A fresh warning by the National Population Commission that the prolonged closure of schools occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic may lead to more girls dropping out of school, getting married and having children should be a major source of concern for any serious government. Although Nigeria has not conducted a recent census, thereby making it difficult to know the nation’s current population, studies and surveys being conducted by reputable bodies on the increasing population are heartrending and raise anxiety over the country’s future. It is estimated that India, China and Nigeria in that order will have the biggest populations by 2100.
Ironically, it is in the very poorest countries that women have the most children, on the average. The 2018 Nigerian Demographic and Health Survey released last year that was conducted by the NPC in conjunction with the Federal Ministry of Health, the World Health Organisation and the United Nations Population Fund, among others, reveals a troubling trend. If this is not nipped now, it could deepen poverty, escalate violence and worsen unemployment. Nigeria is estimated to have 206 million people. According to the survey, the birth rate in Nigeria is 5.3 children per woman. Katsina State — one of the poorest in the country — has the highest at 7.3 births per woman. Other states with high birth rates include Bauchi and Jigawa, which have rates of 7.2 and 7.1 respectively. The survey found that 44 per cent of teenage girls with no education have begun childbearing, while only one per cent of teenage girls with more than a secondary school education have given birth. While Lagos has the lowest rate of teenage pregnancy at just one per cent, Bauchi has the highest at 41 per cent.
Indeed, there is a nexus between education and fertility rates.
It is common knowledge that the more educated a woman is, the fewer children she will bear. There is therefore an urgent need to increase the enrolment in primary and secondary schools, especially in the most vulnerable areas. According to the UNFPA’s ‘World Population Report 2020’, 33,000 Nigerian girls under the age of 18 will be forced into marriage, usually to much older men. One in five females married today in Nigeria is underage. About 19 per cent of women between 15 and 19 have begun child bearing. About 14 per cent would have given birth and four per cent are pregnant with their first child.
Unfortunately, about 11 northern states have yet to domesticate the Child Rights Act despite its obvious benefits for children which include being unable to get married till the age of 18 as girls stay longer in school. The states that have failed to pass the child rights law are Bauchi, Yobe, Kano, Sokoto, Adamawa, Borno, Zamfara, Gombe, Katsina, Kebbi, and Jigawa. Little wonder these are the states with the highest cases of child marriage and fertility rates. They are also the poorest.
There are, of course, those who argue that issues of polygamy, child marriage and expansive breeding are cultural and religious matters and ought to be respected and left to the individual. Such cultural relativist thinking no longer suffices. Responsible leadership demands guiding the people towards what is best for them through education and social services without coercion. Sadly, Nigeria has been too timid to address the root causes of population explosion, which include polygamy, child marriage and low prevalence of contraception. Many countries prescribe compulsory schooling as a fundamental right of the child.
Change should start from leadership. A motion moved by a federal lawmaker in the Eighth National Assembly to implement effective population management policy unfortunately degenerated into a religious debate and failed to achieve its intended outcome. Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s most conservative countries, has placed a ban on marriage of persons below the age of 18. That is the way to go. Nigeria’s modern contraceptive prevalence rate of 12 per cent for married women and 28 per cent for sexually active unmarried women is still too low and needs to be scaled up if the fertility rate is to drop. State governments must also stop the practice of spending public funds sponsoring mass weddings.
Ordinarily, Nigeria’s large youth population ought to be an asset, but with over 13.5 million out-of-school-children, the result is a largely uneducated and unskilled population that cannot spur social and technological development. It is not surprising that Nigeria is now the poverty capital of the world with a high level of unemployment and concomitant crime rate.
The Central Bank of Nigeria is worried that the country’s population is growing faster than its GDP. The CBN Deputy Governor, Economic Policy Directorate, Mr. Joseph Nnana, said, “All things equal, we will have between 2.8 and three per cent GDP growth for 2019. However, three per cent GDP growth rate for Nigeria is inadequate when our population growth rate is 3.2 per cent. So, the capital growth rate is slightly negative.” The economy is obviously not growing fast enough to create the needed jobs for its unemployed population. This is a recipe for the kind of disaster envisaged by Thomas Malthus in his book, ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population.’
Nigeria, projected to be 733 million people in 2050, after it might have pushed the US with 434 million people from third to fourth place, will face additional challenges in the effort to eradicate poverty, achieve greater equality, combat hunger and malnutrition and strengthen the coverage and quality of health and education systems. Where population growth slows, generally economic growth speeds up.
Nigeria needs therefore to take urgent steps to curb its rising population and tackle poverty. Addressing birth rates through a mix of women empowerment, education opportunities, birth control clinics and public enlightenment will make a difference. Ignoring population explosion warnings will keep many Nigerians permanently as hewers of wood and drawers of water in an exponentially changing world.