On Tuesday last week, the United Nations Population Division announced that the total population of people living in the world has hit the 8 billion mark. That global milestone has been achieved within just short years after the world population reached 7 billion people in October 2011, and just under 120 years from reaching 1 billion in 1804, and from just 300 million thousand years ago, the UN said.
Commenting on the milestone, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that: “This is an occasion to celebrate our diversity, recognize our common humanity, and marvel at advancements in health that have extended lifespans and dramatically reduced maternal and child mortality rates. At the same time, it is a reminder of our shared responsibility to care for our planet and a moment to reflect on where we still fall short of our commitments to one another”.
For its part, the United Nations Population Fund said that “The growth of our population is a testament to humanity’s achievements, including reductions in poverty and gender inequality, advancements in health care, and expanded access to education”.
Reaching eight billion people is indeed a landmark achievement for humanity. For too long, humans had lived at the mercy of the natural environment and man-made folly, from pandemic diseases, famine and wars. But scientific innovations in medicine, food and nutrition, and reduction in armed conflict had improved living standards the world over that there are chances that those born will live to advanced age with the current global life expectancy of nearly 73 years in 2019.
People are simply living longer than ever before. And according to United Nations estimates, these same factors, coupled with soaring birth rates in some regions, would see the global population reach 9 billion in just the next fifteen years by 2037, and 10 billion 21 years after that in 2058. From a peak of 10.4 billion in the 2080s, however, the UN predicts that world population growth would slow down for a few decades and begin to decline by the start of the next century.
But where does Africa, particularly Nigeria, stand in all these estimates and predictions? Africa is presently the fastest growing region of the world by population. With an annual average population growth rate of 2.5 per cent across the continent, Africa is growing at more than three times the global average of 0.8 per cent per year. With average fertility levels remaining close to 3 births per woman in 2050, sub-Saharan Africa is projected to account for more than half of the growth of the world’s population between 2022 and 2050, according to the UN Population Division.
Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and Egypt account for much of the population growth in Africa. Currently the sixth largest country in the world by population, Nigeria is expected to overtake the three countries now ahead of it—Pakistan, Indonesia and the United States—when our population will reach 450 million by 2050. And at the current annual growth rate of 2.5% or 5.3 births per woman nationally, the 450 million figure would more than double by the end of this century.
Population numbers are one thing; but the quality of life and living standards behind the numbers are quite another. For Nigeria, the population growth has not corresponded to better living standards for many millions. Only last week, the National Bureau of Statistics declared that more than 133 million Nigerians—or 63 per cent of the total population—are “multi-dimensionally poor”, a euphemism for saying that more than half of Nigerians lack the basic necessities that will improve their quality of life. Even bringing out those tens of millions out of poverty is more than challenging enough for Nigeria at current rates of economic growth. Doing so while population continues to soar is all nigh impossible.
Therefore, how Nigeria manages its population growth in a world that is increasingly challenging economically and in all other respects is a key question that the country must face, today and into the not-too-distant future. The first place to begin addressing that question is to start a meaningful national conversation about it. No doubt, it will be a difficult conversation, given past experiences of talking about population in this country. Yet, it is a conversation we must have. The government, religious organizations, traditional rulers and community leaders, civil society organizations and the media could all lead this conversation about what population growth levels are most optimal for Nigeria.
A model of population growth that only increases the number of the poor is neither desirable for development nor sustainable in the long-term. As such, women, who not only bear the children but also bear much of the brunt of rising poverty in the country must be fully included in this discussion. In the past, discussions around population growth in Nigeria were always almost wholly a man’s affair. That is not acceptable any longer.
Above all, there is the urgent need to develop and improve upon the quality of life of the existing population, by investing heavily in education, health and social infrastructure. Nigeria has some of the worst statistics in the world on the Human Development Index. We have about the highest number of out-of-school children in the whole world. We have some of the highest unemployment numbers per capita globally. Maternal and child mortality rates in Nigeria are among the worst in the world. Therefore, our huge population has tended to be a burden rather than an advantage. This must change.