November
13th
  12:31:14 AM

The myth of Nigeria’s over-population

Traffic in LagosI have heard it parroted for as long as I can’t remember that Nigeria’s hyperpopulation is one of the reasons the country is failing. And from the first time I heard this flawed reasoning I have always countered it, even when my views had not even been mellowed with data, statistics and considerable knowledge of political economy. The problem with the notion of high population is not so much that it is erroneous as that it might give Nigeria’s misrulers something to blame for their slimy utter badness. I would not be surprised if Obasanjo had indeed blamed huge population for any number of Nigerian maladies, he must have had his ear close to the ground.

Now it might be argued that as the 14th largest country in continent, speaking about square miles, one might be tempted to say that Nigeria is overpopulated, hosting 1 in 6 Africans within its space. But this would be an argument built on false premise, what philosophers might call paralogy. Africans might be breeding faster than Europeans for instance, that does not mean that there are more than enough people for the size or wealth of the continent. Countries bigger than Nigeria, like Libya or Algeria, may even be considered underpopulated, seeing that the vast Sahara that flows into other sparsely populated countries like Chad and Niger is mainly uninhabitable.

Then subsaharan Congo, which is more than double the size of Nigeria. With a population of just over 63 million, it is 3 million more than the United Kingdom, and it is more than ten times the size of latter country. The sociology of demography is not that simple, but Congo can easily take as many people as India or China and has the natural resources to give itself the needed shunt onto the trail of self-sufficiency – even with a hypothetical population of a billion. Although right-wing fascists are whipping up fears of overpopulation and overcrowding in the United Kingdom, it has been proved over and again that the British isles can still take tens of millions more.

The same thing applies to Congo and Nigeria. Well, if the geographical mosaic called Nigeria cannot carry the weight of a billion people (it may just as well can) it should at least be able to withstand the accession of as many more people as it contains now, that is 300 million, the population of the United States. It does not take the exquisitely discerning to see that the size of our population has nothing to do with the plight of the people of the country. As a matter of fact, we should even be happy that we have such a large population, the country’s inept rulers should be looking at how to make capital of humanpower instead of indulging in clueless circumlocutions and the lazy alibi of overpopulation. Japan is a country whose population I can easily compare with that of Nigeria. The group of islands known as Japan contains some 130 million people or so, and yet the country is no larger than one of Nigeria’s old three regions. If any country needed to use overpopulation as a pretext for entropy it should be Japan, the sprawling Greater Tokyo conurbation would dwarf our own ‘megacity,’ Lagos, fourfold. But we all know what Japan has done with its large population and what it is still doing. 

Before India began to sit up and take notice - particularly take notice of its neighbour China - some of its wonks had come up with the population excuse for underdevelopment. But now it has discovered that its population, like China’s, is one of its strengths. In his book The Post-American World (And the Rise of the Rest), the influential Indian-American social commentator Fareed Zakaria mentions Africa sparingly, the only African country he alludes to more than twice is South Africa, and this is from the prism of third-tier developing countries like Brazil and Turkey, both of which, like South Africa, are members of the G20, a group that Nigeria fondly pines to be part of. Zakaria mentions Nigeria twice, the first time in relation to corruption, the second time as a metaphor for the poorer chunk of the burgeoning India. Zakaria says something to the effect that although India is growing it still has within it several Nigerias, in other words it is still burdened by bulging pockets of penury and want.

I was pretty miffed when I read this – I was miffed not with Zakaria but with the fact that his illustration is far from inaccurate. Anyway, I brought up Zakaria’s book because of the emphasis he places on the huge populations of India and China, these being as major contributors to both countries’ growth. People, and the expertise they can offer, are the cogs in the galloping progressive wheels of the two countries. Today it is an acknowledged fact that some of the major exports of India are its rough-diamond geeks who often become smoother and valuable when they arrive in the West. In spite of the westward gravitation of a lot of their experts (especially to America), both China and India do not spend too much time lamenting about brain drain. Such is the vitality of the remanent populations. Writing about how China is lucking its way into the risks-and-riches economies of Africa, John Lee of Sydney's Centre For Independent Studies pinpoints the growth of African population as integral to the continent's future well-being. 

Besides professionals, ordinary  Indians and Chinese, like Nigerians, still leave their countries in huge numbers, and not because they were choking for lack of space but for economic reasons, just like Nigerians. But to the degree that Nigeria is increasingly becoming a nasty and brutish place to live, it was reported recently that sans war or any kind of political conflict, Nigerian nationals came high in the list of those who sought asylum in ‘industrialised countries’ in the first quarter of this year. If population had had anything to do with the number of people leaving a country, then the world would have been overrun with Indians, even far more than the Chinese. Of course Indians and the Chinese transplant themselves in many places, but in recent times no citizens of any country would beat Nigerians for scattering themselves every which way, in far-flung, unlikely places. Needless to say, the youthful risk-taking Nigerians hitting the Sahara trail are not doing it just to slake mere wanderlust, they are fleeing the hopelessness and despondency at home. The image of the Wandering Nigerian is a far cry from that of the time-honoured ‘Wandering Jew,’ the ever-drifting Nigerian is a strapping young man (or woman), fuddled with dreams, addled with frustrations, slouching towards what he considers his El dorado, to ‘arrive.’  

So Nigeria is overpopulated? It certainly is not. Now if it were a landlocked country like Mali that had as people as Nigeria one might be tempted to advance demographic crisis. But then again the desert that occupies the greater part of Mali has done Thomas Malthus’s job for him – aridity and loamlessness would not even allow the country to resort to a comfortable agrarian existence. And then poverty, not to say diseases. As a matter of fact, these foregoing pair have truly been very effective in balancing out Africa’s population. Consider the number of people who die on Nigerian roads everyday, in skeletonic hospitals and clinics, in their homes. If there is anything that is overmuch about Nigerian population, it is how it is topheavy with thieving politicians, bureaucrats and soldiers. 

Adebowale Oriku, a freelance writer, lives in England. This entry has been cross-posted from Nigerian Village Square.



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