Which African country has the highest unemployment rate? It depends who you ask

Nigera’s own statistics bureau says the country has one of Africa’s highest unemployment rates, but the UN’s labour agency says it is lower. Much lower. Here’s why

By Gemma Ritchie
Friday, July 14, 2023

Image: DALL·E/OpenAI

  • Nigeria and South Africa have the highest unemployment rates in Africa. According to their own statistics agencies, both are above 30%
  • Nigeria is adopting the International Labour Organization’s method of calculating employment statistics, which estimates the country’s unemployment rate as 6%
  • The decision to change methodology comes at a time when the country is battling spiralling inflation

Nigeria’s unemployment rate is 33.3%, according to the latest figure available from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). This estimate is for the fourth quarter of 2020, which makes it more than two years old.

For a person to be considered employed in Nigeria, they must work at least 20 hours a week.

The International Labour Organization, an agency of the UN, says an employed person is anyone who works for at least an hour a week for pay or profit. By the ILO’s estimate, Nigeria’s unemployment rate is just 6%.

These differing definitions can make things very confusing. For example:

  • The World Bank uses the ILO’s unemployment rate (5.8%), but also lists a national estimate of 10.7%, which is for 2019
  • The International Monetary Fund’s unemployment rate for Nigeria is 22.6%, but that’s for 2018
  • KPMG, the global audit and tax advisory firm, estimates the unemployment rate for 2022 at 37.7%

The NBS says it has now adopted the ILO’s methodology, although it has yet to release a new unemployment rate. When it does, it could be up to 27 percentage points lower than its latest rate of 33.3% – which means the country will no longer have the highest unemployment rate on the continent.

Economic hardship

Nigeria’s decision to change to the ILO’s methodology has been met with some scepticism, especially as its new president is battling a cost-of-living crisis.

In its Global Outlook report released in April 2023, KPMG projected that Nigeria’s unemployment rate could rise to 40.6% in 2023 and that unemployment would remain a major challenge. It said gross domestic product was expected to grow at a slow pace of 3% in 2023.

Top position

The four African countries with the highest unemployment rates, according to their national statistics agencies are: Namibia (33.4%), Nigeria (33.3%), Eswatini (33%) and South Africa (32.9%).

But the picture shifts once adjusted to the ILO’s 2023 estimates. Because South Africa already follows the international definition of employment, the StatsSA and ILO estimates differ by only a few percentage points – and it stays at the top of the list with 30%, which is double that of most countries.

There are only eight other African countries with a rate of 20% or more, including Djibouti (28%) and Eswatini (25%).

According to the ILO, nine African countries have an unemployment rate of over 20%

Thirty-four countries on the continent have an unemployment rate less than 10%.

How the ILO compiles data

It’s worth noting that in compiling its unemployment rate figures, the ILO uses surveys sent to government officials and national statistics agencies as well as the raw data from the surveys and censuses.