Anxiety over Nigeria’s population slightly rose last week when the Director of Monetary Policy of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Dr. Moses Tule, warned that a population time bomb might be ticking unless the country could expand its economic base, stimulate the economy and create jobs.
Dr. Tule spoke at the 40th Annual Conference of Nigerian Statistical Association, Abuja, and said that the Nigerian population has become a liability because Nigerians are not producing enough needed goods and services to sustain itself. While the population is growing at 3.5 per cent per annum, the economy is now registering a negative growth rate of two per cent.
By the United Nations population estimate in March 2016, the current Nigerian population is put at 186 million and it is the 7th most populous country in the world. The median age is 18 which clearly denotes a young, dynamic population capable of great attainments if properly harnessed and motivated.
Tule certainly has a point. Indeed, he seems to have understated our population growth. Other estimates have put the figure at 5.5 per cent. Negative economic growth means that the economy is contracting while the population is expanding.
The anxiety was not helped by our internationally acknowledged dismal performance in the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDG). Nigeria failed to meet set goals in such fields as food security, universal basic education, job creation, provision of shelter and poverty eradication. Our inability to provide infrastructure and social services to match our population is manifest for all to see.
Nothing could demonstrate our awkward situation as the 500,000 graduate applicants who applied for 4,500 positions in the Nigerian Immigration Service sometime ago. A stampede at the interview venue led to tragedy and 19 of the applicants were trampled to death. Three months ago, the Nigeria Police advertised for 10,000 openings but received 1,000,000 applications.
These shortfalls say less about our population and our ‘planlessness’ as a country. For most countries, population is an element of national strength. The trouble is the quality of the population and 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. Failure to plan is invariably a plan for failure. The current crash in oil prices is not an excuse because there is no evidence that we truly prepared for the rainy day during the period of bounty, the years of $140 per barrel of crude oil.
We urge the nation’s leaders to heed the warning of Tule. The place to begin the correction is to have an accurate census, so that 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 so-called 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 anything to encourage young people to become entrepreneurs.
There is no alternative to investment in infrastructure. Power and transportation, especially a dependable rail system, is a sine qua non to development.
The extension of broadband to all corners of the country has been found to accelerate a quantum leap into development and India is investing $12 billion this year to get all rural communities to have access to broadband. Resistance to birth control is still strong among some religious sects 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.