and biological factors: cost of living, education, age at marriage, access to
contraceptives, type of religion, family pressure, child mortality, reproductive life span,
and so on
(Ghatak 1995; Todaro and Smith 2012)
. In the case of Nigeria, previous
studies have attributed its high fertility rates to a desire for children, tendency towards
polygamous relationships, a preference for children of a particular sex, ignorance to the
implications of larger families, and reluctance towards family planning
Feyisetan and Bankole 2002; Agunwamba et al. 2009)
. With many of these factors
closely related to ethnicity and religion, fertility patterns in Nigeria tend to vary by
region. In the north, which is home to the 12 (out of 36) states governed under Sharia
Law, polygamous relationships remain pervasive. As of 2014, the northern states of
Bauchi and Katsina both had average fertility rates above 8 births per woman, notably
higher than the country average of 5.5 births per woman
(National Bureau of Statistics
The sector specific model of the demographic transition depicts urban-rural
differentials in mortality and fertility rates. It illustrates that as death rates fall below birth
rates in urban areas, urban growth will occur as a result of natural population increase
(de Vries 1990)
. Better access to basic services and health facilities secures that
mortality rates are almost always lower in urban areas. Evidence of this can be seen
in Nigeria’s Demographic Health Survey, which shows that under-5 mortality in urban
areas was 100 per 1000 live births, whereas in rural areas, it was 167
Population Commission 2013)
Chen and Zlotnik (1994)
evidence of a selection bias pertaining to rural to urban migration, noting that rural
migrants tend to be younger and more likely to be of child-bearing age; this is
particularly the case in African countries where there are limited employment and
education opportunities in rural areas. Despite urban areas usually being associated
with a steady fertility decline, in the case of Nigeria, urban fertility has remained
comparatively high; 4.7 children per woman in urban areas compared with 6.2 in rural
(National Population Commission 2013)
. Urban natural increase in the context of
Nigeria thus needs to be understood against the backdrop of comparatively higher life
expectancy in urban areas coupled with slow fertility decline.
Rural to Urban Migration
Rural to urban migration has traditionally been understood through the Lewis Dual
and the Harris-Todaro Model
(Harris and Todaro 1970)
Both models assert that the decision to migrate is a response to employment
opportunities, reflected by rural-urban income gaps. These models distinguish themselves in
that the Lewis Dual Sector Model argues that migration will persist until a wage
equilibrium between rural and urban areas stabilizes; whereas, the Harris-Todaro Model
posits that institutionally determined wages are the attractor of rural migrants, and
migration will continue even when high levels of urban unemployment persists.
When it comes to rural to urban migration in Africa, urban pull factors such as
higher wages in urban areas, reveal only half the story. This was made clear in a
landmark article by
Fay and Opal (2000)
, which draws attention to the concept of
urbanization without growth. Unlike historical accounts that demonstrated a positive
linear relationship between urbanization and economic growth, the experiences of
African countries have been much more varied. This triggered a noticeable shift in
dialog, from early explanations of migration premised on urban pull factors, to a more
open discussion acknowledging rural push factors. An overview of the rural push
literature demonstrates that rural to urban migration could be warranted under a variety
of other circumstances: Malthusian theory consisting of pressure on natural resources,
natural or man-made disasters, rural poverty, surplus labor due to the Bgreen
revolution,^ and wars and conflict
(Preston 1979; Bairoch 1988; Oberai 1993; Gollin
et al. 2002; Fay and Opal 2000)
In the case of Nigeria, rural to urban migration has been on the rise since
independence. A recent governmental survey noted employment as the top explanatory factor
behind migration in Nigeria
(National Population Commission 2010)
. Figure 3
illustrates the structural transformation of Nigeria’s society in the form of changing
employment markets between 1970 and 2010. During this time, the share of
agricultural employment fell drastically by 19%, with the service industry experiencing a
substantial growth of 21%. Growing employment opportunities in the service industry,
which is predominantly found in urban areas, serves as a strong pull factor attracting
migrants in search of higher wages (Ogun 2010). During this time, the share of
employment opportunities in heavy industry experienced a modest boost of 4%, with
a subsequent decline of 5% in the manufacturing sector.
Another explanation for Nigeria’s accelerating rural to urban migration is rural push
factors, resulting from growing unemployment in certain regions of the country. The
unemployment line in Fig. 3 illustrates that unemployment has risen drastically from
1.7% in 1970 to over 21.4% by 2010. According to the World Bank (2016), the effects
of Nigeria’s unemployment have been felt the hardest in the northern parts of the
country where the majority of the population is engaged in agricultural activities.
Increasing insecurity in the northeast, due to the emergence of Boko Haram, has also
been linked to the intensification of rural to urban migration in recent years
It should be noted that migration is a multidimensional and dynamic process.
It can take the form of either internal or international migration streams. In
terms of internal migration, this can occur as rural to rural, rural to urban,
urban to rural and urban to urban
. It also occurs in the form of
one-way, temporary, circular, and stepwise migration patterns. Temporary
migration has long been a critical element of income distribution for rural
households, with migrants usually moving to urban areas on a seasonal basis,
while maintaining permanent ties to rural areas
. Potts (2012b)
recently noted that circular migration has been on the rise in many African
countries, with the average duration of stay decreasing over time. Should this
be the case, then it is likely that much of it is occurring between census counts,
and outside of the purview of official statistics. Stepwise migration usually
involves migrants first moving to nearby villages and towns before moving
on to larger cities, but it can also serve as a springboard to international
(Bakewell and Jonsson 2011)
. When it comes to international
migration, however, Nigeria’s rate of net-migration is rather low compared with other
countries in the region, registering − 0.35/1000 persons as of the latest survey
(United Nations 2013)
. The dearth of reliable data on migration in Nigeria
makes it difficult to piece together a comprehensive narrative.
Reclassification of Rural Areas as Urban
Reclassification of rural areas as urban, which is generally considered an administrative
form of urbanization, is most often used to promote more balanced economic
development and to bring infrastructure and amenities to neglected regions
. Reclassification can occur in a number of ways: the expansion of
existing city boundaries to include neighboring settlements, the annexation of adjacent
settlements, the creation of entirely new cities, rural areas that grow beyond a size
threshold and are reclassified as urban, and the occasional changing of the definition as
to what constitutes urban and rural areas
(United Nations 2001; Montgomery et al.
. Reclassification is considered a significant accelerator of urban growth, because
when newly classified settlements are added to the urban population, they experience
an immediate bump in the overall urban population count. Despite the significance of
this component of urban growth, the process of reclassification is generally overlooked
within the literature.6
Figure 4 provides an overview of the increase in the number of urban settlements in
Nigeria between 1960 and 2010. Nigeria went from a system of 109 urban settlements
in 1960, to 536 in 2010. The most substantial increase was experienced in the last two
decades, with 112 new urban settlements added between 1990 and 2000, and 144
added between 2000 and 2010.
Prior to independence, Nigeria was composed of four major regions (Northern
Region, Western Region, Eastern Region, and mid-Western Region). However,
resulting from a military decree in 1967 under the administrative authority of General
Yakubu Gowon, these regions were dissolved and replaced by 12 states. It was thought
that decentralization would promote more balanced development and enable the spread
of further amenities and opportunities
. This process of political
restructuring became a common theme in the post-colonial period, leading to the
addition of seven new states in 1976, two new states in 1987, nine more states and
one Federal Capital Territory (Abuja FCT) in 1991, and six more states in 1996,
bringing the total as it stands today to 36 states and 1 Federal Capital Territory
(Moriconi-Ebrard et al. 2016)
. This political restructuring was recognized as a major
accelerator of urbanization, as each of the new states was equipped with state capitals
accompanied by a massive influx of infrastructure investment. According to
, the growth of state capitals was further compounded by a substantial increase in
the number of rural-urban migrants in search of employment opportunities.
The most prominent example of reclassification due to political restructuring was
that of Abuja. Following a similar rationale as Brasilia, Abuja was constructed from
scratch as a purpose-built city; serving as the political capital of the country. Between
2000 and 2010, it grew at a rate of nearly 140% and was considered the world’s fastest
growing city; and as of the most recent census, it had a population of 1.8 million
(United Nations 2014)
. Other instances of reclassification include spatial
expansion and annexation of neighboring settlements. Lagos, for example, nearly
tripled in size between 1984 and 2010
. In the process, it grew into
6 This is likely due to the fact that reclassification is not an explicitly obvious contributor to urban growth, and
because of the difficulty measuring its contribution. Statistics on reclassification are rarely recorded among
neighboring Ogun State, absorbing adjacent settlements such as Ifo and Obafemi
Owode along the way
(Wang and Maduako 2018)
. Another less recognized form of
reclassification in Nigeria has been the growth of rural settlements beyond the
population threshold of 20,000 inhabitants, qualifying them as urban settlements. Given that
Nigeria has undergone significant population growth in recent years, this has become
the most prevalent source of reclassification.
Disaggregating Urbanization into Its Individual Components of Urban Growth
Building on the above analysis, the individual contributions of the components of urban
growth to the overall urban increment for each decade between 1960 and 2010 have
been computed. Given that the preferred data to perform a rigorous analysis does not
exist in Nigeria, this paper has opted to apply the BNational Growth Rate Method
(Siegel and Swanson 2004)
. Using the average annual growth rates of the total
population for each decade, the National Growth Rate Method calculates estimates of
the urban population increase between two census counts. The estimated urban
population represents the portion of the population that is attributable to urban natural
population increase during that period. This is then deducted from the actual urban
population count from the following decade, leaving a residual, which represents a
combination of rural to urban migration and reclassification. As a variation to the
original methodology, the populations of all newly classified cities between the two
decades is added together and deducted from the residual, resulting in a disaggregated
account of the newly classified cities and an estimate of the number of rural to urban
migrants during that decade. This generates the individual contributions for each
component of urban growth during each decade.
This method is considered to be a crude but common approach in circumstances of
(Shryock et al. 1971; Rahman 2013)
. It is premised on two assumptions:
firstly, that there is zero net international migration within the country; and, secondly,
that the national growth rate, which is used in the calculation, is uniform throughout the
country (Rahman 1987). In the case of net-immigration from other countries, this
variable tends to be significantly smaller than that of internal migration, unlikely
causing drastic distortions in the estimates
(Chen and Valente 1998)
given that the growth rate between rural areas and urban areas is likely different, the
findings of this analysis should still be treated as a crude estimate. In light of these
limitations, this approach is still useful in providing a general indication of the trends
pertaining to the contribution of each of the components of urban growth in Nigeria.
Table 4 provides a disaggregated account of Nigeria’s urbanization with decadal
estimates for each component between 1960 and 2010. This indicates that urban natural
population increase, accounting for on average 50% of the urban increment between
1960 and 2010, is the dominant component underpinning Nigeria’s urban
transformation in the post-colonial period. As noted above, this has to do with the significant
declines in mortality rates coupled with persistently high fertility rates, an argument
also put forth by
Fox et al. (2017)
. The next most significant contributor is rural to
urban migration, accounting for on average 32% of the urban increment between 1960
and 2010. This increase in migration could quite possibly be a result of the limited state
restructuring during these periods, meaning rural to urban migration was necessary for
those to access expanding labor markets. Finally, this is followed by reclassification
with a contribution averaging 18% between 1960 and 2010.7 The trend observed for
reclassification roughly, shadows that of the state restructuring policies during this
period making this a likely explanatory factor; but it is also greatly influenced by urban
expansion and settlements crossing the population threshold of 20,000 inhabitants.
In accordance with the speed and level of urbanization noted above, this paper has
identified and delineated among the different stages of Nigeria’s urban transition. The
results are summarized in Table 5 below. During the initial stage (1960–1980),
urbanization unfolded at a fairly moderate pace (2.3%), resulting in a gradual increase
in the proportion of the population living in urban areas from 15.4 to 22%. Following
this, Nigeria entered the accelerated stage (1980–2030), and as the name suggests, the
pace of urbanization began to takeoff; achieving a particularly rapid urbanization rate of
3.3%. After which, Nigeria is expected to enter the terminal stage of its urban transition
(2030–2050), again characterized by moderate rates of urbanization (2.0%). In fact, by
the time Nigeria enters the terminal stage, all measures of growth will have dropped
below the levels they were at during the initial stage of the urban transition. The period
of rapid urban growth and rapid urbanization will thus be a thing of the past. These
forecasts seem to indicate that Nigeria, which is often described as a late urbanizer, has
7 Although reclassification has demonstrated an upward trend in Fig. 4, having added 427 urban settlements
between 1960 and 2010, its declining contribution to the overall urban increment in Table 4 is likely a result of
the increase in the absolute number of inhabitants contributed to by the other components.
6 0 2 8 0
9 5 3 1 0 m
1 1 ro
0 t 0
2 s 1
– i 0
0 8 3 9 0 n 2
0 4 4 0 io -0
2 1 ta 6
9 7 8 5 0 e e
9 5 2 1 0 t h
1 1 u t
0 o n
9 c n
9 o a
1 t p
– a s
0 t t
8 0 9 1 0 a n
9 4 3 2 0 d e
1 1 d n
1 rom eg
0 n re
1 e v
0 k a
2– 32 99 01 32 ta e
00 ,9 ,3 ,3 ,6 is th
0 2 1 2 6 n o
2 1 1 2 ito tr
0 ig re
0 m ld
2 8 8 6 2 n o
– 8 0 3 3 a b
09 ,1 ,0 ,2 ,4 b n
9 8 4 2 4 ru i
108– ,029 ,127 ,745 ,881 and .ehT
91 4 4 2 21 sea sno
1– 2 3 8 3 tio ac
079 ,31 ,96 ,93 ,22 lau nw
1 3 1 1 6 p o
t po s’
e l r
pon sand 9170 traau tuho
ecohm suhoT 0961– ,8761 486 936 ,1003 rannb .710A
t u 2
l te il
e n r u p
sa io ru p A
e t m
r a f o 4
c r o
in ig n an ten tco sed
already crossed the point at which it was expected to experience its most accelerated
rates of urbanization and has now entered the deceleration phase.
Furthermore, this paper has empirically demonstrated that urban natural population
increase has been the dominant component of urban growth in the post-colonial period
and will likely continue to be so in the immediate future. During the initial stage of the
urban transition, urban natural increase accounted for 53% of the urban increment; this
was followed by rural to urban migration (25%) and then reclassification (22%). This
trend continued as Nigeria entered the early-accelerated stage of the urban transition,
with urban natural increase continuing to represent the dominant share (48%), followed
by rural to urban migration (37%) and then reclassification (15%) as the next most
significant contributor. These findings build on a previous study by
Fox et al. (2017)
which also arrived at the conclusion that urban natural increase was the dominant driver
underpinning Nigeria’s urban transition. This study, however, differentiates itself in that
it disaggregates urbanization into its individual components of urban growth and
computes their individual contributions to the overall urban increment.
The relevance of this study can be found in its application to policy. A survey
conducted by the United Nations (2013) spanning the years 1986–2013 notes that the
Nigerian government has been seriously concerned with the growth rate of the
population and the rate of rural to urban migration; underscoring that policies should be
Note: Since figures beyond 2010 are based on projections, the accelerated stage has been divided into an
earlyaccelerated period and a late-accelerated period. Speed classifications are as follows: negative (< 0%), stagnant
(0–1%), slow (1–2%), moderate (2–3%), and rapid (> 3%)
implemented to lower both. Evidence however, seems to suggest a historical preference
on behalf of the government to actively deter rural to urban migration in order to
manage the urban transition—accounts of forced eviction
(The Guardian 2017)
barriers to employment for rural migrants in urban areas (Ajakaiye et al. 2015) and a
history of policies directed at rural areas to prevent rural to urban migration
2012; Federal Republic of Nigeria 2012)
.8 This position is not uncommon among
African countries, many of which still promote Burban-bias^ legacies
. Whereas, efforts to reduce natural population increase have tended to
be more passive in nature.
Agunwamba et al. (2009)
notes that aside from a failed effort
to reduce fertility in 1988, the government has primarily relied on international
organizations and civil society to promote initiatives such as sexual education and
distribution of contraceptives.9 Despite this paper identifying urban natural population
increase as the dominant component of urban growth, the evidence seems to point
towards a potential policy mismatch. Should the government be interested in alleviating
the population pressures on its cities, programs aimed at reducing fertility rates could
potentially go much further.
When managed, urbanization has the ability to contribute to the social and economic
development of a country. However, with the unprecedented pace and scale of the
urban transition in many developing countries currently outstripping the capacity of
local governments to provide the necessary housing, infrastructure, and amenities to
cope with a growing urban population, such outcomes are not guaranteed. It is thus
important that policymakers gain greater insights into the dynamics underpinning the
urban transition. Only then will they be able to establish effective policies and provide
more targeted interventions for managing the urban transition in a more strategic
This paper has examined Nigeria’s urban transition between 1960 and 2010, taking
stock of past experiences, identifying trends and speculating on future growth
trajectories. In doing so, it has found that Nigeria is in the accelerated stage of its urban
transition, with urban natural increase as the dominant component of urban growth.
Despite this being the case, the Nigerian government appears to favor policies directed
towards restricting rural to urban migration in order to alleviate the pressures posed by
its rapid urban transition. Not only is this policy mismatch unlikely to achieve its
intended goal of alleviating the pressures of rapid urban growth but it is also likely to
work against the forces of economic development, while causing unnecessary harm to
those who rely on migration as a livelihood strategy
(Chen and Zlotnik 1994; Turok
and McGranahan 2013)
Beyond Nigeria, the findings of this paper have wider theoretical and policy
relevance. From a theoretical perspective, this paper has advocated for the need
8 The National Urban Development Policy and Urban and Regional Planning Act of 1992.
9 In 1988, Nigeria introduced measures to reduce fertility levels to four children. The policy was heavily
criticized for placing the onus on women, without addressing patriarchal family structures
(Agunwamba et al.
to go beyond a uniform understanding of the urban transition to a more
nuanced one, accounting for the different stages of the urban transition and
the varying combinations of the components of urban growth. A notion that has
implications for how we interpret and respond to the challenges and
opportunities presented by rapid urban growth and rapid urbanization. Furthermore, it
has highlighted a need to evaluate existing policies against the backdrop of the
contemporary urban narrative. Several studies in recent years have noted that
urban natural population increase is taking on a growing share of the overall
urban increment in developing countries, accounting for approximately 60%,
while rural to urban migration and reclassification account for the remaining
(Chen and Valente 1998; Farrell 2017)
; albeit, this varies significantly by
country.10 Meanwhile, the United Nations (2013) have reported that 118
countries in less developed regions have policies oriented towards reducing rural to
urban migration. Not only does this speak to the concern of persisting legacies
of urban bias but it also speaks to the vast number of misguided policy
interventions, a lacuna this paper has attempted to address. Stemming from
all this, this paper urges those working at the crossroads of urban and economic
development to rethink conventional theories and policies to better reflect
country-specific circumstances and the changing conditions of the contemporary
To the author’s knowledge, this is the first paper to disaggregate urbanization
into its individual components of urban growth for Nigeria. Nonetheless, it
suffers from several limitations. Most notably, since separate data on the growth
rate of urban and rural populations is not available for the time period spanning
1960–2010, this study has relied on the combined national growth rate when
disaggregating urbanization into the individual components of urban growth;
likely inflating the true effects of natural population increase in urban areas.
Although this paper has primarily focused on Nigeria’s urban transition, it does
raise a number of thought-provoking questions that would be of interest to a
wider audience. Does a higher contribution of urban natural increase (as
opposed to rural to urban migration or reclassification) explain persistent
urbanization in the absence of per capita GDP growth, as was experienced in
Nigeria at specific points in time? What is the relationship between the
different components of urban growth and the socioeconomic development of
a country? Is there a preferred growth trajectory among countries? It is hoped
that future research will continue to push the boundaries, further shedding light
on these unresolved questions.
Acknowledgments The author would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their comments.
Funding Information Additionally, the author would like to thank the Axel and Margaret Ax:son
Johnson Foundation for providing a grant to make this research possible.
Compliance with Ethical Standard
10 For example, rural to urban migration continues to be the dominant component of urban growth in China.
Conflict of Interest
The author declares that he has no conflict of interest.
Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International
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