When Children Become Liabilities

By Olusegun Adeniyi

Last week, Governor Abba Kabir Yusuf painted a pathetic picture of the state of primary education in Kano. “Above 4.7 million pupils are sitting on bare floors to take lessons while about 400 schools have only one teacher for all classes subjects and all pupils,” said Yusuf who put the current figure of out-of-school children in the state at 989,234. Not surprisingly, he blamed his predecessor, Abdullahi Ganduje for the problem. “Rather than building more classrooms and providing basic furniture in the schools, as well as hiring more teachers, the administration we took over from chose to butcher the land belonging to those schools. In some places, it demolished classrooms to create space for shops.” The schools that could not be sold, according to Yusuf, were closed. “The encroachment of public-school lands and the conversion of these vital institutions into private business premises is an affront to our communal values and a direct assault on our commitment to public education. This reckless appropriation of educational spaces for commercial use is unacceptable and must stop immediately.”

The growing number of out-of-school children has become not only a social problem but a serious national security challenge. More worrisome is what appears to be the lack of any concerted effort to deal with this vexatious problem beyond bandying statistics. According to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), a huge percentage of the world’s total number of out-of-school children come from Nigeria. And this is not only a Kano problem. While perhaps more pronounced in the north, no state is free of the problem which is compounded by projections that Nigeria’s population could rise to 440 million by 2050. Such uncontrolled population growth of largely illiterate people poses a serious threat to the survival of a nation. Besides, it is from this constituency that criminal cartels now recruit their members. After all, as the saying goes, an idle hand is the devil’s workshop.

Yet, there is hardly any national conversation regarding primary schools. This tragic error has become the bane of education management in Nigeria. Our obsession with university education is based on the warped thinking that we can build a house from the roof while we discount the foundation, which primary schools represent. A recent report by the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC) that no fewer than 27 states in the country have failed to access the sum of N54.9 billion basic education fund as of the end of March this year is very telling. The UBEC fund is an annual grant to help states upgrade primary schools. But to access the money, they are required to match the federal government’s grant. To evade accountability, many states ignore this facility even as children study under deplorable conditions, including lessons under trees and in dilapidated classrooms.

The growing population of out-of-school children is a symptom of the larger problem of irresponsible procreation. Unfortunately, population control is rarely discussed in Nigeria, not only because we choose to live in denial about what ails us but also because once we cloak an issue in the garb of religion, it becomes taboo for any serious engagement. The major concern about our rapidly growing population, as Dimos Sakellaridis, a population control advocate once reminded us, is the absence of infrastructural support. Especially 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.

It should worry all critical stakeholders that a demographic crisis is already upon us. That there is a class dimension to this crisis merely compounds the problem. Deutsche Welle (DW), a German international broadcaster, recently produced a documentary on Nigeria’s exploding population. “Having a large family is a blessing from God. I am a product of a large family. I like a large family,” a resident of Makoko waterfront slum in Lagos who has three wives and 18 children reportedly said without a care about how to raise such a huge number of children that may end up on the street. “As a youth, I decided that, when I was older, I would have a large family.”

That mindset is replicated across the country by thousands of poor people based on the illusion that Nigeria is a wealthy country. We have never been one, though the potential was huge at independence 64 years ago. Even if we didn’t squander our riches, the rate at which our population has grown from 45.2 million to 229 million today would still be a problem. Meanwhile, in 1960, the population of the United Kingdom was 52 million, meaning that the country from which we were gaining independence had about seven million more people than Nigeria. Today, the UK is about 68 million, an increase of almost 14 percent over the past 62 years while Nigeria’s estimated population has increased by about 500 percent!

At some point we must come to terms with the reality that at the rate our population is growing amid dwindling resources, there is no way millions of children will not be left behind to our collective detriment. There must therefore be an enlightenment campaign on responsible procreation. “The resources available are unable to meet the basic needs of the growing population,” John Oyefara, a professor of demography at the University of Lagos, told DW. “This has resulted in inadequate facilities in our health sector, food security, housing, transportation and even employment.”

The numbers don’t look good. As of 2020, Nigeria’s share in the global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) adjusted for purchasing power parity (which is used to measure both the economic growth and living standards in any country) amounted to approximately 0.81 percent. Meanwhile, using data from the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) World Factbook, Pratap Vardin, an Indian full-stack data science engineer, came up with a graphic of countries where the next 1,000 babies would statistically be born into based on population and birth rates estimates. By his projection, 57 of those babies would be born in Nigeria. That means we will account for about six per cent of children born into the world who will then have to battle for less than one percent of global resources!

There is ample evidence to suggest that most educated and relatively comfortable people in our society produce only the number they believe they can care for. In fact, most of the middle-class professionals who have embraced the ‘Japa’ syndrome do so for their children, despite the sacrifices involved. On the other hand, it is those who are at the lower rung of society who have no qualms about having as many children as they like without considering the welfare of those they are bringing into the world. Having allowed the majority of our people to remain chained to belief systems that shun family planning, we now have a huge but largely unproductive population on our hands. If we are to develop as a society, we need an enforceable population policy that is tied to incentives as it is done in several countries.

As I have written several times on this page, the 1974 controversial book, ‘Lifeboat Ethics: The case against helping the poor’ by Garrett Hardin has now become a ready handbook for policy makers in most immigration departments of Western countries. It also accounts for the rise of right-wing leaders to positions of power and why opportunities for ‘Japa’ are shrinking in most of these countries. Metaphorically, according to the late American ecologist and microbiologist who focused his career on the issue of human overpopulation, “Each rich nation can be seen as a lifeboat full of comparatively rich people. In the ocean outside each lifeboat swim the poor of the world, who would like to get in, or at least to share some of the wealth.” He then asked: “What should the lifeboat passengers do?”

This was the way Hardin answered his own question 50 years ago: “So here we sit, say 50 people in our lifeboat. To be generous, let us assume it has room for 10 more, making a total capacity of 60. Suppose the 50 of us in the lifeboat see 100 others swimming in the water outside, begging for admission to our boat or for handouts. We have several options: we may be tempted to try to live by the Christian ideal of being ‘our brother’s keeper,’ or by the Marxist ideal of ‘to each according to his needs.’ Since the needs of all in the water are the same, and since they can all be seen as ‘our brothers,’ we could take them all into our boat, making a total of 150 in a boat designed for 60. The boat swamps, everyone drowns. Complete justice, complete catastrophe.”

The critical point in Hardin’s thesis is that most of the countries from where citizens flee are suffering the consequences of the choices their people make, especially regarding an unbridled population explosion. “The harsh ethics of the lifeboat become harsher when we consider the reproductive differences between rich and poor. A wise and competent government saves out of the production of the good years in anticipation of bad years to come. Joseph taught this policy to Pharaoh in Egypt more than 2,000 years ago. Yet the great majority of the governments in the world today do not follow such a policy,” Hardin wrote. “They lack either the wisdom or the competence, or both. On the average poor countries undergo a 2.5 percent increase in population each year; rich countries, about 0.8 percent. Because of the higher rate of population growth in the poor countries of the world, 88 percent of today’s children are born poor, and only 12 percent rich. Year by year the ratio becomes worse, as the fast-reproducing poor outnumber the slow-reproducing rich…”

For decades, we have sold the myth, especially to the poor of our society, that the government is responsible for taking care of them. And that the only problem is ‘corruption’ which our politicians keep ‘fighting’. The message must be that everyone is ultimately responsible for themselves and their family. Conducting a conversation on this issue is more urgent than ever before. We need voices like that of the Zamfara State Council of Chiefs chairman and Emir of Anka, Alhaji Attahiru Muhammad Ahmad, who once cautioned low-income earners against marrying more than one wife. “Civil servants on a salary of N15,000 a month marry more than one wife and end up raising families they cannot cater for,” the emir said. “It is this attitude that is responsible for increasing out-of-school children because the parents cannot shoulder the responsibility.”

On the immediate challenge, Kano and the other states must find the human and material resources to take children off the streets and put them in schools. But in the long term, Nigerians must also begin to understand that only a moderate population growth that enables a high quality of life for citizens can guarantee a sustainable society.

• You can follow me on my Twitter handle, @Olusegunverdict and on www.olusegunadeniyi.com  

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