Ministry of Low Birth Rate




Many new Federal ministries were created at the inception of the Tinubu Administration, with nearly 50 ministers to match. How  come that we forgot to create a very important Ministry of Birth Rate? This world no balance, to use street language. While we are here worrying about Nigeria’s explosive population growth rate, other countries of the world are deeply worried that their women are not giving birth to enough children.

Last week, President of South Korea, Yoon Suk Yeol, declared that his country’s birth rate is so low that he would create a whole ministry to tackle it. Mr. Yoon said South Korea’s extremely low birth rate is “a national emergency.” “We will mobilize all of the nation’s capabilities to overcome it,” he said, and that he would ask parliament to establish a Ministry of Low Birth Rate Counter-planning.

These Koreans self. So, while they were busy building microchips, smart phones, television sets, computers, Kia and Hyundai vehicles, they forgot to go to bed and produce babies? Which one is more difficult: staying up all night in a lab to add new features to a smart phone and expand the capacity of a microchip, or retiring to bed to kiss and cuddle, and for a baby to fall out nine months later? You mean all the hi-tech factories of Samsung, LG, Hyundai and other chaebols cannot manufacture babies?

It is a big puzzle to Africans that South Korea is said to have the world’s lowest fertility rate, i.e. the average number of children a woman will have during her lifetime. While population experts say that a country needs a fertility rate of 2.1 to maintain a stable population, South Korea recorded a rate of 0.78 in 2022. Rather than improve, it further dropped to 0.72 in 2023, with no end in sight. We used to think that Koreans are industrious, but we are forced to review our assessment of them.

Not only South Korea. Its East Asian neighbours including China, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong all face what is described as a “demographic time bomb.” These were exactly the countries that we Africans envied for their rapid economic growth and their technological prowess. We envied the Japanese as hi-tech wizards; we envied the people of Hong Kong for their financial wizardry; for three decades we thought Taiwanese were the best manufacturers of cheap goods; and in recent times we marveled at the Chinese for their near-miraculous rate of economic growth. It turns out that, while the East Asians were achieving economic miracles, they were failing in the much juicier art of procreation.

Remember, we said a country needs a 2.1 fertility rate to maintain a stable population. Well, here are some of the countries with the lowest fertility rates for their women. Reading from the bottom, Taiwan leads at 1.09, followed by South Korea with 1.11, with Singapore in third place at 1.17. [Who is that former Nigerian state governor who, at the drop of a hat, cites Singapore as the best role model for Nigeria? Well, not in this simple matter]. Other champion nations of low fertility include Italy, 1.24; Spain, 1.29; Bosnia Herzegovina, 1.37 and Japan, 1.39.

I see. Italians, despite all your free-wheeling social ways, you are not producing enough babies? Why? Is it the Mafia in Sicily that stops you from sleeping? Or is it the influence of the The Vatican which you host within Rome, which has a 0% natural population growth rate because the Pope and all his cardinals, archbishops, bishops and nuns are celibate? Spaniards, what is the use of your beaches and castles when you cannot procreate? Are you so busy receiving and catering to 85 million tourists each year, that you forget your elementary duties? And the Japanese, who will drive all the Toyota, Honda, Suzuki, Daihatsu and Nissan cars that you are producing, and who will watch Seiko, Hitachi, Panasonic, Canon, Nikon and Toshiba tv sets if there are no children?

Anyway, East Asians are not alone in their demographic quandary. Europeans, especially the rich West Europeans, also have similar worries, with many of the countries having zero percent natural population growth rates. Even though the rising far-right populist political parties in those countries will have none of it, Europeans’ saving grace is immigration. The extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa and the violent crises in several African and Middle Eastern countries all the way to Afghanistan and Syria provide to them a steady stream of immigrants who can undertake menial jobs at very cheap rates. In a way, cheap immigrant labour to replenish their falling populations is the Westerners’ biggest post-colonial dividend. Truly, the right-wing populists among them don’t want to dilute their milky white skin with any dark skin, but then, that may be their only saving grace in decades to come.

Why are Korean women not producing enough children? One Korean expert said it is due to “demanding work cultures, stagnating wages, rising costs of living, high real estate prices, high cost of education, greater economic anxiety, changing attitudes toward marriage and gender equality, and rising disillusionment among younger generations.” Another expert added that “stigma against single parents, discrimination against non-traditional partnerships, and barriers for same-sex couples” are also to blame. Yet another expert said, “Marriage, childbirth and child care require too much sacrifice for women in a patriarchal society, especially over the past decade. So, they are beginning to explore the possibility of being able to live well without getting married.” Tell that to an African. 

While the East Asians and Europeans have dismally low fertility rates, we Africans are racing to the Guiness Book of Records to register the highest fertility rates. The champion in this regard is Niger Republic with a 6.73 fertility rate. In other words, any Zarma or Bororoji Nigerien woman that you see in a Saharan tent is expected to produce nearly seven children during her lifetime, when a South Korean woman, surrounded by all the electronic gadgets, is expected to produce 0.7 of a child. Other high fertility countries include Angola, 5.76; DR Congo, 5.56; Mali, 5.45; Benin, 5.39 and Chad, 5.35. Even Somalia, which has had no functional government since 1991, has a 5.22 fertility rate. South Sudan, despite all the troubles between Silva Kir and his rivals, has a 5.2 fertility rate while Nigeria’s fertility rate is 4.57, which is low by African standards.

This year, Nigeria’s population is estimated at 229 million. It is estimated that there will be 377 million Nigerians in 2050 and in 2100, there will be 546 million Nigerians, the third largest in the world, after having overtaken the United States and closing in on China! Wonder of wonders, China’s population of 1.4 billion is projected to reduce by 500 million in 2100. Fear what you wish for. In 2000 AD I had a discussion with a young Chinese technician who came to my office in New Nigerian to install the Xinhua news agency gadget. He said China wished that it has 500 million less people. Well, that wish is about to materialize and it looks like the Communist Party is panicking. One problem for the East Asians is that, unlike Europe, they are not expecting immigrants to flood their shores. Which African will immigrate to China and be asked to learn an alphabet of 8000 characters? Which African will migrate to Japan and be told to wear a kimono, eat seaweed, sip sake and perform a samurai ritual with a short sword?

Not that the East Asians have done nothing about their falling populations. For one, they threw money at it. South Korea spent $200 billion in the last 16 years in initiatives such as extending paid paternity leave, offering monetary “baby vouchers” to new parents and social campaigns encouraging men to contribute to childcare and housework. With little effect, so far.  Imagine, if you are to deploy $200 billion in Nigeria to get babies, very soon there will be no space to stand. Even when nobody pays us, when so many of us have no roofs over their heads, when too many of us are starving and when there are far fewer paediatric clinics and far fewer classrooms, this country is still awash in children. This is a cruel dilemma for humanity. The richer human societies get, with all the means to provide shelter, food, clothing, health care, education, jobs and recreation, the less able they are to bring forth the children who will enjoy them. Conversely, the poorer a society is, with the least means of providing these necessities for a good life, the more able it is to bring forth children in huge quantities.

You, Koreans and Japanese, with all your technological wizardry, why can’t you manufacture artificial wombs to incubate and give birth to children? In 1977 when the world’s first “test tube baby” was born, I thought we will graduate within a few years from in-vitro fertilization to a test tube womb and delivery. Unless they bring their technological wizardry to a procreation conclusion, they may one day be gone from the Earth and we, the meek, shall inherit the world.

Meanwhile, to each his own problem. While the Koreans will soon have a Ministry of Low Birth Rate, President Tinubu should use his First Year Anniversary speech to create a Ministry of Very High Fertility Rate to tackle our own problem, or else one day, there will be only one square foot of space for every Nigerian to stand, including the lakes and rivers. As I used to teach in Ecology classes, the ultimate limiting factor to population growth is physical space.

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