Thursday with Abimbola Adelakun[email protected]
Now and then, a Nigerian leader raises the issue of our population problem but somehow, it slides without a sustained discussion.
In June 2012, President Goodluck Jonathan hinted the possibility of birth control legislation. He drew the ire of people who waved their religion as the reason they would reproduce as they wished. That retort was not unexpected. Between 1988 and 2004, Nigeria had made and reviewed policies to check population, and such conservative reactions were almost routine.
In October, the Minister of Finance, Zainab Ahmed, toed a similar path. She claimed that one of the biggest challenges to Nigeria’s economic recovery and development is the exploding population that makes serious planning difficult. She hoped Nigeria would get to the point where we could limit the number of children per woman. Let me quickly say that no matter how sensible it may appear, it is not the business of a democratic government to take such decisions. Such laws will not only be invasive, but they will also run into murky terrains of cultural ideas about fertility. Also, they will set a biopolitical precedent that will facilitate other forms of power abuse.
That said, we should join our leaders to acknowledge that we have a problem and we need solutions.
As our leaders quickly find out when they begin to talk about population control, reproduction in Nigeria is not a personal issue nor restricted to the domestic sphere. It is intensely political because it is interwoven with religious sentiments and our habits of underdevelopment. It is not a coincidence that nobody knows Nigeria’s actual population, and what we work with are informed guesses. There is an unwritten Nigerian policy that deliberately seeks not to know the population and its distribution. Doing so will expose the underbelly of the many foundational injustices embedded into the country’s political structures. We saw how the politics played out when the former chairperson of the National Population Commission, Festus Odimegwu, started sharing ideas on how to correctly count us. True, the man preempted his task with biased comments, but his plans had enough merit to straighten out some lopsidedness in our polity. If the project had sailed, we would have made some gains and built other developmental ideas on them.
Here is the thing: no President, or any leader in Nigeria, that can ever successfully initiate any developmental ideas unless we first learn to count ourselves accurately, organise, and make accurate projections based on numbers. That is why those who are obsessed with the vision of a President who will promote development by wiping away corruption are lost in la-la land. There are far more fundamental issues that need addressing, but that is another argument.
In Nigeria, ignorance of our demographic distribution is strength and political power. First, some northerners claim that their religion is against limiting the number of children a woman might have, and so they refuse to even entertain the issue. They don’t stop there, they invest public resources in regulating morality through policies such as a mass wedding, and the end of such activities is breeding more children. The more they swell their population, the better the benefits that accrue to them when collective resources are being distributed. Also, during nationwide elections, they can claim a suspiciously high number of votes.
A former Kano State governor, Rabiu Kwankwaso, admitted it was the “born throway children” that former First Lady Patience Jonathan ridiculed during the 2015 presidential campaigns that they mobilised against her husband in the election. For Kwankwaso and his fellow travellers, those children are only useful for service elites’ agenda; their existence is merely consequent of a biological imperative to reproduce. At some point, the Kano Emir, Mallam Muhammadu Sanusi, took on some of these retrogressive ideas of the political class such as Kwankwaso’s but the political establishment reacted viciously to protect their privileges. Sanusi has been largely muted since then.
In southern Nigeria, people who do not want to be outbred by northerners find like minds in the fruit of the womb industry promoted by contemporary religious movements. These religious organisations, through their obsessive focus on fertility, have built a spiritual and moral economy around reproduction. They have heightened the sense of achievement women are made to feel when they breed. Women who are incapable of fulfilling this obligation outsource the feat of producing their “miracle babies” to surrogate mothers in baby factories. Between the north and south, an evolutionary trait is aggressively promoted through political and spiritual power not only because of the social security children guarantee parents but also because of the benefits that accrue to politicians. Based on these factors, a meaningful engagement on population and its control does not even get a fair hearing.
Ideally, at the rate at which our population is growing, we should be building new schools from primary to tertiary level to widen educational access, increasing the number of hospitals and health centres, and generally improving on the environment to optimise its resources to sustain life. But, no. While we put in so much political and spiritual efforts into helping women breed, there is no similar push to build a future for those children.
At some point, Nigeria will eventually have to confront the consequences of her (in)decision on population. Our raging population growth will turn our country – and perhaps the entire continent itself – to a dystopian wasteland where a massive horde of youths will be active recruits in the devil’s workshop. All over West Africa, people in their prime of life are braving the deserts and the Mediterranean Sea to make it to Europe and escape their woeful fate. While those ones are leaving on foot, young and upwardly mobile professionals too are dusting their papers and migrating at an alarming rate. Consulate offices in Nigeria are up to their neck in visa applications. Nigeria will not recover from the effects of this present mass migration for another two to three decades because they are taking with them the resources necessary to train the next generations.
At the same time, more people are being bred; born into a society that is not gathering the content of their future. Without at least improving the quality of education, we might as well start rehearsing those children for a life spent picking cotton on Chinese plantations. With the way the world is changing and machines usurping human labour, we will end up with an excess supply of humans whose unskilled labour nobody needs. We will be a nation with an army of people who have children to pass the time. I know that all this sounds like another Malthusian theory, but we cannot vacate this doomsday through merely wishful thinking. We need concerted efforts and an election year is an auspicious time to challenge our leaders on their vision for our burgeoning population.
Roughly, one in every 37 persons in the world is a Nigerian but that is no good news. We are the poverty capital of the world, and though the population is burgeoning at the rate of 2.8 per cent annually, about one-third of us are still illiterates. A growing population in itself is not a bad development. It portends an active workforce and a revenue base that will continually power the economy from the bottom up. However, ours is a case of reproductivity without a concomitant level of productivity.
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Population issues are complicated, and for that reason, we have to start tackling them at the level of ideology. Rather than limit the number of children per woman, we should devise a social re-engineering approach that apprehends the misogyny so embedded in our culture that it makes biology the determiner of destiny. For that, we need a leadership that is enlightened, steadfast and has the integrity to fashion out such an agenda. Then, we can successfully work out policies that curtail early marriages, improve education, and guarantee access to medical care for women to take decisions affecting their own bodies. Our leaders are right that our population is a problem, and for the sake of national development, we need resolutions.