Africa was once viewed as a war-torn zone plagued with diseases, famine and unprecedented levels of poverty. But, now there is a growing perception of "Africa rising", portraying it as a continent with great opportunities and a bright future. While Africa is rising, the population of the continent is consequently increasing at a much faster pace. This has inhibited efforts to reducing poverty and boosting growth. In fact, The Economist recently labelled the rate of population growth in the continent as "dangerous."
A Looming Demographic Disaster
One in four Africans is Nigerian. The bible verse "go forth and multiply" seems to have been taken quite literally. In 1960, Nigeria had a population of about 45 million. Today, this figure has more than quadrupled, with over 180 million people currently living in Nigeria. By 2050, this figure is expected to double, making Nigeria the third most populous nation in the world; surpassing the United States.
Now, a growing population is not all bad. There is arguably strength in numbers, especially when it generates an active and productive labour force. But, the problem with African countries is that the population growth is outpacing economic development; making people liabilities instead of assets.
Poverty in Africa is highly concentrated in a few countries, which have some of the fastest populations rates in the world. It is estimated that by 2050, over 40% of the world's extremely poor will live in two countries: Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. And even within these countries, poverty is concentrated in specific areas. In the words of billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates, "more babies are being born in the places where it’s hardest to lead a healthy and productive life".
More Children, Fewer Problems?
Why do Nigerians have so many children? Is it due to a lack of access to family planning information or is it merely a choice. And if it is a choice, what is the reasoning behind this choice?
In an interview with the Financial Times, Lawali Adu a primary school teacher in Northern Nigeria revealed that he comes home each day to a family of 21. Although he can barely afford to provide them with the essential amenities of life, he is confident that his children will secure him a comfortable future. “When I get old, I know they will take care of me,” he says. This is a key element of Nigeria's population story - children (especially girls) as financial instruments. Further, large families are perceived as prestigious and many cultures favour polygamy.
However, when children are born into large families, they are less likely to be educated, receive adequate health care and more likely to be malnourished. Likewise, if low-income families tend to be large because they are ignorant about family planning, then poverty becomes intergenerational as poor parents produce poor children.
Across several development indicators, women tend to get the short end of the stick, and it is no different when we observe population trends. A report by the Financial Times indicated that women in Nigeria have an average of more than seven babies. Many of these women expressed that it was not their choice to have that many children; a clear indication that they have limited access to family planning options, and autonomy over their reproductive lives. If every woman in sub-Saharan Africa had the choice to have the number of children she wanted, projected population growth would be 30% smaller.
Population growth is not an African problem; contrary to widespread misconceptions. Countries like Botswana and South Africa have managed to maintain relatively low fertility rates of 2.6 and 3.4 respectively in the past decade. If these countries can do it, why can't Nigeria?
There are two E's that should be considered in regards to Nigeria's population; empowering and educating women. The intention of family planning practices is not to hit a specific population mark. Instead, it aims to empower women so they can decide how many children they want, when and with whom.
Education is also an essential piece of the population puzzle. When girls are educated, they tend to be productive and earn more; pushing back the age of marriage. They are also prone to have fewer children and can invest fully in each child. The overall effect of more empowered and educated women is an improved demographic position for Nigeria and Africa as a whole. The Nigerian government should consider this in their renewed efforts to tackle our population rate.
Nigerians are already feeling the demographic pressures. Poverty is skyrocketing, unemployment is high, political instability is the order of the day, and weak infrastructures are deteriorating. It is imperative that the government makes an effort to curb this problem and ensure Nigeria reaps its demographic dividend. The failure to do so is likely to trigger a series of unfortunate events in the country in the coming years.