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Yes, Nigeria has a population problem

The Nigerian edition of British Council’s Next Generation series would’ve offered a nuanced understanding of our demographic disaster to the politician and his ilk

About ten years ago, a team of researchers attempted to explore Nigeria’s uncertain future. The country, they concluded, was “balanced on a knife edge between demographic dividend and disaster”. By 2050, the Nigeria of their prediction would become the fifth most populous nation in the world, behind India, China, the United States, and Pakistan. Nigeria: The Next Generation Report, commissioned by the British Council Nigeria and published by Harvard School of Public Health, was authored by a cast of optimists. Even though they were not alarmed by the country’s demographic explosion, they didn’t mince words in spelling out that a certain doom awaited Nigeria if it failed to take advantage of its overwhelmingly youthful population.

The position that Nigeria has no population problem is popular among the citizens. Even the policymakers are quick to boast that their territorial space is the most populous black nation on the planet as though overbreeding is fundamentally an achievement. During a town-hall meeting in the buildup to the 2019 general elections, I asked a certain youthful presidential candidate how he hoped to tackle Nigeria’s fast-exploding population, and for a few seconds, he grinned, the look of those who have studied a problem and waiting for the right moment to dazzle an audience.

“We don’t have a population problem,” he said. This must be a joke, I thought. But he disrupted that benefit of the doubt almost immediately. “What we need is focus on agriculture and get our people busy. There will always be enough food for everyone,” he said. The irony of this logic was underlined by the ambition of the speaker to govern a country with the highest number of out-of-school kids and people living below the poverty line in the world. This was also sad because the political upstart was in his 30s, and had been touring the country, one town-hall meeting after another, to attribute the slow pace of our growth to the age of our political leaders. He failed to see that his ideas emerged from the same factory as the politicians’.

The Nigerian edition of British Council’s Next Generation series would’ve offered a nuanced understanding of our demographic disaster to the politician and his ilk. It’s a benign gaze into the future to assess the realities of young people as they become more conscious and creative in a place that deprives them of the opportunities to maximize their potentials. The height of the optimism of this report is the projection that, by 2030, “youth, not oil, will be (Nigeria’s) most valuable resource in the twenty-first century.”  This bold declaration came with a caveat, though. The realization of this dream is only if Nigeria “continues with recent positive economic growth, improves health standards, and harnesses a growing workforce.”

But that’s the exactly problem. Demographic pressure is here to frustrate Nigeria’s plans for the future. In a 2019 blogpost on the website of the Council on Foreign Relations, John Campbell, a former United States ambassador to Nigeria, revisited the question of Nigeria’s oil wealth. Referring to a business breakfast earlier that year, Campbell quoted the economist, Doyin Salami, saying that Nigeria “is not oil rich; rather it is oil dependent”. This we’ve always known. But it’s the maths that struck me. The discussant also shared that Nigeria had the capability to produce 800 million barrels of oil per year. This “means that for every one of the Nigeria’s roughly 200 million people, the country produces four barrels of oil… That meant four barrels of oil per year per Nigerian.”

The former diplomat clarified this claim: “(A)t $45 per barrel, that equates to about $180 per person per year.” Saudi Arabia, according to the scholars, would produce 4 billion barrels each year, and yet has a population of just 30 million. Mathematically, that means the Arab country was capable of producing 130 barrels per person per year or

$6,000 for every one person. The statistics frighten when you take note of the fact that petroleum exports revenue represents around 86% of Nigeria’s total exports revenue and the world is already going green. What happens to Nigeria after the commodity boom?

Evidently, the optimism about Nigeria’s unchecked population growth amidst meagre and dwindling resources is utterly absurd. At the time the Next Generation research was being conducted, the Boko Haram were just first year through their destabilization of the country. Almost 12 years later, there’s no solution in sight, and the country has, thus, become a global beggar, running from pole to pole; Moscow through Beijing to Washington DC, to seek arms and assistance in fighting the products of its poor planning.

In 2018, the Minister of Finance, Zainab Shamsuna Ahmed, also testified to this inadequacy of our resources when she hinted about the need for child spacing. She chose her words carefully and revealed that the government wasn’t considering a policy, but a partnership with religious and traditional leaders in educating the nation on ways to have “numbers (of children) we can adequately manage.” The reason for this sensitivity to the phrase “birth control” must be the backlash it generated in the past efforts to check our population.

As kids in the 1980s and the 90s, my generation was introduced to Nigeria’s first conclusive decision to tackle our demographic crisis: the 1988 National Population Policy of General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida administration. The policy set a target, by 1995 and 2000, to correct a myriad of population problems through birth control, discouraging under-age marriage, restricting women to having not more than four kids, reducing pregnancy among overage women, extending family planning services to adult males, among others. One may not be comfortable with all the items in Babangida’s population control policy, but it was a beautiful document that could have stopped us from living “above our means,” if not for the familiar policy somersaults and bureaucratic bottlenecks we experience in Nigeria.

From Lagos through Zaria to California, we have been paying for the consequences of our uncontrolled birth rate. Whatever resources we flaunt as wealth today, having it shared among 200 million, mostly impoverished citizens, is an instant reality check. There’s no demographic dividend to gain from a nation that fails to empower the next generation, and frustrates the vastly unemployed to embrace crime.

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