I’m a software dev and founder of Hotels.ng and HNG Internship. I also dabble in embedded systems and hardware projects.

The real population of Nigeria

Types of People

Nigeria has a weird system of sharing money among federal states. The more people you have in a state, the more money you get. Since that system got introduced, Nigeria’s population has grown very rapidly. Much faster than its direct neighbour Ghana. Each state has been claiming more and more people.

How do we know the population has grown? Estimates! A census was done in 1991, and then done in 2006. For the last 17 years there has been no census. There have been many attempts to have a census, but they always get stopped by one interest or the other. The states do not want the sharing formula of federal revenue to change, and census would change that.

So Nigeria claims that it has 220 million people. Lagos claims to have 20 million people. But anyone who has been to an asian city with 15 million people would wonder that Lagos does not seem quite as crowded.

If the Nigeria population is not as high as it claims, then it has an impact on the entire sub-saharan Africa. Nigeria is the biggest country in Africa and represents a fifth of the entire population. The extremely high birthrate claimed has also lead to a lot of policies around controlling the birth rate of African by global agencies.

What if it’s all exaggerations because some Nigerian states wanted a bit more revenue? What if the entire policies of the world are based on some random law passed by some lawmakers long ago?

In this article, I would like us to analyse the actual data to see what the population of Nigeria actually looks like. If we ignore the official estimates, there are different data points that we can use to make an estimate.

Mobile Phone Penetration

The Nigeria Statistics Office reports that there are 222 million active voice lines. We can combine this with the “Mobile Cellular subscriptions (per 100 people)” from the world bank to figure out the population.

The nearest peer, Ghana has 123 mobile lines per 100 people (of all ages). If Nigeria had that same ratio, then there would be 180 million people. But something does not smell right.

Here are the numbers for the “Active Voice” statistics by the Nigeria Statistical Agency - which should be number of active mobile lines, which look like this:

  • MTN: 89 million
  • Glo: 60 million
  • Airtel: 60 million
  • EMTS: 12 million.

Compare this to the minutes spoken through the year:

  • MTN: 111 billion
  • Glo: 8 billion
  • Airtel: 48 billion
  • EMTS: 3 billion

It does not match! MTN and Airtel are WAY bigger than Glo, how then does Glo have very close number of “Active Voice”? It means that the way the Active Voice statistic is calculated is not what we expected - it’s not active voice calls. It may be something like registered sim cards:

  • MTN: 116 million
  • Glo: 58 million
  • Airtel: 57 million
  • EMTS: 46 million

From the stats, we know that roughly half of all calls are done on MTN lines, and the rest are done with other networks. That means that the total active MTN lines multiplied by two should give us the real number of active telephone lines.

That number is 180 million active lines. If we use the same 123 subscriber/100 people ratio (from Ghana), we end up with a population of 148 million. If we go more radical and use the Ivory Coast subscriber ratio of 167, we end up with a population of 100million.

So based on mobile phone data, we estimate a populaton between 100 million and 150 million, so about 125 million would be a fair estimate.

Specifically for Lagos, there are 9 million MTN users. If you double that, then there are 18 million active mobile lines. Using the ghana density rate, you have 14 million inhabitants, and using the Ivory Coast number, you have 10 million. So the population could be about 12 million.

And based on a survey of 1 million people, 97.6% of people in the large cities have a mobile phone (8), so the numbers here have very good coverage in the cities.

Voting Data

Nigeria recently had an election which required biometrics for everyone. That means there were not a lot of fake voters. So that number is relatively reliable.

There were 24 million voters, quite close to the 26 million voters from the 2019 election.

In Ghana, 13 million people turned out to vote out of a population of 32 million. In South Africa, 17 million turned out to vote out of a population of 60 million, and that was seen as an low voter turn-out.

In Nigeria 24 million people turned out to vote, out of a claimed population of 220 million. That’s just 10% of the population.

If you look on the chart of voter turn-out, Nigeria is the BOTTOM in Africa, by a significant margin! https://www.idea.int/data-tools/continent-view/Africa/40

Based on voting numbers, Nigeria population looks to be sub-100million.

Satellite observation of settlements

We can use satellites to look up all the buildings in a location and from there make an estimate of the population.

There is a good resource for that here: https://africapolis.org/en/explore?agglomeration=Lagos&country=Nigeria&poprange=1,2,3,4,5,6&year=2015

As you can see, the population estimates there are quite different. For example, Lagos = 11.8million. Abuja is 2million. About half of what the official population projections are saying.


We have three different independent data sources that are pointing at a population of between 100million and 150 million for nigeria, with the more likely number to be 120 million. So far, I have not found any independent statistic that supports a number close to 200 million. It’s all based on speculative growth rates. But the facts on ground point to far less people.

This has big implications - it means that population growth has decreased rapidly in a short amount of time. It also means that the maps that show Africa being very fertile are probably wrong (remember, Nigeria is a big part of the data of those maps).

Nigeria needs to adopt policies that are based on the reality of the situation. A big part of that is starting out with the right numbers.


(1) https://www.premiumtimesng.com/news/headlines/321101-analysis-n25-trillion-faac-distribution-and-lingering-financial-challenges-of-state-governments.html?tztc=1

(2) https://nigerianstat.gov.ng/elibrary/read/1241314

(3) https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/IT.CEL.SETS.P2

(4) https://www.ncc.gov.ng/docman-main/industry-statistics/policies-reports/1075-2021-year-end-subscriber-network-data-report-1/file

(5) https://www.france24.com/en/20151026-ivory-coast-presidential-vote-turnout-around-60-percent-election

(6) https://irr.org.za/fan/media/south-africas-low-voter-turnout-is-no-laughing-matter-5-crucial-takeaways

(7) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2019_South_African_general_electionpop

(8) https://africapolis.org/en/country-report/Nigeria

Email me on markessien@gmail.com or follow on twitter: twitter.com/markessien.

Last Modified: Jun 5, 2023