There's a Nigerian born every minute

Dec 23, 2015|Kitan Williams

Philosophy has provided humanity with a number of unappealing hypotheses. Perhaps none is as aptly named as the “Repugnant Conclusion” by Derek Parfit. The repugnant conclusion suggests that when we are faced with a society of people all living terrific lives, we can imagine a much larger society that we would consider better off even though its citizens live barely tolerable lives, because aggregate happiness in the larger population is higher. The problem exists because we deem every life to be valuable; so we consider societies better off when they add to their population, irrespective of the quality of life. Population ethics, the field that analyses such things, has yet to determine the appropriate balance between the quality and quantity of life.

How does the repugnant conclusion relate to Nigeria today?

Nigeria’s population is surging. Official statistics put the current population above 170 million people. Crucially, the population is growing very quickly. With a fertility rate above 5.0, Nigeria is on track to break the 400 million mark and become the third most populous country in the world by the end of the century. Meanwhile, Nigeria’s landmass (930,000 compares unfavourably with the likes of Brazil (8.6 million, DR Congo (2.3 million and Ethiopia (1.1 million, other countries expected to experience sizable population increases during the 21st century. Combined with a population density of 195 people per square km and increasing migration to major cities, the danger of human bottlenecks in cities like Lagos becomes a grim possibility. 

At the same time, the Nigerian economy has accelerated to become the largest in Africa. The economy achieved an annualised average growth rate of 5.91% between 2005 and 2015. But these numbers do not tell the entire story. World Bank data ranks Nigeria’s GDP as the 21st highest in the world but ranks its GDP per capita as the 116th highest in the world. Furthermore, GDP per capita has grown slower than GDP since the turn of the millennium. Worse still, GDP per capita figures are likely to paint a rosier image given Nigeria’s economic inequality. Per capita estimates look at the mean income level and with an economy as skewed as Nigeria’s, median GDP is likely to be much less. For example, Nigeria’s Gini coefficient in 2010 was 48.83 with the bottom 30% of the population holding less than 6.5% of total wealth. Finally, as indicated above, the lowest income quartile is closer to poverty – 2009 World Bank data estimated 46% of Nigerians living below the national poverty line. Nigeria’s economic boom has been trailed by a frustrating inability to spread wealth among the polity. 

This combination of accelerating population growth and economic inequity elicits a worrying conclusion: that Nigeria lacks the economic capability to absorb the incoming population. The signs have already started to manifest. Nigerian youth have had to quickly come to terms with their dwindling economic prospects. Such a young and restless population, highly sensitised to wealth from their exposure to western media and the continued opulence of the elite, could be steering Nigeria towards a precipice. 

However, such fears are not new. Thomas Malthus, one of history’s most influential growth theorists, famously predicted a mini-armageddon induced by overpopulation. As he memorably put it, “the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.” Malthus was concerned that our natural reproductive rate outstripped the pace of output growth, a trend that would eventually lead to food shortages and widespread scarcity. The result would be a need for “checks” such as famine, war and (amusingly) moral restraint to curtail population growth. In some ways, Nigeria’s future looks somewhat Malthusian. 

Yet for the most part, Malthus was wrong. Malthus was wrong for many reasons. But mainly he was wrong because he failed to account for technological changes and productivity increases he could not have foreseen, the impact of affluence and industrialisation on fertility rates and the boom in global trade. These factors significantly increased the world’s productive capacity and have also slowly eased down birth-rates in the rich world. To the detriment of his own legacy, Malthus underestimated human ingenuity and unpredictability.

In hindsight, Malthus was wrong in thinking that we would not be able to produce enough but a separate fear is that even if we produce enough, not enough will get to those who need it. The unequal and corrupt nature of societies such as Nigeria’s makes this a legitimate concern. Based on current trends, many new births in Nigeria will simply be dragged into poverty. This points towards the need for proactive policy to ease Malthusian concerns. Tackling inequality and poverty become more important when the population is increasing so quickly, or else you get many people born into poverty, with long-term personal and national consequences.

Within the last half-century, one upcoming global powerhouse took drastic action in addressing a similar population issue; China’s one-child policy ranks as the biggest demographic experiment in modern times. While the policy had its problems – ghost children, reinforcing negative attitudes towards female children and contributing to the impending demographic time bomb, it was fairly successful at cutting the population growth rate, from 15 per 1,000 people in 1980 to below 5.5 per 1,000 people in 2015. However, Nigeria is unlikely to follow this path. Such a policy will likely meet significant opposition in a country with such an affinity to bearing children. It also raises serious moral questions about who possesses the right to bear children. Nevertheless, the success and failures of the Chinese approach offer Nigeria guidance on the complexity of demographic changes and the potential fallout from the failure to address them.

A demographic change of this magnitude demands a deliberate response. Responses could target either side of the equation. On the economic front, a directed effort towards tackling poverty and inequality is key as population growth is skewed towards low-income families while income growth still remains concentrated at the top. Better economic opportunities would go some way to dispelling worries about overpopulation. Similarly, as mentioned before, increases in productivity proved fatal to Malthusian predictions of doom. So boosting productivity and innovation is crucial. This requires a number of conditions currently absent in Nigeria – intellectual property protection, intensive research and development, fair market competition etc. These, along with a strong manufacturing sector, can provide the large-scale productivity boost Nigeria requires.

The other side of the equation is population growth. The biggest obstacle here may be culture. Convincing Nigerians that having more children is not necessarily a good thing could be difficult but cultural shifts have been able to dislodge national beliefs, however unyielding. These cultural shifts are driven by two primary elements – education and female empowerment. Education is the least invasive contraceptive. Teaching people about proper family planning, the use of contraceptives, resource management and depletion etc has an important role to play in curbing population growth. Historically, female empowerment has been even more essential in bringing down birth rates. Empowering women in and outside the home – in the workplace, politics, religious institutions etc will lead them to make different decisions regarding bearing and raising children. Cultural modifications of this kind are capable of acting as a counter against impending demographic changes.

Long term forecasts are fraught with peril and population estimates are especially unreliable. We are unlikely to anticipate all the future changes that could quickly lift millions of people out of poverty. Meanwhile, worries about population growth are usually given the derogatory tag of being “Malthusian alarms”. Yet there is a powerful reason why Nigeria should take action: even the current population and state of inequality is unsustainable. We cannot twiddle our thumbs and wait for human ingenuity to detonate the bomb, for now, we must get everyone to safety first. Human ingenuity must be married to policy.


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