Dispelling the myth of an “empty” north.

Every once in a while the population wars flare up in Nigeria. It usually ends up in accusations of fraud against certain sections of the country mostly about the population in the North. The accusation usually sounds something like this: How is it possible that there are more people in Northern Nigeria than there are in Southern Nigeria? There is nobody in the “arid desert” north. They just cheated and over counted during all the population censuses and so on. I am writing this post to dispel this myth that there are no people in the north.


Rivers in Nigeria


The first myth to dispel is the idea that the north is arid. The idea that the north is a barren desert wasteland is frequently used to justify arguments against the presence of significant populations in the north. This idea however could not be further from the truth. The north is actually anything but barren. The region is very suitable for agriculture. With the multitude of river networks with semi-predictable flooding and fertile land with predictable rainfall, the region is arguably a farmers paradise. From figure 1 you probably recognize the rivers Joliba/Kwara and Benue but there are many other smaller rivers. The land from the fringes of the Sahara to the rain forests in the south is prime land for agriculture. So if there is all this good land, why wouldn’t there be people on it? The short answer is that there are people. Figure 2 shows a proportion of land used in the cultivation of food in 2000. Land is divided into grids with darker areas representing a larger fraction of land in that grid used for growing food. A grid is about 1km by 1km I think. The information was compiled using satellite images from the Modetate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) and Satellite Pour l’Observation de la Terre (SPOT) Image Vegetation sensor by Navin Ramankutty and co. In other words, it is pretty reliable information on where people are actually farming. Unsurprisingly there is a lot of farming in Northern Nigeria. Farming presumably done by human beings. Again this is not surprising because the land is actually good for agriculture. So there goes the myth of the arid north.



Persons per square mile
Persons per square mile

The second myth is the idea that populations around the world are coastal. Something which isn’t really a myth. If you think about the New York’s and Mumbai’s and Rios you definitely get the idea that people gravitate towards the coast. However even that is not necessarily true. Figure 3 shows a global population density map. If you forget about the new world for a second you begin to see that the idea of populations on the coast isn’t universal. Look at China, India and much of Europe for instance. The idea that everywhere else in the world the major populations are on the coast is false. Populations seem to be centred around good quality land. Land between the Sahara desert and the rain forests in West Africa for instance.


That being said there are places where the major cities and populations are on the coast. Why do these population explosions happen on the coast? The short answer is trade. New York, Mumbai, Shanghai and so on all have their foundations as hubs for trade. They are/were the cities that connected the peoples in the interior to the rest of the world. This is definitely true for the coastal cities in West Africa such as Lagos and Accra. The have grown tremendously mainly because of their roles as trade, and later political, capitals. But of course we know that this growth is a relatively modern phenomenon. The growth of Lagos, Accra and other coastal cities in West Africa didn’t really kick off until the beginning of colonization in the late 19th century. In fact it is safe to say that prior to beginnings of the Atlantic trade the 15th century, there was no reason for significant populations on the coast. The coast was not more suitable for farming, or herding and so on. If you look at the locations of the major empires on record in West Africa prior to the 15th century, they are all located inland. From old Ghana to Mali to Songhai to the Hausa states and the Oyos. They are all based inland without any significance placed on the coast.

More importantly if you consider the direction of trade before the Atlantic trade then it would come as no surprise that the coast, and coastal cities, were insignificant. Recall the history classes you took in secondary school (if you did take any history classes). Trade, prior to the rise of long distance ocean going trading vessls and the Atlantic trade, was done via caravans across the Sahara desert. In essence the gateway for the people living in the fertile lands between the desert and the rain forests would have been towns on the fringes of the desert. We know that by 800 BCE gold, ivory, and slaves from West Africa were being traded in Carthage ( in modern Tunisia). We also know from the writings of Leo Africanus, also know as al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi, who visited cities along the a trade route from Timbuktu to Borno to Khartoum in the 15th century that trade was still going on at that time. We also know from Islam, which apart from being a religion also signified membership in the trading network, that what we today call the North was well integrated into global trade.

In short, for at least 2500 years prior to the beginning of the Atlantic trade around the 1500s, the “gateways” to the rest of the world would have been in the North. The histories of Kano and Borno for example are inextricably linked to their participation and control of some trans Saharan trade routes. Kano and Borno would have been the “Lagos” of present day Nigeria for at least 2500 years prior to the 1500s. And maybe up until the early 1900s when goods other than humans started being traded on the West African coast.

Which brings us back to the population question. Is the north a barren wasteland with sparse settlements and no significant populations? The answer is obviously no. Is the population in the north more than south or vice versa? That can only be answered by a census. We have had many of those since 1911 and although all are flawed it really is not surprising that the results end up being somewhere about equal. Although my guess is that is changing. However there is really no reason to believe the south is more populated than the north.



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