By Minabere Ibelema
The other day I was watching a documentary about the economic fortunes of my hometown, Bonny.
As the seat of Nigeria’s two highest revenue earners — crude oil and liquefied natural gas — the island may aptly be described as the breadbasket within the breadbasket. Yet, there in the documentary was evidence of extreme deprivation within a stone throw of the giant industries.
So, I wasn’t exactly surprised to read a News Agency of Nigeria story the next day to the effect that 94 million Nigerians now live below the poverty line.
With an estimated population of about 200 million according to Worldometer, that means that 47 per cent of Nigerians live below the poverty line. That’s nearly half the population.
From April to October alone, nearly three million Nigerians joined the ranks of the extreme poor, according to the report. And the pace is accelerating, said Constant Tchona, the Nigeria Country Director of Oxfam International. “At the current rate, Nigeria is not only off track to meet the Sustainable Development Goals but many now believe that up to 25 per cent of the world’s extreme poor will live in Nigeria by 2030,” The News Agency of Nigeria quotes him as saying.
Corruption and mismanagement of resources have justifiably been blamed for this frightening trajectory. Prof. Bolaji Owasanoye, the Chairman of the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offenses Commission, restated this view on Tuesday while launching the Enugu State chapter of the National Anti-Corruption Volunteer Corps.
But there is also the view that no level of probity in governance will stop the growing poverty if the country’s rate of population growth continues.
The related argument was first made as far back as the 18th century by Thomas Malthus, an English cleric and economic theorist. His apocalyptic view was that the world would soon be doomed as population outpaced the resources for sustenance. That didn’t happen. But that’s because Malthus didn’t reckon with the technological innovations that accelerated food production.
Alas, we cannot say the same for Nigeria at this time. Simply put, the country’s economy is increasingly unable to sustain the population. The latest voice in this regard came from the Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II at the 25th Nigerian Economic Summit in Abuja earlier this month. The former governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria got himself into trouble with some northern governors for such outspokenness, but thank goodness he is soldiering on.
“People say that our population is an asset but we are yet to get there,” Sanusi is quoted as saying at a panel discussion. “Nigeria’s population is currently a liability because problems such as kidnapping, armed robbery, Boko Haram, drug addiction are all tied to the population that we have.”
The connection between population growth and poverty was well illustrated by a segment of the documentary on Bonny, though that wasn’t the intent. It is the case of a widow with five children. Her husband was a fisherman and she gathered and sold periwinkle. Even before the husband’s death, they only could have eked out an existence. With his death, the family’s plight became much bleaker.
Even as my heart ached while listening to her, I couldn’t help wondering why she and her husband saw fit to have five children. Such personal decisions loom large in the national poverty equation. This is the reason that China in 1979 adopted the drastic measure of limiting couples to no more than one child.
As a communist country, China has a highly-controlled economy. And the government is much more aggressive in seeking to combat corruption. People who engage in gross corruption don’t drag out their cases in courts and usually get free.
Rather, they are promptly executed after reasonably fair trials. Even gross mismanagement has been known to incur the capital punishment.
Still, the government eventually resorted to the drastic measure of population control as the only means of keeping up with the economic demands of a burgeoning population, which at the time was about 970 million. By the time the policy was officially ended in 2015, it was estimated that the policy prevented about 400 million births. Even then China’s population still climbed to its current 1.38 billion people.
So, despite one of the fastest economic growths in the world, the government is still struggling mightily to cope with the population. That’s why it is aggressively pursuing construction contracts in Africa and elsewhere and deploying its citizens to those places. One can only wonder how much harder the task would be if the drastic population control had not been implemented.
Even then, one still has to wonder whether such a measure is feasible in Nigeria, a democracy with a diverse and restive people. But the mere consideration of that drastic option might spur people to more seriously reflect on their procreation choices. It might also spur governments and civil society to more aggressively pursue less drastic options.
My impression is that family planning is no longer as much of a priority to governments as it used to be. I tried to corroborate this impression with acquaintances in Nigeria but the responses were mixed. Some concurred and some said the effort has intensified.
A young mother of two responded: “They only teach postnatal and antenatal mothers, they don’t really do public campaign that much.”
A Europe-based doctoral student who frequents Nigeria also concurred: “I can’t really compare because I don’t know what happened in the past. But I don’t think there’s much of it especially in the North.”
The dissenting view came from an optometrist, but she could only recall hearing the related messages on radio. It used to be that such messages pervaded television programming and was ubiquitous on billboards.
There are, of course, people — Muslims in the North and Catholics in the South —who object to family planning on religious grounds. And there are those who argue that a burgeoning population is strength. I cannot speak to religious convictions. What is incontrovertible, as the Emir pointed out, is that Nigeria’s galloping population is a growing problem.
Hungry people are angry people everywhere. So, when a large population of people —especially the youth — cannot find meaningful employment, they will seek undesirable options. And the insecurity they are already visiting upon the country can only multiply.
Whatever may be people’s qualms about it, an intensification of family planning campaigns may well be what Nigeria needs to stem the tide of poverty —and mayhem.
Minabere Ibelema is a Public Affairs Analyst.