Nigeria’s Population: The bomb that exploded unnoticed

Festus Eriye


There was a time when Nigeria’s booming population could have been referred to as a ticking time bomb. The bomb has since exploded but we didn’t understand what happened because it crept up on us. Now, we must confront the diverse consequences of our carefree procreation.

A huge population can be an asset if a country has sound economic foundations that make for continuing prosperity. In this case the large numbers become a powerhouse market.

But an exploding and impoverished population is a nightmare that would soon lead to an implosion because it cannot sustain its hordes.

On Monday, at the 25th Nigerian Economic Summit (NES) held in Abuja, the Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II, described our population as a liability to the country. He is absolutely correct.

As shameful as it is, we don’t have credible figures because censuses over the years became tools for jockeying for ethnic and political advantage.

So we must rely on projections. UN estimates put our population as of 2019 at 200.96 million – making us the 7th most populous nation on earth.

At independence in 1960 we were a country of just 45.2 million people. The National Bureau of Statistics put our population as high as 166.2 million as of 2012. So in the fifty-two years in between our numbers ballooned by 268%.

The scary part going by these projections is that by 2050, this nation could have 390 million residents! Bear in mind that while we are multiplying, the entire landmass remains static at approximately 923,768 square kilometres. A significant chunk of this space is uninhabitable – given climate change and the relentless encroachment of the Sahara Desert.

We are already noticing the impact as dislocated people seeking succour down south, compete for land and limited resources with the locals.

Sanusi, in his intervention at the NES event, attributed the spate of kidnapping, armed robbery, insurgency, farmer-herder conflict to the rate of population growth.

He said: “Nigeria’s population is currently a liability because the root cause of problems such as kidnapping, armed robbery, Boko Haram, drug addiction are all tied to the population that we have and the question is how do you turn that into a productive one.”

My first suggestion is we need a national consensus that our population growth rate has become an emergency that has to be addressed without delay. You don’t get that sense of urgency listening to our leaders – whether in the National Assembly or Presidency – lay out their policy priorities.

It’s nice to know that one or two grand bridges or kilometres of roads are being built. But it doesn’t matter how many jobs are created or how many hospitals and houses are constructed, they would never be enough if we don’t rein in our present growth rate.

As pressure on available infrastructure and limited opportunities mount, desperation also increases. Those who are left behind sooner or later venture into crime. The more daring are fleeing to the four corners of the globe to build a life for themselves.

Unfortunately, most nations are struggling to sustain their own population and the surging numbers of foreigners heading their way from countries like Nigeria, is putting their systems under considerable strain. The recent anti-immigrant sentiment that we’ve seen in countries like the US, Italy, South Africa and elsewhere is down to this.

We are partly where we are today because in the boom years of the 70s, our leaders were not visionary enough to foresee the problem that lay ahead. They were satisfied with basking in accolades about being the ‘Giant of Africa.’ Roads and other facilities were built without a sense that a decade or two down the line they wouldn’t be enough to cater for a larger population.

It wouldn’t be totally correct to say that the governments of the 80s and 90s didn’t recognise that there was trouble ahead. The question is what did they do about it? Were they sufficiently disturbed to take action?

The military regime of former President Ibrahim Babangida did take a half-hearted stab at the problem with a campaign that sought to limit Nigerians to families of four. Designed to get people to enlist to the idea by persuasion, it came to nothing.

The same challenges that existed back then are alive and well today. Any attempt to seriously control growth would immediately face the formidable obstacles of cultural practices and religious beliefs.

But we are beginning to see families limit the number of children they have in the face of the astronomical cost of raising them. Economics is fast becoming a factor in the matter – but not enough.

We still have too many among our elite who think that because they have the means, they must sire enough children to populate a village. There are also individuals blessed with beautiful girls, but keep procreating in search of a supposedly ‘superior’ male child.

On the flip side is the beggar who has three or four wives, when the only means of sustenance is the goodwill of strangers who may drop a dime in his plate. The upshot is we are daily building a pool of people who ultimately become a menace to society.

That Nigeria has to develop an aggressive new population control policy has become imperative.

The jury is still out as to whether China’s one-child policy was a good idea. Its implementation may have been harsh and extreme, but it prevented 400 million births and threw open employment opportunities for millions across the country.

The policy has since been relaxed and couples may now have up to two children. We don’t have to copy their example wholesale, but we can adopt the good things they did.

We may choose to offer new families the choice of limiting their size to two or three children and incentivise the policy. Families can get scholarships, free healthcare and tax relief for buying into the programme.

It may take a while to seep through to the grassroots, but a committed government that sees the danger that is already upon us, would try anything.

But first we must organise a credible national census that doesn’t make provision for questions about ethnicity and faith, instead it focuses on settling the critical issue of how many we truly are.

©2018 VivaLasGidi

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