Population and Sustainability Revisited

2006/7 was when I first read Nigeria off the pages of a foreign textbook on development. I had little training on the matter, so it meant so much to me just reading that we were the ninth most populous country in world! I thought it meant recognition; you know, strength. We had just been head-counted to a high of about 142 million people. In another six years, an addition of over 27 million occurred, moving Nigeria up to the seventh most populous nation in the world. Today, forecasts predict over 300 million people by 2050, which will surpass the United States at the third position, after China and India. For now, it corridors around 191 million people.

According to World Population Prospects report (2017), of the nine countries expected to contribute half of the world’s population from 2017 to 2050, Nigeria comes second after India and has the worse real GDP growth rate. Ethiopia is the second most populous in Africa at 1.1 million people over a total land area of 1,104,300 sq.km: relative to Nigeria, it implies an excess of 477 people per sq.km. Algeria and Congo DR are the largest countries in Africa with distinct land mass twice the size of Nigeria, but with population 4 and 2 times less than Nigeria’s respectively. They equally have, respectively, real GDP growth rates of 1.4 and 2.8 percent whereas we are barely recovering from the negative growth at 0.8 percent. Algeria’s population today is over 5 million people less than Nigeria’s in 1960! We are increasingly losing the ability to feed even half of our population.

The growth in population is due to combination of factors, mainly: high fertility rate (5.13 births/woman), improved life expectancy (54.3 years) and decline in death rates. A look at the Nigeria population live clock delivered by Worldometer’s RTS algorithm presents a clear imagery of births every second. Uncontrolled population is a real problem in the context of one earth. The Extremist argument attributes all the world’s economic and social evils – poverty, hunger, environmental degradation – to population explosion. And Empirical research reveals that it instigates economic growth slowdown, penury, food crisis, poor health conditions, increases in legal and illegal migration and environmental challenges. The world’s population of 7.6 billion with a projection over 9.8 billion by 2050 calls for global concerns especially in Africa from where most of the increase would come. Nigeria represents 2.5 percent of the world’s population; by argument therefore, contributes the same amount of global sustainability issues due to population explosion. No wonder there is competition for everything- from medical to security services, to transportation, schools and jobs.

Yet it is for us no scare that there is not an official population policy document let alone an active one. China, India, Bangladesh, South Korea, and Singapore have adopted different programs: from official policy disincentive for large family size to more severe programs of sterilization as measures to curtail population pressures. In Nigeria, the checks against population explosion are the unnatural – high mortality rate, terrorism and epidemic. July 11, 2017 was World Population day and it was marked by the usual lip service of bandying around family planning buzzwords and speaking to figures and statistics. A classic case of all talks, no action. Senator Ben Murray-Bruce aptly captures the foolery in thinking our population is an asset instead of the liability that it is. A concerted government effort on population is inevitable for a country like Nigeria where half of the population exists below poverty threshold. As Todaro and Smith (2006) put it; “it is not numbers per se or parental irrationality that is at the root of the LDC ‘population problem’. Rather, it is the pervasiveness of absolute poverty and low levels of living that provides the economic rationale for large families and burgeoning populations. And it is the spillover effects or negative social externalities of these private parental decisions […] that provide the strictly economic justification (in terms of ‘market failure’ argument) for government intervention in population matters”. These family planning advocacies alone are obviously ineffective. A more stringent measure is long due.

Given our cultural and religious orientation, sterilization policy for married couples, even though efficacious, may meet widespread criticisms. Hence, a combination of policy alternatives such as economic incentive and disincentive for large family size, legislation to improve the social and economic status of women alongside established family-planning programs would get better reception. A more stringent policy would be to legislate on the minimum age of marriage for women to 30 years and a maximum of two children. Children born outside of this legal condition would attract heavy medical bills to be borne by the parents and may not be considered in some social benefits, even though they would be citizens. Such children would be the direct responsibilities of their parents. This would effectively postpone and moderate the fecundity of the population – attacking the problem from its nodes – and extend the timeline of personal development for the girl-child. A rigorous effort against child marriages, and girl-child education should be promoted across the country. Cash transfers and coupon system could be inaugurated to benefit only small family size. However, an established social security and citizen database is a prerequisite for this to work. Again, the official employment benefits for workers and civil servants such as family health insurance and accommodation should be reduced to cover a maximum family size of four (down from six).

Overall, these issues should not be subordinate to cultural beliefs and religious interpretations. Unchecked population has degenerating consequences for sustainable living. The traditional monarchs and grass-root leaders should be involved in promoting these agenda. Combating population issues should be included in the development agenda. Another implication of this is the subtle repeat of history: African labor built Europe and America in the slave era, African youths are already beginning to sustain their economy in the light of their aging population through migration.