Our steady progress in the labour rooms
We are making a steady, remarkable and envious progress in the labour rooms. At independence in 1960, there were 45.1 million of us in the country. Now there are 198 million of us, according to the latest figure released by National Population, NPC, this week. Few countries have made this very impressive population leap in so short a time.
At 45.1 million, there were two Nigerians for every five Africans. At 198 million our country has virtually overwhelmed the rest of the continent. Our new population attainment means that it is now 2.35 per cent of the world population and that one person in every 43 persons in the world is a Nigerian. This improves the possibility of seeing Nigerian faces in every part of the world. Ah, yes, the Nigerians are coming - 419, corruption, warts and all.
It is true that we still hold the candle to a good number of other countries. China and India are in a class of their own population-wise. Among the third world or developing countries, we are still not quite up there with Indonesia, (258.7 million); Brazil, (207.66 million); and Mexico, (123.52 million). But at the rate we are going, adding 50 million to our population within only 12 years, we would soon catch up with those countries, even if we would have to expand our labour rooms and vastly improve our fecundity to have a chance of playing in the very big league with China and India in the near future. I would advise against making this a worthy national ambition, though.
One man who does not appear to be hailing our population growth is Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo. He said it would cause many challenges. Indeed, so. The vice-president needed to one to tell him that the horrendous challenges of managing this cantankerous country are steadily getting worse with more people to feed, more people to shelter, more people to be provided with potable water, more people to educate and more people to be gainfully employed. He told the director-general of the World Health Organisation, Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, in Abuja April 11: “We are in challenging times and in the next decade or two, we will have challenges given that the population is growing and this calls for a lot of work especially with regards to (the) health of our citizens.”
The world has had a mortal fear of indiscriminate population growth since the 19th century. Those who preached the virtues of limiting population within reasonable limits, through birth control and family planning, found themselves in a pitched battle with the men of God who argued against birth control, or at least, artificial birth control. It is a position still held by the Roman Catholic Church in the face of current odds. A British clergy man, Rev Malthus was quoted, I think, as saying that controlling the population was against God’s will for mankind because for every mouth the almighty provided a pair hands. Theoretically, a pair of hands should be able to feed one month.
If that argument made sense then, tied as it was with the lack of wisdom in questioning God’s will, it does not now. The challenge of population growth is much more than a pair of hands feeding one mouth, although feeding is a critical challenge in the face of our turning labour rooms into baby factories. Every country is faced with the challenge of qualitative rather than quantitative population. Qualitative here refers to the capacity of the state to meet the basic needs of its population, such as good health facilities, potable water, education, housing, roads, energy - the whole lot - to protect the people against the brutality of living a life close to that of the denizens of the jungles.
In the seventies the late Indian prime minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi, tackled the problem head on. She needed no one to tell her where her country was headed with its steady population growth. She enacted a law limiting a couple to two children. The policy worked remarkably well. It put a break on its population growth. The remarkable progress the country has made in technological, medical and other modern advances owes as much to that police as the zeal of the Indians to hold down their population and lift their standard of living.
Other third world countries have not had much luck because of the patchy policies in some of these countries. In our own case, the only policy enacted by the Nigerian state to respond to our population growth was by the Babangida administration. It decreed four children per wife. It addressed nothing, not least because it more or less excused a man to have more children from different women or wives, as the case might be but also because it chose to skirt around the problem and perhaps leave it to the future. That future is now here.
The campaigns for birth control and family planning in the developing countries has not had much success. It suffered largely from misguided and tendentious arguments, one of which was that it was a diabolical scheme devised by the West to keep the population of third world countries down. It was a primitive reaction to what many foresaw as looming global crisis. That crisis is more or less on us now.
A large population is good. It means the availability of manpower. But that is merely theoretical. In truth a large population is not so good because it has a tendency to become remarkably unmanageable and hobble national development. A large population comes with huge problems: food, shelter, health, water, light, etc. It is interesting that the leaps in population growths are the exclusive preserves of developing countries racked by the one thing that chains human development and progress: poverty.
This is why our remarkable achievements in the labour rooms should humble us; not excite us. We are a poor, struggling country, whatever might be the impression created to the contrary by the number of private jets, private mansions and a lifestyle that would make the Americans see us with red eyes. Our fecundity has created new problems and worsened the existing ones. It has been a nightmare for demographers and planners since we were 98 million and later 147 million people. We could not then plan to feed the 147 million mouths or put the millions of pairs of hands to work. Now, we are 198 million. I leave you to work out the implications of more mouths to feed and fewer hands to feed them in an ironic oil-producing country getting poorer.