The Looming Demographic Disaster


A United Nations (UN) population estimate released last week reaffirmed earlier projection that Nigeria is set to overtake the United States in population by 2050. Titled, “2017 Revision of World Population Prospects”, the UN report added rather ominously that the concentration of population growth in the poorest countries will pose a challenge of improving healthcare, education and equality to end poverty and hunger in most of the developing world.

While that inevitable conclusion is ordinarily worrisome, one issue hardly ever discussed in our country is population control; not only because we like to live in denial about what ails us but also because once we cloak an issue in the garb of religion, we make it almost a taboo for any serious engagement. That explains why when the Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II, recently advocated that men should be compelled to fulfil certain conditions before they can qualify for polygamous marriages, all hell was let loose.

Yet, in the light of a population explosion that is becoming a serious national security problem, the prescription by the emir is worth discussing. Men who are not capable of maintaining one wife, yet marrying four, according to Sanusi, most often end up with many children that become nuisance to themselves and the larger society. From Lagos to Enugu to Port Harcourt to Maiduguri to Kano and Jos, we see evidence of this state of affair on our streets almost on a daily basis. Many of the children in this unfortunate situation were fathered by men who believe their responsibility begins and ends with impregnating a woman.

Determined to change the situation, especially within his domain, Emir Sanusi explained the structure he has already instituted. “As I speak, in the palace in Kano, a sub-committee of scholars, which I set up and has been working for about a year, is finalising the final sections of a family law we intend to introduce in Kano. The law will address what Islam says on marriage, it will outlaw forced marriages, it will make domestic violence illegal, it will put in conditions that you need to fulfill before you can marry a second wife, it will spell out the responsibilities of a father beyond producing a child. It is a big law which covers a whole range of issues from consent to marriage, to divorce, to maintenance of children and inheritance. It will be the first time in northern Nigeria that a Muslim law on personal status will be codified,” said Sanusi.

In a society where hypocrisy is a national ideology, it was easy for Sanusi to be crowded by a cacophony of voices, even when the fact remains that it is the poor segments of our population that account for majority of the children that have been left without much prospects in life. That then explains why even when the number of poor people continue to decline in other regions of the world, Nigeria and other sub-Saharan African countries currently account for half of the global poor, according to World Bank reports.

Before going further, let me quickly dispel the notion that this is a class issue or that I am canvassing that poor people should be denied the number of children they desire. As son of a village carpenter who understands the full meaning of poverty, I subscribe to the argument of Zina Jayne, a mother of three who, in a recent piece, defended the reproductive rights of poor people. Whatever may be the challenges, she argued, the number of children should not be limited by income “because the world has been immeasurably enriched by quite a number of people born to low income parents–including presidents, athletes, writers, comedians, inventors, business leaders, musicians, and on and on.”

The point she, however, failed to make is that education still remains perhaps the only means of escape from the vicious cycle of poverty, especially for children of those low income people. Indeed, the opportunities that some of us have in life are due to the sacrifices of our parents who ensured that we went to school against all odds. That is not what obtains today. A prominent Nigerian recently shared with me a discussion he had with his driver who has many children from several women. The excuse given by the driver was amusing but also very typically Nigerian: “Oga, God knows how He distributes His favours. To people like you, He gave money; to people like us, He gave many children.”

Rather than accept his lifestyle as a choice he willingly made, the driver had to drag God to the issue. But then, the religious lobby in Nigeria would support such argument since they don’t ever want you to discuss population control. “If you compare Nigeria with developed countries like Italy, a Catholic dominated country or even the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is a Muslim country, you will understand that these countries have maintained same population for several years and this has caused them to organise their lives better and provide for their people,” said Mr. Dimos Sakellaridis, a population control advocate.

The major concern about the rapidly growing population in Nigeria, according to Sakellaridis, is the fact that there are no infrastructures to support it since social services like schools, health care facilities etc. are not also growing at an equally comparable rate. In fact, they are deteriorating everyday which means that the only thing we are producing at a comparative advantage in Nigeria today are babies. Unfortunately, two stories that have been trending online in the past one week reveal that this has become an African malaise.

The first story is that of an 80-year-old farmer in Ghana who has more than a hundred children from 12 wives. “If I get a lady today, I will marry her and have more children”, said the man who reportedly once proposed to one of his own daughters. “He met the lady and said he loved her and later on, the lady said she was his daughter. He said his eyes were worrying him; that was why he didn’t notice it was his own daughter and we laughed over it”, recounted one of his sons.

As if that is not disturbing enough, also trending is the story of a 37-year-old Ugandan woman who, at 37, has already given birth to 38 children with the oldest of them being 23 while the youngest is just four-month old. She has had six sets of twins, four sets of triplets, three sets of quadruplets and single births. Ten of these are girls and the rest are boys. Yet, the husband fathering all these children has practically left the poor woman to bear the burden alone. There are many of such men in Nigeria and that is why emir Sanusi’s proposal is important because it goes to the heart of our largely unproductive population.

I have highlighted in the past on this page, a 2010 report sponsored by the British Council and coordinated by David Bloom, Harvard Professor of Economics and Demography, titled, “Nigeria-The Next Generation” which speaks to this same issue. The report remains instructive as it states inter alia: “Nigeria is at a crossroads: one path offers a huge demographic dividend, with tremendous opportunity for widespread economic and human progress, while the other path leaves Nigeria descending into quicksand.”

The kernel of that point is to ask: what kind of population are we breeding? Even when I have not conducted any research, most educated and relatively comfortable people in our society no longer subscribe to having many children. They have only the number they believe they can care for. On the other hand, those who are at the bottom of the society have no qualms about having as many children as they like without considering the welfare of those they are bringing into the world.

In a way, General Ibrahim Babangida should at least be credited for seeing this problem ahead and trying to do something, even if it failed. In 1988, he enunciated the first, and to date the only, National Policy on Population which sought to, among other things, “make Family Planning services available to 50 per cent of women of child bearing age by 1995 and 80 per cent by year 2000; reduce rate of population growth from 3.3 to 2.5 per cent by 1995 and 2 per cent in the year 2000 and provide suitable Family Life Education, Family Planning Information and Services to all adolescents by the year 2000.”

The challenge before the nation today is enormous. Last Friday, I was with Dr Iko Ibanga, the Executive Director of Pro-Health International who has spent the past 26 years on the medical mission field and he shared with me a recent experience at one of the IDP camps in Abuja where his daughter went to celebrate her birthday with the residents. The number of children currently resident in the camp, according to Ibanga, is about 250 with those of secondary school age being about 30 percent of the population and the remaining 70 percent being of primary school age. The surrounding community has schools that are willing to subsidize education for the primary school children to the sum of N2,000 per child and secondary schools for a sum of N15,000 but because their parents cannot afford such meager sums, the children are just roaming the streets with their future in jeopardy.

On Monday, at a meeting of “Men of Issachar”, the men’s fellowship of our church, we had to make contributions for a special fund for the education of children in Tunga communities of Abuja. The issue arose because in the course of a church planting mission, it was discovered that most of the children are not in school because their parents cannot afford to pay N1,500 per term. While our efforts may help in putting some of these children in school, and there are many such similar efforts that I know of, the problem is far deeper than what any ad hoc arrangement can handle.

Against the background that most Western countries are already grappling with the problem of ageing populations, Nigeria’s young population is a major potential. But without investing in education for them, this opportunity promises only one inevitable outcome which is disaster. Nigeria, according to the British Council report earlier referred to, is poorly positioned to maximise the economic opportunities created by its demographics yet if this potential is not harnessed, “it will become an increasingly disruptive force”.

The signs of this malaise are already all-too-evident on the streets of our major cities and in the millions of out-of-school children that we have across the country. I just hope that the authorities and critical stakeholders are paying attention. I also hope we can all come up with solutions to what has become a perplexing national problem. Before it is too late!