The population of Nigeria returned to the headlines last week following the release of the report of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) which unambiguously announced that Nigeria has crossed the 200 million mark. It generated mixed feelings on two grounds. The announcement should have been better made by the National Population Commission (NPC) after a head count, a vital Federal Government’s responsibility, which the government has not done for some years. It is also an issue that is hotly disputed in the country.
By the end of May 2018, the UN figures showed that we had 87 million citizens in “extreme” poverty compared to India’s 73 million. The figures also revealed that whereas one extremely poor Indian breaks free of the poverty circle in every minute, six Nigerians move into the circle every minute. Yet many Nigerians think that a big population is a positive element of national power, all things being equal. There can be no doubt that as things stand today if our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is growing at the miserly rate of 1.93 per cent compared to our population growth of 3.2 per cent, our present population and its trajectory will be unsustainable and would lead to catastrophe.
A few optimists think that if matters were better arranged, our country could be run more efficiently, and the economy would be able to grow at least more than 5 per cent. We recall that the Nigerian economy grew at 7 per cent in 2014. The Nigerian economy has the capacity to grow and given the investments in agriculture and infrastructure, and if there is increased education funding, such policies would reduce early marriages, keep youths, especially young women, in school longer and reduce early marriages. These little adjustments could go a long way in turning the tide of a population explosion.
Others, of course, think Nigeria is in a demographic crisis. Countries like Pakistan and Indonesia once faced similar difficulties and were able to invest heavily in fertility control. It is scary that between 2006 and 2018, a period of 12 years, we added 58 million people to our population. The signs of a dysfunctional population are already manifest in incidents of kidnapping, violent crimes and communal clashes that are becoming more and more audacious and frequent.
The Federal Government should think of ways to manage our rising population. The argument has not been for population-reduction but to ensure that we can adequately take care of the children we bring into the world. The government should come up with measures to turn the population into a useful, productive one that can prosper and pull its weight internationally through its output and contribution to the world’s economy.
The median age of the population is 18, which clearly denotes a young, dynamic population capable of great things if harnessed and motivated. Nothing has demonstrated our awkward situation as the 500,000 graduate applicants who applied for 4,500 positions in the Nigerian Immigration Service not too long ago. A stampede at interview venue led to tragedy and 19 of the applicants were trampled to death. About a year ago, the Nigeria Police advertised for 10,000 openings but received 1,000,000 applications.
These shortfalls say more about our ‘planlessness’ than our population as a country. For most countries, population is an element of national strength. The trouble is the quality of the population, not its size. Nigeria is not anywhere near the population of China or India, yet even in China the country now encourages more child-births.
We call on the nation’s leaders to heed the population warning. The place to begin correction seems to be to have an accurate census, so we do not have to depend on multilateral organisations for the figures we need for our planning. We must find a way to take politics out of our census.
The quality of a population can be vastly improved by education. The children out of the school system must be recaptured and educated. Youth unemployment is dangerous and the youth bulge can be diffused through proactive initiatives, including courses in entrepreneurship and easier credit to turn young graduates into young employers. We must invest in industrial parks, export processing zones, free trade zones, tax holidays and other things that will encourage young people to become entrepreneurs.
There is no alternative to investing in infrastructure. Power and transportation, especially, a dependable rail system, are pre-requisites to development. The extension of broadband to all corners of the country has been found to accelerate a quantum leap into development and India invested $12 billion last year to get all rural communities to have access to broadband.
Resistance to birth control is still strong among some sections of the country but the effort to inculcate responsible parenting must continue. We believe the Nigerian population is an asset but we must roll up our sleeves to turn it into a demographic asset.