By Aare Afe Babalola
NIGERIA is one of the fastest-growing countries in the world, with a population of 205,668,183 as at Monday, June 1, 2020, thereby constituting 2.64 per cent of the total world population and ranking seventh in the world, ahead of countries like Thailand, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom! Nigeria’s population is currently growing at the rate of 3.2 per cent per year and as estimated by the US Census Bureau, the population will be about 402 million people in the next thirty years – 2050. If this happens, Nigeria will become the third most populous nation in the world, next to India and China.
This unchecked increase in Nigeria’s population should be a cause of concern for a discerning mind, particularly having due regard to the fact that there is no commensurate economic development to cater for the teeming population. Reporting on the astronomic growth of the population in Nigeria, Elizabeth Rosenthal in an article titled “Nigeria Tested by Rapid Rise in Population” published in the April 14, 2012 edition of The New York Times, rightly noted that:
“In a quarter-century, at the rate Nigeria is growing, 300 million people – a population about as big as that of the present-day United States – will live in a country roughly the size of Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada. In this commercial hub, where the area’s population has by some estimates nearly doubled over 15 years to 21 million, living standards for many are falling…As graduates pour out of high schools and universities, Nigeria’s unemployment rate is nearly 50 percent for people in urban areas ages 15 to 24 – driving crime and discontent… Last October, the United Nations announced the global population had breached seven billion and would expand rapidly for decades, taxing natural resources if countries cannot better manage the growth….Nigeria, already the world’s sixth most populous nation with 167 million people, is a crucial test case, since its success or failure at bringing down birthrates will have outsize influence on the world’s population. If this large nation rich with oil cannot control its growth, what hope is there for the many smaller, poorer countries?”
The population of a nation has a direct bearing on its economic development. Experts point out that although the population of a country is the major source of its manpower supply, it also forms the major consumer of its Gross Domestic Product.
Since not all the people constitute the labour force, it implies that an increasing population may constitute a clog in the wheel of economic growth of any nation. This, therefore, gives credence to advocacy for population control especially for economies where dependent population far outnumbers its active population.
Without a doubt, several societal ills including child marriage, unemployment, housing deficit, pollution, inadequate health facilities, conflicts, high cost of living and crime, are associated with astronomic increase in population as we have in present day Nigeria. Yet many Nigerians are yet to fully understand the need to embrace well tested methods such as family planning with a view to bringing down the rate of population growth. Despite the present economic realities, some Nigerians do not see anything wrong in having as many as six or ten children. While this may seem a far cry from the feat of Mohammed Bello Abubakar of Niger State who, in his lifetime, married 107 wives and fathered 185 children, it is still serious cause for concern.
The inherent danger in overpopulation is brought to fore in the unfortunate incidences of child marriage; the recent case of the moslem cleric in Akure who attempted to marry a 16-year-old girl as his ninth wife in proper perspective. It only took the intervention of the Court to stop the marriage and compel the cleric to sign an undertaking to stay away from the child. While it seems that the case of child marriage is among the most grievous societal ills in present day Nigeria, it is, however, tied to the incidence of uncontrolled population. First, the propensity to marry up to nine wives can only be due to excessive population and second, marrying such a child has inherent the danger of adding to mortality figures, either for the child or the fetus.
Undeniably, there are cultural and perhaps even religious problems which have worked against the success of past efforts of governments to sensitise Nigerians on the dangers posed by unchecked population growth. A recent study showed that in the South of the country, the average number of children per woman decreased while in the North, it increased to about 7.3. This difference was attributed to the fact that in most areas of the North a woman often cannot go to a family planning clinic unless accompanied by a man.
Drastic population-control measures adopted by other countries
Two countries which have been in the situation Nigeria finds itself are India and China which jointly account for about 36 per cent of the world’s population. To address the problem, both adopted measures that have been described as drastic. In India, there was the sterilisation programme which started in 1975 when the then Prime-Minister, Indira Gandhi, suspended democratic rights by declaring a state of emergency. More than eight million people, mostly men, were coerced to be sterilized in the name of population control. Although this is now considered history, sterilization continues to be India’s most used contraceptive method, now largely targeting women instead.
In China, by the end of the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s, the fertility rate was around 5.75 and the government took drastic measures to reduce it. In the next six years, more than thirty million men and women were sterilized, and abortion began to be frequently utilized. In 1978, the infamous one-child policy was implemented, along with a strict programme of incentives and disincentives to enforce it. The only child received preferential treatment such as priority in school admission and employment and parents would be awarded extended paid maternity leave, a fixed monthly stipend, better access to housing, increased pensions upon retirement, among others.
The need for urgent legislative harness
The recent COVID-19 pandemic has proven that density in population is harmful to ecological sustainability. Unbridled population explosion has the resultant effect of causing humanity to expand into unexplored territories and in turn, expansion into new habitats is bringing humans into increased contact with wild-animal pathogens against which we have no biological defences. Even in normal times, excessive density harms a people’s physical and mental health. During a pandemic, however, density can quickly turn deadly.
COVID-19 was birthed in Wuhan, a crowded megacity that has grown from 2½ million to 11 million people since 1980. By its contagious nature, COVID-19 passes from person to person via droplets when someone talks, sneezes, or coughs. Like many epidemic diseases, it scales up more quickly the more densely people are packed together and density creates a larger pool of potential targets. Crowding in Wuhan provided the perfect setting to incubate and spread the disease.
According to The Overpopulation Project (2020), it is no accident that Italy, one of the most densely populated nations in Europe, has been the continent’s hardest hit country. Nor is it a coincidence that New York City, by far one of the most densely populated US cities, has been the centre of the outbreak in the United States and the New York metropolitan area is the country’s largest. Efforts to sustain “social distancing” there have been hampered by crowded stores, sidewalks and subways, crowded public housing, even crowded hospitals.
In Nigeria, the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, like in Wuhan, Italy and New York, has a direct bearing with overpopulation. Therefore, the government of Nigeria needs to take urgent measures to address the country’s growing population. In the past, successive governments have concentrated on measures such as general enlightenment about family planning and sex education. These are without doubt widely tested means of addressing the problem. However, it is clear that these measures have been less than successful owing to factors some of which, as stated above, are cultural and religious in nature. Faced with this reality, the government must consider one of two options: either to leave things as they are and watch the projected growth in the country’s population come to pass or adopt more drastic measures to bring about a reduction in the growth.
While one may not advocate going as far as India which adopted sterilisation, I consider that the option adopted by China which limited the number of children a family may have is one that is worth exploring. I see nothing wrong in government directly limiting, by legislation, the number of children couples may have to two or three. It may also limit it indirectly by giving incentives such as reduced healthcare and education costs to families with just one or two children. Whatever policy will or is to be adopted, there can be no doubt that a policy is urgently needed and that the time to give urgent consideration to it is now!