Uncontrolled births prime Nigeria’s population bomb

NIGERIA’S population time bomb is ticking ever louder, but its leaders are not paying attention. A recent report from the United Nations Population Fund during activities marking the 2023 World Population Day crystallises the conundrum. The report projects the country to record about 700,000 unwanted pregnancies per annum, leading to roughly 300,000 unplanned births and 300,000 abortions, worsening the national maternal birth and population crises. The various governments should rise to the challenge, revitalise family planning programmes and tackle the rising incidence of rape and teenage pregnancy.

For long, family planning has been relegated to the bottom of the list of priorities by the three tiers of government. The funding gap for family planning in Nigeria widened from $25million in 2022 to $32million in 2023, according to UNFPA’s Technical Specialist for Maternal and Reproductive Health, Adeela Khan.

Nigeria must get serious. While its population is galloping, economic growth has slowed; infrastructure, health, education, sanitation, and job creation are in reverse gear. Unemployment is at record levels. Food insecurity has become a major crisis and is forecast to get worse this year.

Over the years, Nigeria has witnessed a massive surge in its population. At Independence in 1960, its population was just 45.14 million, the UN World Population Prospects data said. Steadily, it surged to 55.98 million in 1970, 73.42 million in 1980, 95.21 million in 1990, 122.28 million in 2000, 158.50 million in 2010, and 208.33 million in 2020. By 2021, it had logged 213.40 million, a 372.8 percent increase in 61 years. There must be a pragmatic, holistic plan by the various governments to drastically halt this uncontrolled trend.

The UN projects that by 2050, Nigeria will be the third most populated country in the world behind India and China and more populous than the United States which posted a GDP of $25 trillion in 2023.

While experts say high population provides increased human capital, greater scope for innovation, economies of scale and production, when mismanaged, it leads to increased pressure on the environment, water shortages, increased pollution, and over-use of non-renewable resources. Nigeria has crossed the boundary to the negative.

The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs estimated the country’s population at 223 million in 2023. With uncommon incompetence by the federal and state governments, coupled with their indifference, this is deeply concerning. While the population growth rate is about 2.4 percent, GDP growth has been below 3.0 percent over the last few years and was 2.31 percent year-on-year in the first quarter of 2023, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.

Now the sixth most populated country, accounting for 2.7 percent of the world’s population, the unchecked increase, along with the dearth of infrastructure, sluggish economic growth, and poor human capital development, is fuelling poverty, insecurity, and unemployment.

A public health expert, Gafar Alawode, put it in perspective: “Nigeria is producing the size of Liberia, Togo, and maybe Sierra Leone combined every year. Why it is more dangerous is that our population grows faster than our economy. The implication is that the wealth is not expanding, but the people consuming the wealth are expanding. That means the share that comes to everyone is reduced. And Nigeria is already a poverty capital.”

Precisely; 133 million Nigerians are “multi-dimensionally poor,” a 2022 study found, and the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation says 25.3 million Nigerians face “acute” food security this year, compared to 19.45 million in 2022.

UN-DESA estimated the global population to have hit eight billion in 2022 with more than half of the projected increase up to 2050 to be concentrated in eight developing countries, Nigeria inclusive. It warns that Nigeria’s rising population can hamper its capacity to attain the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

When confronted with the negative consequences of high population, responsive governments adopt and implement meticulous plans. For three decades, China pursued a one-child per family policy to control its population and align it with its economic transformation programme. It worked so well that since 2016, it has shifted to a two-child policy, and in 2021, three children, to address its ageing working population. With the slogan, “Girl or Boy, two is enough,” the Lee Kuan Yew-led government in 1972 launched Singapore’s family planning programme to ensure the optimum population for its economic miracle.

Nigeria has not leveraged its high human numbers for prosperity. It should start today. Immediate past Vice-President, Yemi Osinbajo, noted last month that while a huge population had potential for increased taxes, productivity, and large workforce, if not properly managed, it could fuel increased crime rate, unemployment, and environmental degradation.

The Chairman of the National Population Commission, Nasir Kwarra, agrees that the country is not doing enough. He deplored the persistent inadequate budgetary allocation to, and low sensitisation on population issues. Nigeria is listed among the countries with a high percentage of unmet needs for family planning among married women. The rate among its sexually active unmarried women is 48 per cent, while contraceptive prevalence rate is just 12 per cent.

Kwarra added, “Given the way we are going, the economy has to be strong to be able to support continuous growth and if we don’t have that, there will be malnutrition and a lot of crises among the youth who form the majority of the population. So, it’s a call to action.” Already, 40 percent of the country’s youth is unemployed, “jobless and angry,” declares Akinwunmi Adesina, President of the African Development Bank.

Nigeria’s rate of child marriage compounds the problem. According to the NGO, ‘Girls Not Brides.org,’ 43 percent of girls in the country are married before age 18, and 16 percent are married off before age 15. The Northern states are the worst culprits in the primitive practice. Research shows that 68 percent of women aged 20-49 in the North-West were married before turning 18, and 89 percent of women aged 15-49 were first married before age 15 in the North-East.

All the 36 states should domesticate and rigorously implement the Child Rights Act which makes nine years of schooling compulsory for every child and prohibits marriage before age 16. The government should provide greater access to family planning and counselling to underage children. Marriage before age 18 should be prohibited and violations harshly punished by law.

Nigeria’s government should be more responsible. The UN in 2022 said it failed to pay counterpart funding for the procurement of family planning items.

Education should take overriding priority. Studies have shown that the more educated people are, the less inclined they are to have children they cannot cater for. Alongside education, water supply, sanitation, infrastructure, and health care, conducive business environment and job opportunities should also be prioritised.

A country with a manageable population is adjudged to be more stable, peaceful and less crime-prone than overpopulated countries that also lack basic amenities. Nigeria’s leaders should take all necessary measures to properly manage its burgeoning population.

The population time bomb should be defused.

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