An impending demographic disaster, by Jerry Uwah

Nigeria’s population time-bomb is ticking away leisurely with the rulers of the land showing little or no concern. However, the whole world is worried about the brewing demographic disaster and the warnings are really tumbling in.

The closest the federal government has come to acknowledging the impending disaster is a recent passive remark by Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo. Last week, the chairman of the National Population Commission (NPC) warned that Nigeria’s population now stands at 198 million. At the current growth rate of three per cent per annum, the population of Africa’s largest economy would hit the 200 million mark by the third quarter of this year.

The federal government is playing the ostrich with an impending calamity that the whole world is complaining about. Osinbajo’s passive remark on the population time-bomb was devoid of solutions to the problem. Foreigners are in effect swallowing paracetamol for Nigeria’s headache.

African Development Bank (AfDB) warned that Nigeria’s economic growth was calamitously slow compared to population growth rate. Paul Arkwright, Britain’s High Commissioner to Nigeria was even more tragically prophetic. Last week, Arkwright described the population growth rate as “a demographic disaster in the making”.

He noted that population explosion was the biggest threat to Nigeria’s future. The British diplomat’s alarm is well placed. With the economy just lumbering out of recession, the population growth has calamitously outstripped existing infrastructure.

That probably explains why only 500, 000 of the 1.8 million who sat for the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Exams (UTME) in 2017 were considered for admission. The private sector is firmly in control of primary and secondary education because governments lack the financial muscle to build the number of schools that would accommodate the exploding population. Nigeria has a deficit of 16 million housing units because the economy cannot sustain the population explosion. Millions are homeless.

The situation is even worse in the health sector. Government’s presence in the sector is grossly inadequate. The nearest government hospital in some instances is 40 kilometres away from some rural communities. The killing fields (healing homes) run by traditional birth attendants and herbalists thrive everywhere.

Bill Gates, the world’s richest man and co-founder of the Bill/Melinda Gates Foundation lamented last month that Nigeria is the most dangerous place to give birth in the world.

Nigeria’s maternal and infant mortality rate is worse than that of impoverished Chad and war-torn Central African Republic. The reason is that the population growth rate is alarmingly higher than economic growth rate.

With 16 million people loafing around in a boisterous labour market, there are fears that Boko Haram and the escalating rate of armed robbery and kidnapping may be child’s play compared to what would happen in the next five years. The situation is worsened by fears that 70 per cent of the 300 million small arms in West Africa are in Nigeria.

The federal government has options. Government can either slam the breaks on population growth or accelerate economic growth at twice the rate of population growth.

The rulers of Nigeria have in the last 30 years proved grossly incapable of getting the economy to grow at twice the rate of population. Even at a time when the economy was growing considerably faster that population, a skewed income distribution system kept 90 per cent of the nation’s revenue in the pockets of less than 1, 000 politicians and accelerated infrastructure decay and unemployment.

It would therefore be easier to slow the population growth than to grow the economy enough to cater for the exploding population. The European Union fights declining population by ‘bribing’ women to make more babies. Nigeria could do the reverse of that in a desperate bid to tame population explosion. Government should provide incentives that would encourage women of child-bearing age to make less than three babies each. Those who restrict their number of children to three should be encouraged with the kind of cash reward that encourages French women to make babies. The French government pays women to make babies to halt population decline. We should pay our women not to make more than three babies.

Nigeria’s population explosion is fueled by poverty, religion and ignorance. The poor make more babies because most of them are idle and resort to baby-making as recreation.

Most of the poor behind the baby boom are ignorant of family planning methods. The solution lies in massive enlightenment campaigns and the provision of family planning facilities at rural communities and urban slums where the baby boom thrives most.

Religion is a key factor in Nigeria’s impending demographic disaster. A young woman in Lagos has 12 children because her brand of Christianity forbids the use of artificial birth control devices. She was forced to defy her pastors after narrowly escaping death during the 12th delivery.

A section of the Islamic religion sees family planning as the western trick of deterring their population growth. The enlightenment campaign for Planned Parenthood should begin in the churches and mosques.

Besides, poor men must be discouraged from marrying four wives and having 20 children. While there should be incentives for those who raise less than three children, government should be willing to wield the stick on those who defy the national quota on baby making.

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