The Sahel is a demographic bomb.

Source : Africardv

Demography is a human geography and the numbers are there. In Africa, and in the Sahel in particular, we are witnessing a dizzying change of scale. In 1950, there were 2.5 billion human beings on earth, 229 million of them in Africa. Today, with 7.7 billion inhabitants, including 1.3 billion in Africa, we will be about 10 billion, including 2.5 billion in Africa in 2050. 

The G5 Sahel countries (Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Chad) will increase from 83.7 million inhabitants in 2019, including about 50% under 15 years of age, to 196 million in 2050. There is a real urgency to draw the consequences to avoid what always happens in history in the event of overpopulation according to demographer Michel Garenne: departures, wars, famines, epidemics, because “there will not be enough space and resources for everyone” he says.

The mission of Humanitarian Challenges is to alert in order to act and build responses that are commensurate with the risks. The governance of these countries must assume all its responsibilities, development must integrate demographics, and it is essential to closely involve the population in reducing births in order to achieve sustainable improvements in living conditions.

Africa: one in four inhabitants of the world’s population by 2050.

Share of the African population (in billions and percentages) in the world population. Graphs based on United Nations forecast figures

Africa was long presented as an underpopulated continent because of its geographical characteristics and the poor knowledge of the continent. Since the 1970s, census campaigns have been initiated to enable governments to measure future demographic challenges. The result of these campaigns remains approximate given the shortcomings in the maintenance of civil status. Subsequently, the International Population Conference in Mexico City in 1984 formalized the importance of demographics and the awareness of African leaders on this subject. Cooperation efforts culminate in the Kilimanjaro Programme of Action, which consists of non-binding recommendations. The objective was to provide the States with a real demographic policy. Decades have passed and African demographics, regularly at the centre of discussions at international summits, are now presented as the time bomb of the 21st century.

Nigeria is by far the most eloquent example: by 2050, the country will have 401 million inhabitants, the third most populous country in the world after India and China. Underlying this exponential demography are the many development challenges that are worrying. The second characteristic of Niger’s demography is the youthfulness of its population: 50% are under 15 years of age in 2017. It is perceived as both an economic force and a danger given Nigeria’s structural deficit in public and security services.

It is simplistic to draw a single picture for the whole continent, but it has turned out that Africa has challenged certainties and patterns of demographic change. It is the continent that has nuanced the alleged universality of the demographic transition model created from the European phenomenon in the 19th century.  Until now, the reference model has been as follows: a significant decrease in mortality through improved living, health and education conditions must mechanically lead to a significant decrease in birth rates. Demographers also estimated that it would take about 60 years to achieve fertility control. The sociological logics specific to certain African regions nuance the traditional scheme. Ultimately, the decline in fertility rate is not only a mechanical response and is not as proportional to the decline in mortality as demographers expected. The United Nations has had to revise its forecasts upwards by slowing the decline in the fertility rate per woman.

Demographic trends in the Sahel region

Graphiques réalisés à partir des chiffres prévisionnels des Nations-Unis.

The first prerequisite before studying demography in the Sahel is the very definition of this space. Geographically, the Sahel extends on both sides of the continent, bordered to the north by the Sahara. The countries it covers are Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, Sudan, Eritrea and Mali. The Sahel is not limited to national borders, it is an area that tends to expand in this period of climate change. Its future no longer concerns only the six countries mentioned: the investment plan on global warming for the Sahel countries (2019-2030) includes 17 countries, the Interstate Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel includes 13 States. On the other hand, the G5 Sahel is only mentioned for Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Chad and includes Burkina Faso. From a regional and cross-border perspective, the G5 Sahel, created in 2014, has a mandate to restore a security environment conducive to the region’s development. Common characteristics link these countries to each other through climatic parameters (arid or semi-arid), meteorological (alternation between rainy and dry seasons), geographical (isolation of the countries and low population density with an average of 15 inhabitants/km2), social (transhumance and cross-border ethnic groups) and finally economic (agropastoral system).

On a continental scale, the demographic weight of the Sahel remains relatively stable. The Sahel population represents 8.4% of the African population in 2020, 9.6% in 2050 and then 11% by 2100. With different volumes, each country follows a similar trend with the exception of Niger. In 2019, the country has 21.48 million Nigerians, the highest growth rate in Africa (3.8% according to the World Bank) and the highest fertility rate with an average of 6.5 children per woman according to UN data.

Graphiques réalisés à partir des chiffres prévisionnels des Nations-Unis.

Beyond the demographic situation: the challenges for the G5 Sahel countries.

In Mali, since 2012, the security crisis has continued to intensify and spread in the region. The three-border zone at the intersection of Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali appears to be the epicentre of the crisis. We observe it daily, the news is punctuated by the announcement of attacks in the Sahel, the difficulties of the G5 Sahel backed by the military operation Barkhane increasingly forced to containment action. In this asymmetric war, the stalemate in the fighting since August 2014 in the face of the myriad of jihadist groups1 reflects the difficulty of defeating jihadist armed groups, also known in military jargon as GAT (Armed Terrorist Groups).

But what links can we really establish between this deterioration in security and the demographic explosion? For this crisis, the demographic parameter must be conceived as an amplifying element that acts both on the roots of the conflict and on its consequences. The G5 Sahel countries were experiencing structural and security vulnerabilities prior to the population explosion, the phenomenon only reinforces the disruptions and dysfunctions of the system.

Synthesis of the impact of the demographic factor on the different sectors.

**The demographic dividend corresponds to the situation following the rapid decline in high fertility. The share of working-age people is favourable: there are few elderly people and few dependent children. This is a period of strong economic stimulus that has greatly benefited emerging Asia. In this case, the validity of the phenomenon is questioned. Fertility decline is too slow and employment prospects are poor.

What about humanitarian needs?

The security context is deteriorating, climate change is accelerating, the territorial footprint of States is small and demographic pressure is increasing: the equation makes humanitarian needs numerous and growing. How can we guarantee access to water and food security for the coming decades in such a fragile context? The question arises for the 10 billion human beings on earth in 2050 but the answers are all the more uncertain in the Sahel. The latest OCHA figures released this November take stock of humanitarian needs:

  • Displaced: victims of violence, there were 4.1 million displaced people in the Sahel in 2019, with a tenfold increase in just one year for the three-border zone, or 860,000 people, including 486,000 Burkinabés. According to USAID, the regions hosting the most refugees are the Sahel part of Burkina Faso, the Mopti region in Mali and Tillabéri in Niger. The phenomenon of displacement is twofold: temporary or permanent, internal or external, they can be triggered by security instability and environmental deterioration (water stress and flooding). Climate migration is announced as the “migration bomb” for the coming decades.
  • Emergency: The loss of livelihoods as a result of displacement exacerbates tensions and increases food needs. 6.1 million people are in need of emergency assistance, including 3.9 million in Mali, 1.5 million in Burkina Faso and 700,000 in western Niger (OCHA). According to WFP, 2.4 million people in the Central Sahel need food assistance, including 1.8 million affected and 400,000 children suffering from malnutrition in the three-border region. In a region where water is also a source of tension, the NGO Solidarités International is taking action. Through the installation of Improved Pastoral Hydraulic Systems, distribution of drinking water kits and awareness campaigns, the NGO is mobilizing to provide better access to water, hygiene and sanitation in Mali (Kidal) and northern Burkina Faso.
  • Needs: To meet the urgent needs of 4.7 million people in the three-border area, $717 million would be required.  According to the latest figures, less than half of the funds have been received. USAID in its July 2019 report warns of difficulties in accessing populations with the greatest needs that prevent an assessment of needs and the distribution of aid.

The humanitarian situation is alarming as the security situation continues to deteriorate and the population continues to grow. The demographic explosion is under way and if the phenomenon cannot be significantly reduced in the short and medium term, the acceleration of demographic transition can be made possible through immense development efforts while involving the populations in these policies. States seem to be gradually taking the necessary measures to face the demographic challenge. The most concerned, Niger has had a National Population Policy since August 2019. Governments, NGOs and institutions will need to work together to meet the needs and challenges in this period of demographic transition


Alicia Piveteau

1 – Pour une meilleure compréhension de l’implantation des GAT, le centre de recherche « European council on foreign relations » propose une cartographie des acteurs :

2 – United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2013).  Update for the MDG Database: Contraceptive Prevalence & Unmet Need for Family Planning.

Pour aller plus loin :

  • PISON Gilles, Atlas de la population mondiale, Paris, Autrement, 2019.
  • Gérard-François Dumont, Géographie des populations, Paris, Armand Colin, 2018.
  • GARENNE Michel, « Le Sahel est une bombe démographique », Le Monde, 2017. Michel Garenne, 2017.
  • GUENGANT Jean-Pierre, F. May John, « Les défis démographiques des pays Sahéliens », Etudes, 2014.
  • SMITH Stephen, La Ruée vers l’Europe. La jeune Afrique en route pour le Vieux Continent, Grasset, Paris, 2018.
  • Rapport d’étude n°6, Prospective Sahel, Observatoire Défense et Climat, 2018.