By Greg Odogwu
The Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi (II), on Monday said Nigeria’s huge population is currently a liability to the country. While attributing the spate of kidnapping, armed robbery, insurgency, herders- farmers crisis to the level of population growth, the Emir said the potential of the country’s huge population had yet to be tapped as the right policies to harness the future of the young people are still lacking.
His words: “People talk that our population is an asset but we have yet to get there. Nigeria’s population is currently a liability because most of the root causes of problems such as kidnapping, armed robbery, Boko Haram, (and) drug addiction are all tied to the population that we have and the question is how do you turn that into a productive one?”
In my view, it is quite refreshing that the Emir, known for his no-nonsense commentaries – and unpolitical correctness when discussing national issues – has set the ball rolling in what should become a national reflection. Considering how religious we are, the issue of population control is a tacit no-go area. Deep in our faith-conditioned mind, the Almighty is the Giver of children, and the unseen Arranger of national demographics; there is nothing we can do about it.
The atmosphere had already been set for every Nigerian to live in denial, right from the word go. Nobody wanted to be the first to speak up in public. The politicians, in a bid to remain politically correct in order to win elections, give a nod to the universal self-deception in our land. The free-thinking ones have no public space to air their views; and do not enjoy significant followership to make enough impact.
We have always been known as a God-loving people. And we were able to stamp in this truth during the time the controversial same-sex marriage bill was rejected by the National Assembly. As time went on, the triumph of our faith had taken on a streak of paranoia. In some parts of the country, there was a time child immunisation was suspected to be a ploy to decimate our God-given population explosion.
Indeed, in my younger years, when I was a fervent Pentecostal, I was one of the eschatologists who passionately castigated the works of the founders of the family planning system. I had joined the “end-time” preachers who saw the Society for Family Health as an organisation founded to perpetuate the works of the anti-Christ. In our religious perception, anyone who wanted the population of the world trimmed was carrying out the devil’s assignment.
I am sure that many others walked the conspiracy theory lane as I did. Every little thing, from a curious-looking brand label to a scary technology, was viewed as a scheme by the anti-Christ (or Dajjal in Islam) to infiltrate our land through the West. This is exactly the philosophy that hatched Boko Haram. I discussed this at length in an article I wrote at the time the terrorist organisation was just appearing in the horizon 10 years ago, titled, “Boko Haram: Battle between science and religion”.
Conceivably, it has now dawned on us that we might have to rethink our stance on population control, and therefore expand the conversation started by the outspoken Kano Emir. I remember that almost 10 years ago, the British Council in Nigeria came out with a report with a similar theme. The research declared that Nigeria enjoyed a fast-growing youth population that it could leverage for speedy economic growth; but warned that our country faced a “demographic disaster” if it failed to do so.
Recognising the parallel message reverberating in both the British Council report and Sanusi’s remarks, one then wonders where all our politicians and statesmen were when the same issue came up in 2010. Could it be that at that time, there was not enough nationwide anarchy for our leaders to be smoked out of their comfort zones and be galvanised into action – unlike what is obtainable today?
One could imagine life in Nigeria 10 years ago: no insurgency, no kidnapping, no armed herdsmen, no pain. And then the British Council tells us that we faced a demographic disaster. In fact, it would take a great mental leap to grasp such a vision.
But today, 10 years down the line, our leaders are in another forum, the 25th Nigerian Economic Summit (currently holding in Abuja), and they are now focusing on how demographic realities can be transformed into social and business opportunities and what the implications are on internal migration, sustainable peace and security. The Emir tells us that we are right in the middle of a demographic disaster. Our leaders clearly understand the message, because we are all suffering the pain, right now!
The reality is that population is always a double-edged sword. Depending on how you wield it, you can either wound yourself, or win your task. It is a no-brainer to ask whether our population is a liability. We are not as populated as China. In the 1950s, more than two million Chinese died of hunger. But, with proper planning, and hard-headed governance by dedicated and sincere statesmen, they have stirred their population into an asset.
What of India? The country had realised that with such a huge population, the major problems they would face were corruption and environmental crisis. And, accordingly, each Indian leader has sought to defeat the monsters. India is, today, the country with the most widespread environmental ventures at the grass-roots level. For instance, her present leader employed half a million Indians as environmental foot soldiers in a nationwide toilet-building project to end open defecation.
Nigeria cannot get it right until our leaders become sincere and prudent statesmen and women. There are a few things we must do to stem this emerging demographic catastrophe. Firstly, we must start a strict national identity regime to know who and who are real Nigerians. There are many people who are not Nigerians, but cross into the country, obtain our passport and ID and “become” Nigerians overnight. These people add to the crisis.
Secondly, we must cut down on the cost of governance and consciously remove lavishness from public offices. The present situation whereby politics is the highest well-paying venture in Nigeria has institutionalised corruption, and made our escalating youth population to develop inordinate lust for power. Ironically, the positions to occupy are few compared to the population jostling for them; while the resources to share are meagre when juxtaposed with the needs at the community, state and national levels. This is why the budget is never enough, year in, year out.
Thirdly, the government must prioritise the environmental sector as the area with the highest potential for job creation. Our annual budget is insulting to the developmental mind. With a seeming repetitive template, it is never innovative. There are no efforts to inject life into the green sector in order to create green jobs as it is done in other countries of the world, considering incessant ecological emergencies. President Muhammadu Buhari recently told the world at the UN General Assembly that he was going to tackle climate change – which naturally has job-creating potential – but when he presented the 2020 budget, one cannot see any money apportioned to achieve this aim.
Greg Odogwu is a Public Affairs Analyst.