ECONOMY - 18 MAR 2019

Nigeria's population is not the problem, the economy is.

Nigeria's population is not the problem, the economy is.
Nigeria's population problems often gets a lot of attention, but the economy seems to be the one underperforming. Source: Robert Prather 2008

Nigeria’s title as the “Giant of Africa” comes from having both the largest economy and population on the continent. 

And even though Nigeria's economy has lagged recently, its population rate shows no sign of slowing. The country is estimated to have 411 million people by 2050

The dynamic between the economy and population rate is a fascinating one. Many argue that population policy should be more stringent to stop Nigeria's population from impeding economic growth. However, should we be questioning whether Nigeria’s population is growing "too fast", or whether the economy isn’t growing fast enough to accommodate its population? 

And most importantly, does Nigeria even have the capacity to restrict the number of children people have? 

As with most Nigerian "problems", the population issue is not a new one. Nigeria has tried to tackle its population rate for a long time. However, in comparison to other population policies across the globe such as forced sterilisations, Nigeria’s population policies of 1988 and 2004 sit on the benevolent end of the scale. 

The well-intentioned policies looked to reduce fertility rates by reducing child marriages and improving access to contraceptives. The policies also sought to improve the health of both young children and mothers; reducing the likelihood of mothers having several children with the hope that at least one child lives.

The overarching target was to reduce the average number of births per mother from six to four. Yet, the effects of the policy were limited, for several reasons ranging from dis-cohesion between new governments from 1988 onwards to people just deciding to keep having a lot of children. The average number of births per mother still hovers around six.

 

Reducing the number of childbirths might not work in Nigeria

When it comes to population policy in Nigeria, one major thing to consider is the cultural beliefs around having several children. In many Nigerian traditions, having an abundant number of children is seen as a sign of wealth and status. Religiously, a lack of children can be perceived as a signal of one being punished, while fertility is usually seen as a blessing. Additionally, poor households without access to formal welfare tend to view children as a safety net with the hope that by having many children at least one child will look after them in old age.

These factors, mixed with a lack of government willpower to monitor and enforce, makes this approach to population policy difficult in Nigeria. Recent government talks on a new population policy to limit the number of children per mother to two shows that Nigerian policymakers may be barking up the wrong tree.

Tackling the population rate in Nigeria will require a substantial level of development of human capital, intelligent policy design and effective implementation. It's safe to say that Nigeria is some way from this point. 

Crucially, poverty and lack of opportunities for women are significant contributors to high fertility rates. Not only is poverty linked with low education but an economy that does not work for all will continue to incentivise families to have more kids to increase their chances. To address its population then, Nigeria must fix its economy first. 

Population growth isn’t the problem, evenly spread economic growth is

Nigeria's population is the 6th largest in the world, however, in terms of population density, its 65th with only 215 people per square kilometre. This signals that at least in terms of physical space, we have the capacity for the population. The issue is that of infrastructure and that our population is not evenly distributed in terms of settlement - cities like Lagos have 13,000 people per square kilometre.

The population debate can be turned around so that the issue is not that we are growing faster than our country can manage, but rather the economy is not growing fast enough to provide economic opportunities for everyone. The population has been increasing while employment is in decline. But the truth is Nigeria has a massive youth unemployment problem regardless of what the population rate is.

We should be looking to upgrade more parts of the country. If the government can urbanise more cities with the infrastructure for businesses to thrive and create more employment, this will take the pressure off the issue of a growing population. Urbanisation brings economic development which again leads to better fertility control (as mothers start to work, the demand for contraceptives will increase).

A large budding youthful employment is not something that should be looked down on. In the right environment, it promises a large avenue for economic growth through the production of labour-intensive goods and services. 

Not to mention, a growing population accompanied by evenly distributed economic growth will lead to a booming consumer market where the need to buy things poses an excellent opportunity for businesses to grow.

Finally, one cannot talk about population growth without mentioning how history has disproven Malthus’s theory of population growth leading to too many mouths to feed. Technological advancements make the world more able to accommodate more people. And the more people there are, the more the chances of innovation within the society increases.  The likelihood of there being at least one genius amongst millions is higher. Nigeria isn't growing too fast, it just needs to focus on having the right environment to nurture its growing population. 

 

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