Only Religion Can Defuse Nigeria’s Demographic Time Bomb
Rapid population growth isn’t an economic opportunity — it’s a looming disaster that politicians are powerless to stop.
A few years ago, when the “Africa rising” buzz was in full swing, the continent’s rapidly expanding population was often presented as an asset, a comparative advantage over the rest of the world. While Western populaces, particularly in Europe, were aging and likely to shrink in the coming decades, Africa’s fast-growing and youthful population was supposed to provide the dynamism and consumer base needed to power its economy and transform the continent into a global growth engine.
If one country seemed to personify that narrative, it was Nigeria, already sub-Saharan Africa’s most populous country, which boasted between 7 and 8 percent GDP growth for much of the 2000s. But now that the global commodity slump has plunged Nigeria into its worst economic crisis in two decades, and pushed youth unemployment through the roof, it’s clear that far from a dividend, the country’s demographics were a disaster waiting to happen.
And the time bomb is ticking faster than we feared. At the end of last year, Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics revealed that the country’s population is now estimated to have surpassed 193 million, significantly exceeding the earlier U.N. projection of 187 million in 2016. In other words, the U.N.’s much-publicized forecast that Nigeria will overtake the United States as the world’s third-most populous nation by 2050 will likely happen much sooner than that. (Nigeria’s fertility rate is 5.13 children per woman, compared with 1.87 per woman in the United States.)
Part of the optimism surrounding Nigeria’s population growth no doubt stemmed from the country’s natural resource wealth, which was supposed to enable investments in infrastructure, industry, and education, among other things. But with markets as volatile as they are, it’s clear that oil and gas revenue — which accounts for 95 percent of export earnings and 70 percent of government revenue — isn’t enough to keep a country the size of Nigeria afloat. Indeed, since oil prices started to drop in mid-2014, Nigeria’s currency has depreciated more than 170 percent against the dollar while the country’s GDP has contracted accordingly in dollar terms.
The 2017 national budget will be the largest ever when measured in local currency, but at the current market exchange rate — though not the official one, which is largely fictitious — it amounts to a meager $15 billion. The government of Kansas, population 2.9 million, has a bigger budget than Nigeria.
In per capita terms, the situation is even bleaker. The government has just $77 to spend on each citizen in 2017. A nation with a population fast approaching 200 million has earmarked just $290 million for education this year (including capital spending), less than a third of what Harvard University will spend on research and development alone. Barring an unexpected jump in commodity prices, this situation is unlikely to change anytime soon, meaning many of the country’s newest citizens are likely to join the 62 million Nigerians who are currently illiterate.
In other words, a large percentage of Nigeria’s rapidly expanding population will have few or none of the skills needed to secure decent-paying jobs, build sustainable businesses, or otherwise contribute to a globalized 21st-century economy. Many are likely to join the already 30-million-strong army of unemployed youths aged 15 to 34. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, more than 45 percent of the country’s 69 million youths are either unemployed or underemployed — and this is a conservative estimate.
With such grim employment statistics, it’s little wonder that violent crime, including kidnappings and armed robberies, is on the rise while ethnic tensions, never far from the surface in Nigeria, are growing. At the same time, young people are leaving for Europe in record numbers: Of the 153,000 migrants who entered the European Union via the Italian coast in 2015, the largest number — 22,000 — were Nigerians.
So what can be done to defuse this ticking time bomb? Various Nigerian governments have attempted to promote family planning, but these programs have had limited impact due to their modest scope and inability to change deeply embedded cultural and religious sensibilities that encourage large families. Pushing birth control is not easy in a society where children are widely regarded as “blessings from God.” Human interference in such heavenly matters is considered arrogant and presumptuous.
Economic calculations also drive the desire for many children. In a society lacking a social safety net, parents rely on their kids to provide for them in old age. The more future caregivers you have, the brighter your retirement prospects.
There is also a pervasive cultural belief, perhaps reinforced by the “Africa rising” narrative, that Nigeria draws strength from its numbers. A large and growing population is one of the two main pillars supporting Nigeria’s vaunted status as the ordained “Giant of Africa” (the other pillar is the country’s significant natural resource wealth, the value of which most of the population overestimates). It is partly for this reason that family planning campaigns, perceived as driven by foreigners and especially white people, are often viewed as a conspiracy to weaken Nigeria and Africa in general.
Given these entrenched realities, it makes sense to turn to the only people capable of changing minds on issues as sensitive as family planning: religious leaders. Most Nigerians are fiercely attached to their religious leaders, be it the imams and mallams in the predominantly Muslim north or the charismatic pastors of the mostly Christian south. In a society where the corrupt political class has been thoroughly discredited, religious leaders are the authority figures. If enough of them could be persuaded that the country is headed for disaster if population growth isn’t curbed, they might be willing to support a broad-based family planning campaign. (Traditional rulers should also be engaged in such an exercise, since they also retain significant authority at the grassroots level.)
This type of cooperation between religious and political leaders has succeeded in promoting family planning in other deeply conservative societies — post-revolutionary Iran, for instance — and the basis for it is already in place. Nigeria’s politicians and religious leaders have long enjoyed a symbiotic relationship: Politicians rely on religious leaders to bolster their legitimacy and in return provide generous funding to build mosques and churches. This quid pro quo is especially pronounced in the northern Muslim parts of the country where sharia, or Islamic law, is practiced, religious authority is especially strong, and birth rates tend to be higher than among southern Christians.
The latest population figures must serve as a clarion call for the Nigerian government and its international partners to come up with policies, programs, and campaigns aimed at slowing down the birth rate while also providing better opportunities for those already born. The country’s demographic explosion should stop being presented as an opportunity or an asset; it is a disaster waiting to happen for a nation with Nigeria’s limited resources.
Image credit: SODIQ ADELAKUN/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images