Nigeria's democratic government is struggling to reverse decades of economic and social decline
Nigeria can be divided into four main regions. The humid coastal belt includes extensive swamplands and lagoons that can extend 15 kilometres inland, and further still in the area around the Niger River delta. Further inland the swamps give way first to hilly tropical rainforests and then the land rises to several plateaux—the Jos plateau in the centre and the Biu plateau in the north-east. Further north, these descend to savannah grasslands and eventually to semi-desert areas. The principal feature of the east-central border area with Cameroon is the Adamawa plateau, which includes the highest point in the country, Mount Dimlang.
Nigeria has Africa's largest population, though the actual size is a matter of some dispute. The government has claimed that it is smaller than UN estimates. As with much else, this is a highly political issue since it has a critical bearing on the distribution of funds between the federal government and the states. The population is likely to grow at an average of 2.5% per year over the next decade or so—and could reach 240 million by 2025.
Nigeria is a federation of 36 states with more than 400 ethnic groups, though more than half belong to the three main groups: the Hausa-Fulani, who are Muslims and live in the north; the Yoruba, who are followers of both Christian and Islamic faiths and live in the south-west; and the Igbo, many of whom are Christians and live in the south-east. They largely live together peacefully, but there are at times outbreaks of violence. In 1999, for example, there were clashes between Yoruba and Hausa and hundreds of people died in various outbreaks of ethnic violence. Even more alarming were the deaths in early 2000 of hundreds of Christians and Muslims in disputes over the latter's determination to impose Shariah law in northern states in which Muslims are in the majority.
Nigerian children packed into crowded classrooms
Despite its potential wealth, Nigeria has been slipping backwards. Around one-third of the population live below the poverty line. The education system is in poor shape and the literacy rate is only 68%. Those who can afford private education make progress but most children are packed into crowded and dilapidated classrooms. The public health system too is increasingly over-burdened. Maternal mortality is three times the average for developing countries. HIV and AIDS are also taking a heavy toll: in 2007 the official estimate was that 1.5% of adults were HIV-positive, though the real figure could be higher.
Despite rapid urbanization, most Nigerians still earn their living from agriculture, which makes up around 40% of GDP. The vast majority are subsistence farmers who have small plots and use primitive tools. In the south they tend to grow root crops like yams and cassava, while in the north the main crops are sorghum, millet, and maize.
With little investment, and over-exploitation of the land, output has often lagged behind population growth. As a result Nigeria, which used to export food in large quantities, is now a major importer. Small farmers also grow some cash crops, but of these only cocoa now provides any significant export income—and output has halved in the last 30 years.