Nigeria: Who is afraid of population explosion?

Here we go again! The bell of warning has been rang again by the alarmist at the highest level of authority-The Presidency. Similar such warning came during the first coming of Gen Muhammdu Buhari as the Military Head of State in 1985. They said that “The government now recognize more than ever before, the fact that the overall rate of growth has to be brought down to the level at which it will not impose excessive burdens on the economy in the long run”. This official policy shift was necessitated by the dwindling oil revenues after almost two decades of oil windfall consequence of the Arab-Israeli wars.

Thus, by the end of 1984, government decided to act and assigned Federal Ministry of Health the task. FMOH organized Inter-Ministerial Consultative Group on Population and Development and sponsored a Plan for Action Workshop for discussion. The Plan called for adoption of policy to reduce fertility and growth rate. The policy was adopted by an Inter-Ministerial Consultative Committee in 1985. The policy was finally adopted by the Federal Government in February of 1988 as “The National Policy on Population for Development, Unity, Progress and Self-reliance” with a goal of achieving population growth compatible with attainment of national social and economic goals.

Since the 1950s, the United States and a host of other rich western nations have been spending huge amounts of money to support and provide family planning services to developing countries on the assumption that contraception can ultimately lead to fertility decline and put a brake on rapid population growth that hampers economic development in these countries. Slowing down population growth will spur rapid economic growth that would stimulate the much desired economic development. This US policy on population-development relationship has been operationalized through its USAID via provision of technical and financial support to those countries willing to check on their population growth. However, the population-development nexus is not as simple as a simple linear equation which most policy makers in most developing and developed countries believed. Radical policy approach on fertility decline through aggressive provision of contraception has been catastrophic at least in two countries that coincidently happened to be among the most populous countries in the world-China and India.

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In 1975, under Indira Gandhi as the then Prime Minister of India, Indian government experimented with one of the most aggressive, cruel and worst human right abuses in this regard that ultimately sterilized over 11 million men and women with an additional 1 million women had IUDs (Intra-Uterine Devices) inserted within a span of 21months. This was carried under so-called “compul-suasion” (combination of compulsion and persuasion). Off course, this ended up abruptly and the Prime Minister was voted out of power in 1977.

The question here is that, if the programme had continued for additional 21months or longer to say five years, would it have had the desired effects? Probably not because of the population momentum-that is, for the population growth to significantly slow down, the large pool of people in their reproductive ages must exit. Around 1975 when the programme was initiated, India’s population was roughly 630million people with a total fertility rate of over 5.7 (that is, on average, every woman would have given birth to 5.7 children by the time she reached her end of reproductive life). Thus, if this compulsory sterilization was sustained and other things remain same, it would take minimally, around 35years to experience the desired reduction in fertility (that is some time in 2010). Presently, the total fertility of India in 2015 is 2.44 meaning that the population will continue to grow for a while overtaking China with 1,569 million people against China’s population 1,364million people by 2050. India’s policy on coercive mass sterilization was probably predicated on the writings of yet another population alarmist-Paul Erlich- whose 1968 book “The Population Bomb” painted a rather scary picture of India’s population outlook.

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India’s neighbor-China also experimented with a rash policy pursuant to its “Chinese dream” in the late 1970s, precisely in 1970. Contrary to general belief, China’s fertility transition was well underway in the early 1970 even before the “One Child Policy” as a consequence to its voluntary nation-wide family planning programmes.  The ‘one-child policy’ was relaxed in 2013 and finally in 2016 the policy allowed couples to have two children, technically bringing the policy to end. However, despite this policy shift, average Chinese couples were not willing to have two children not to talk of more. The policy has created a near permanent disequilibrium in terms social fabrics, demography, sex ratio/gender gap, elderly care especially in rural China, marriage pattern/’female  squeeze’ as result of shortage of marriageable women from sex selection of males during pregnancy and so on.

Coming back home, the vice president informed us that Nigeria will be the third most populous nation by 2015 and out of this, over 60% will be young people.  Now, this is the crux of the matter! If this government and subsequent ones are able to view this young and agile population as an asset and provide them with abundant jobs and employment, then we shall be able convert what is apparently a curse to economy to economic miracle by taking advantage of this demographic dividend. This is exactly what happened with the “Asian Tigers”. They took advantage of this large pool of able-bodied men and women by putting them in factories and industries and science and technology. It is also important to note that Mr. Vice President was quick to provide a policy direction, “…the time-bomb scenario, we must act with urgency to build an economy that can support that population, provide jobs and economic opportunity, education, healthcare, hope and optimism”.

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This is the type strategic policy direction that national governments particularly developing nations should adopt and not that of alarmist! Finally, it has been demonstrated via a demographic model of demographic dividend that a combination of sound economic policies/actions, education and family planning programmes can take Nigeria to achieve economic wonders between by 2050 using the starting base of 2010. In this model between 2010 and 2050, use of contraception will increase from 10% to 65%; dependency ratio will decline from 79 per 100 to 46 per 100 able-bodied men while the GDP will increase from $92billion to $1226billion. Overall, GDP per capita will go up from $1045 to $7786. This model is based on improving employment rate from 47% to 115%. Many countries that were actually Nigeria’s peers in terms of sociodemographic and socioeconomic indices such as Thailand, Malaysia, Korea, Singapore were able to achieve better economic indices than Nigeria in the span of half a century via adoption of sound economic policy that took advantages of their demographic dividends.

Prof. Dahiru is of the Dept of Community Medicine, ABU, Zaria


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