Matthias Basedau / Charlotte Heyl / Eckart Woertz

Population Growth and Security in Africa: Myth or Underestimated Risk?

Policy Paper | 2021

  • Abstract

    As recent projections estimate, population growth will remain a challenge throughout Africa, although growth rates have slowed over recent decades. Africa’s population will continue to grow strongly over the next few decades, especially in sub-regions such as the Sahel. Many observers and practitioners have started to warn that population growth may escalate distributional conflicts and could increase related challenges such as uncontrolled migration.

    Africa remains a trouble-ridden continent, and population growth can be one factor that fuels these conflicts. African countries with higher levels of population growth indeed show on average an increased risk of violent conflict. However, absolute population growth is most probably not the prime cause of conflicts across Africa or even worldwide. Demographics are rather a secondary factor, engendering or increasing risks only in conjunction with other factors, especially economic ones. However, differential population growth, in particular a high or growing share of (male) youth, seems to increase security challenges. Generally, societal divisions and economic suffering can worsen when population pressures increase and governments prove unable to tackle related challenges.

    Our case studies of Egypt, Mali and Niger underscore these findings. All three countries have seen strong population growth and face multiple, multi-layered conflicts, often connected to jihadism and with international components. Absolute population growth itself, though, is not the main cause of conflict but rather contributes to challenges related to socio-economic development. Differential population growth and inequitable or insufficient access to natural resources, however, substantially increase conflict. In all cases, a male youth bulge represents a recruitment pool for violent and other extremist groups. Shrinking access to natural resources such as water and fertile land may increase food scarcity and often lead to increased conflict between social groups, especially between herders and farmers in the Sahel.

    Previous policies devised to tackle the demographic challenge have largely failed in all three countries: While Egypt’s family-planning programmes slowed birth rates, substantial population growth continues. In Mali and Niger, more modern family law could not be implemented due to pressures by influential conservative religious actors. However, strengthening the role of women in both the labour force and society at large remains a promising strategy. Empowerment of women leads to lower birth rates. Rising female education and economic participation typically boosts overall development. To deal with resistance from conservative religious actors, forming alliances with open-minded religious leaders seems crucial.

    Any programme to further economic development is very likely to either reduce fertility rates or alleviate economic challenges resulting from population growth. Moreover, problems related to population growth need not escalate into violence. Conflict resolution and prevention remain key instruments that should be supported by the international community. Not only will African countries benefit from these efforts, but, indirectly, European countries will as well. The security community needs to create increased awareness of security risks associated with population growth – not only in international institutions but also among conflict parties. As only a combination of security and development will sustainably fix related problems, the dialogue between related communities needs to be deepened.

    Finally, demographics in general deserve more attention by decision-makers and scholars, including challenges related to the economy, migration as well as tensions between ethnic and religious groups. In particular, an analysis of success stories regarding the management of population growth will reveal directly usable insights into effective policy design. Generally, demographics need to be taken seriously.

    Number of Pages



    German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA)



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