(December 2015) In late November, Nigerian parliamentarian Babatunde Gabriel Kolawole spoke in the National Assembly and implored his colleagues to come up with a viable policy to “curb the population explosion in Nigeria.” Already the seventh-largest country by population in the world, Nigeria is on track to be the fourth-largest in 2050, with nearly as big a population as the United States. Nigeria’s total fertility rate is a high 5.5 children per woman.1

According to news reports, Kolawole backed a proposed motion for population policy legislation with projections from PRB’s World Population Data Sheet as evidence of a brewing crisis and the need to take quick policy action to avert it.2

This was a timely example of the relevance of the Population Reference Bureau (PRB)’s work to provide practical, evidence-based knowledge of family planning and other critical policy issues that affect the well-being of current and future generations, both globally and in the United States. The event also highlighted the politically charged nature of family planning discussions in Nigeria. According to the reports, some members of the National Assembly saw Kolawole’s motion as a potential threat to the country’s Muslims, who reside mainly in northern Nigeria and make up roughly half of the country’s population.3 The reports cited Zakara Mohammed, another parliamentarian, as saying that in Islam and in northern Nigeria generally, having more than one wife and bearing as many children as one likes is acceptable practice.

In a subsequent interview with the National Mirror, Kowawole sought to clarify his position. He expressed his surprise that the motion was viewed as an attack on Muslims. “That was not the intention of the motion. The motion was simply asking that the federal government should take steps to manage the population, and…educate Nigerians on the benefit of family planning,” he said. He also emphasized that an “…unbridled and unmanageable population has negative consequences. Everyone knows that. If at an estimated 166 million we are still adding about 5 million births per annum, there should be cause to worry.”

Diverging Population Trends in Nigeria

The parliamentary exchange comes in the context of diverging population trends among Muslims and non-Muslims in Nigeria (see Table). In 1990, Muslim women of childbearing ages (15 to 49) had on average 6.5 births, compared to 5.6 for non-Muslim women (the latter are mostly Christians, but also a small percent of people practicing traditional religions). By 2013, non-Muslim fertility had fallen to 4.5 births, while Muslim fertility remained the same, leading to a two-child difference between Muslims and non-Muslims, according to a recent report by Princeton’s Charles Westoff and PRB’s Kristin Bietsch, published by the Demographic and Health Surveys.5 This difference in fertility will lead to faster population growth among Muslims than non-Muslims in Nigeria.


Fertility Trends Among Muslim vs. Non-Muslim Women in Nigeria


Muslim Non-Muslim
Total Fertility Rate (TFR) (1990)* 6.5 5.6
TFR (2013) 6.5 4.5
Age at First Marriage (years) 16 21
Never Attended School (%) 65 9
Use of Contraception (any method) (%) 6 29
Desire to Stop Childbearing (%) 11 31

*Note: All data except for 1990 TFR are from 2013.

Adapted from Charles F. Westoff and Kristin Bietsch, “Religion and Reproductive Behavior in Sub-Saharan Africa,” DHS Analytical Studies No. 48 (Rockville, MD: ICF International, 2015), accessed at www.dhsprogram.com/pubs/pdf/AS48/AS48.pdf, on Dec. 9, 2015.

Muslims girls and women tend to marry much younger than their Christian counterparts: The average age at first marriage is 16 for Muslim women, compared to 21 for non-Muslims.6 Also, 44 percent of married Muslim women are in polygynous unions, compared to 17 percent of non-Muslim wives.7 The differences in age at marriage also lead to differences in educational attainment for women: While only 9 percent of non-Muslim women in Nigeria have never attended school, the share is 65 percent for Muslim women.8

Only 6 percent of married Muslim women are currently using any form of contraception, compared to 29 percent of married, non-Muslim women.9 If family planning were widely available, fertility would not decline much among Muslims. On average, Muslim women in Nigeria wish to have more than eight children each, and also express less desire to halt childbearing: Three times as many non-Muslims wish to have no more children compared to Muslims (31 percent compared to 11 percent, respectively).10

Even when accounting for the socioeconomic differences between Muslims and non-Muslims in the country, the report finds that Nigerian Muslims are more likely to marry younger, to desire larger families, and to never have used contraception.

Note that this is not intended as a condemnation of reproductive preferences or practices of Muslims or any other group in Nigeria. Population growth rates should also not be forcibly changed and people’s rights should be respected. Rather, as Kolawale is cited as saying, the focus should be on public education about and availability of family planning options to help people decide when and how many children to have.


  1. Toshiko Kaneda and Kristin Bietsch, 2015 World Population Data Sheet (August 2015), accessed at www.prb.org/pdf15/2015-world-population-data-sheet_eng.pdf.
  2. “Birth Control Motion Tears Reps Apart” (Nov. 25, 2015), accessed at http://nationalmirroronline.net/new/birth-control-motion-tears-reps-apart/, on Dec. 9, 2015.
  3. National Population Commission (NPC) and ICF International, Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey 2013 (Abuja, Nigeria, and Rockville, MD: NPC and ICF International, 2014), accessed at www.dhsprogram.com/pubs/pdf/FR293/FR293.pdf, on Dec. 9, 2015.
  4. Ojo Oyewamide, “House of Reps Sensitive to Peoples’ Needs – Babatunde” (Dec. 8, 2015), accessed at http://nationalmirroronline.net/new/house-of-reps-sensitive-to-peoples-needs-babatunde/, on Dec. 9, 2015.
  5. Charles F. Westoff and Kristin Bietsch, “Religion and Reproductive Behavior in Sub-Saharan Africa,” DHS Analytical Studies No. 48 (Rockville, MD: ICF International, 2015), accessed at www.dhsprogram.com/pubs/pdf/AS48/AS48.pdf
  6. Westoff and Bietsch, “Religion and Reproductive Behavior in Sub-Saharan Africa.”
  7. Westoff and Bietsch, “Religion and Reproductive Behavior in Sub-Saharan Africa.”
  8. Westoff and Bietsch, “Religion and Reproductive Behavior in Sub-Saharan Africa.”
  9. Westoff and Bietsch, “Religion and Reproductive Behavior in Sub-Saharan Africa.”
  10. Westoff and Bietsch, “Religion and Reproductive Behavior in Sub-Saharan Africa.”