Sub-Saharan Africa's Low Life Expectancy (2017): Nigeria is the Third Worst Case

Are We All Dying Off in Africa?

Last week as I pondered on the number of deaths of young and middle-aged Nigerians who were below or around 50 years that I have become aware of, I began to wonder about life expectancy in Nigeria. The deaths that aroused my curiosity have cut across people of both genders and all walks of life and of various educational and income levels. It has also cut across all the regions of Nigeria with only slight regional variations. I worried that Nigerians of all categories were dying young.

Then as I discussed my concern with a friend who normally sees everything in numbers, we brooded over the overall life expectancy of Sub-Saharan African countries. We wondered about what the trend of those life expectancy numbers would look like and what it may portend for our survival as a people. We believed that life expectancy was going down in Africa. Of course, this was a widespread opinion. So, we were worried that if our life expectancy was going down, Sub-Saharan Africa was going to be eventually wiped out (and we would become extinct) if the downward trend continued unabated. Although neither of the two of us is a population biologist, we were nonetheless aware that scientists combine the areas of ecology and evolutionary biology, and draw on tools from mathematics, statistics, genomics, genetics, and systematics to make intelligent projections about populations. They study frequency changes within populations of the same species, and interactions between populations of different species. This way, the scientists can predict when an endangered species might become extinct. Although, we, in Sub-Saharan Africa, with our currently burgeoning population, cannot be ordinarily thought to be endangered, we still considered the chances of Sub-Saharan Africa being extinct for the reason that if our survival rates continued to decline, we were bound to be wiped out someday if our mortality rate eventually outpaced our birth rates. We wondered if such a scenario would play out in some hundreds or thousands or even millions of years (if there is no cosmic intervention).

The Good News

Well, as we pulled in the numbers, we saw that life expectancy in Sub-Saharan Africa was not declining. In fact, like the rest of the world, it was actually increasing. We can leave discussing the comparative rates of increase for another day. But suffice it to say that we were relieved to learn that our life expectancy in Africa was increasing rather than decreasing as widely believed. We found that life expectancy for a sub-Saharan African child born in 2006 was 48.8 years. It has kept increasing every year and for a child born on 2012, his/her life expectancy was 51.7 years and in 2017, it’s 53.9 years.

So, if things remain as they are right now, speaking on statistical terms, we are not going to be wiped out. Truly, this was reassuring to me, because I had held unto this erroneous notion that life expectancy was declining in Africa, and specifically, Sub-Saharan Africa, and more specifically, Nigeria. That means that we are here to stay, as a group that is.  In fact, data showed that life expectancy around the world had increased steadily for nearly 200 years. The increase in global life expectancy has been driven mainly by improvements in sanitation, housing, and education, causing a steady decline in early and mid-life mortality, which was chiefly due to infections. This trend continued with the development of vaccines and then antibiotics. For Africa, it is, in fact, projected that by 2050, when the world population would reach 9.8 billion, 26 African countries would at least double their current sizes.

The Bad News

As mentioned earlier, life expectancy is increasing in all parts of the world which is currently at 67.5 years average. In the Unites States, the new average life expectancy for all sexes is 78.7 years. For the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries which is a group of 36 of the most developed countries, the average life expectancy of 80.3 years. However, UN data shows that the average life expectancy for a baby born in 2017 in Sub-Saharan Africa is only 61 years. This means that the life expectancy for a Sub-Saharan African is about 10% less than that of the entire world; 23% less than that of the US and 24% less than that of OECD countries.

Countries BELOW Sub-Saharan Africa Average of 61 Years

1.    Sierra Leone 52
2.    Central African Republic 53
3.    Chad 53
4.    Nigeria 54
5.    Cote d'Ivoire 54
6.    Lesotho 55
7.    Somalia 57
8.    South Sudan 57
9.    Guinea-Bissau 58
10.    Burundi 58
11.    Equatorial Guinea 58
12.    Eswatini 58
13.    Mali 58
14.    Cameroon 59
15.    Mozambique 59
16.    Congo, Dem. Rep. 60
17.    Uganda 60
18.    Niger 60
19.    Togo 60

Countries AT Sub-Saharan Africa Average of 61 Years

20.    Guinea 61
21.    Burkina Faso 61
22.    Benin 61
23.    The Gambia 61

Countries ABOVE Sub-Saharan Africa Average of 61 Years

24.    Zimbabwe 62
25.    Angola 62
26.    Zambia 62
27.    Liberia 63
28.    Ghana 63
29.    Mauritania 63
30.    South Africa 63
31.    Malawi 64
32.    Comoros 64
33.    Sudan 65
34.    Namibia 65
35.    Congo Republic 65
36.    Eritrea 66
37.    Ethiopia 66
38.    Tanzania 66
39.    Madagascar 66
40.    Gabon 66
41.    Sao Tome and Principe 67
42.    Kenya 67
43.    Senegal 67
44.    Rwanda 67
45.    Botswana 68
46.    Cabo Verde 73
47.    Seychelles 74
48.    Mauritius 75

What This Means to Me as Nigerian

Congratulations to the top five African countries - Mauritius, Seychelles, Cape Verde, Botswana, and Rwanda (tie with Senegal, Kenya, and Sao Tome and Principe) – that have attained life expectancies that are comparable to or exceeded the average global life expectancy of 67.5 years. It is however, dismaying that Nigeria, with all its human and natural resources (once termed the giant of Africa) trails all but three African countries - Sierra Leone, Central African Republic, and Chad in life expectancy. In fact, among all 183 countries of the world whose life expectancies were examined by the Population Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA), Nigeria ranks 177 out of 183. This means that of all 183 countries in the world, as ranked, only the residents of 6 countries expect to live shorter than those living in Nigeria. That means that, even with all the turmoil and devastation in Haiti, South Sudan, Yemen and Syria, a child born there today will expect to live longer than a child born in Jos, Maiduguri, Ibadan or Enugu. Yes, that is what the data shows for our beloved Nigeria and for our children and grandchildren.

Like I mentioned earlier, I know lots of people who have died around 50 years within the past year alone. Other Nigerians share the same stories of losing loved ones and friends who should be in their prime years. The rampancy of these untimely deaths validate Nigeria's stated life expectancy of 54 years and it is extremely disheartening. Today, world developmental agencies and researchers have dubbed Nigeria "the Poverty Capital of the World". They warn that if Nigeria is unable to change its current trajectory, it will be home to 110 million people living in extreme poverty by the year 2030 and life expectancy in Nigeria would become the lowest in the world. Now is the time for Nigerians and their leaders to look inwards and fathom what could be going wrong as the nation drifts downwards and continues to fail its coming generations.

Rabia S. Sa'id, PhD
  • Associate Professor of Physics
  • Bayero University, Kano, Nigeria
  • Personal Website:
  • Ford Foundation International Fellow (2002)
  • Fellow of the African Scientific Institute (2013)
  • OWSD/ Elsevier Foundation Award in Physics (2015)


  1. A sobering and wake-up-call write-up from a concerned and enlightened person. It's surprising to see a great country like Nigeria that produces many great people falling behind so rapidly in caring for its most vulnerable citizens.

  2. I love Nigeria and Nigerians. It's a leadership problem.

    1. That is the Nigeria conundrum. We had similar problems in India where there was widespread lacking and death in the midst of plenty, but through dedicated leadership in government and industry, the trend is being reversed. Nigeria can do it. They have some of the brightest people in the world. I have worked with many of them. It starts by putting the right people in power and energising the private sector.

  3. Africa is not going extinct. In fact, Africa and India need population control, but a situation where people are dying in their 50's drags down societal development. And, to die in their 50's, they must have been sick beginning in their 40's. This is the most productive age group.

  4. Most of the deaths in Nigeria are caused by unnatural accidents such as road accidents, banditry, insurgency, among others. Thus, I think the government could do something to help change the statistics for the better.

    1. Doubtful. Road accidents, banditry, insurgency and other violent deaths are more dramatic and are more often in the news. So, they overshadow other sources of death in people's minds. As a former international health researcher, I can assure you that sickness, poor nutrition, poor sanitation and lack of access of safe drinking water and medical care will be the leading causes of death. Governments should look into these areas first.


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