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Buhari and the population explosion ogre

Published by The Nation on Sat, 24 Aug 2019

PRESIDENT Muhammadu Buhari has finally spoken emphatically on the subject of population explosion which so many commentators have warned could upend the country or even sound its death knell. His emphatic statement may be coming a little late, but Nigerians will hope that rather than just describe it as a frightening issue, it would spur him to enunciate concrete ideas about the problem and then go ahead to tackle it in a manner that will make the country grateful to him for a very long time. The president spoke on the issue during a two-day retreat for ministers-designate in Abuja early in the week. According to him, By average estimates, our population is close to 200 million today. By 2050, UN (United Nations) estimates show that Nigeria will be third globally, behind only India and China with a projected population of 411 million. This is a frightening prospect but only if we sit idly by and expect handouts from so-called development partners. The solution to our problems lies within us.If he intends to present policy initiatives to tackle the danger, he did not mention it in his speech. Perhaps the occasion was inappropriate for such a delicate and unusual subject. However, it is hoped that soon, unlike in his first term when the issue received no significant mention or consideration, he will give full attention to a matter that threatens to unravel the country. During the same retreat, he had spoken about three other issues that arrested his attention before he assumed the presidency, to wit, security, economy and corruption, and indicated just how far his government went in handling them. He had said: None but the most partisan will dispute that we have made headway in all three areas. First, we have rolled back the frontiers of terrorism; we are actively addressing other challenges such as kidnappings, farmer-herder violence, improving the safety of our roads, railways, air traffic and fire control capacities. Second, we are steadily turning the economy round through investment in agriculture and manufacturing, shoring up our foreign reserves, curbing inflation and improving the countrys infrastructure. Third, we have recovered hundreds of billions of stolen assets and are actively pursuing control measures to tackle leakages in public resources. We will not let up in fighting corruption.If the president could gloat over his achievements, especially concerning the three main objectives he set for himself at the inception of his first term, surely he would want to make future similar boasts regarding an issue he has rightly described as frightening, an issue that requires the most intensive and rigorous effort to control or retune into a productive and positive asset. He did not make reference to statistical facts, but he was right to suggest that something must be done urgently about the problem. Indeed, the facts and figures surrounding the problem are truly frightening. With a population growth rate hovering around 2.6 percent, a little down from about 3.5 percent some years earlier, Nigeria has become a tinderbox mainly on account of climatic and desertification challenges, poor economic management and unstable financial policies, and unimaginative political and governmental structures that produced a unitary system and constrain productivity.Nigerias population figure is believed to be about 200 million, and given the unmanageable growth rate with which it is expanding, is calculated to double every 22 years. Compounding the crisis is the rather ironic improvement in life expectancy to about 51 years at birth in 2015. Some unconfirmed estimates even put it at about 60 years in 2018. Economic growth has either been slow, less than two percent, or sometimes even managing to slip into recession, such as the country witnessed a few years ago shortly after careless economic policies caused a needless downturn. With economic growth trailing badly behind rapid population growth, Nigeria, which is the seventh most populous country in the world and the most populous in Africa, appears to be heading for disaster. In all this, over the decades, and lured by insanely cheap money, the government has been spectacularly remiss in its duties. Poor financial management policies, corruption, and profligacy have all combined to expose the country to a precarious future.President Buhari has drawn attention to what is probably the most pressing issue the country must contend with in the coming years. But beyond drawing attention to it, it is not certain that much else will be done to arrest the drift or mitigate the effects of the looming crisis. The population catastrophe he alludes to has been brewing for years. Neither the president in his first term nor any of his predecessors had done anything significant about it. They seemed helpless, or were uninterested in grappling with a nuisance they felt was sensitive and incurable. President Buhari says it is a frightening problem. That is an understatement. No one is sure that Nigeria has the luxury of a few more years to put a lid on the problem, as the president seems to imply. The crisis is urgent, if it is not already too late. Such an urgent crisis requires very drastic solutions, solutions that call on leaders to think outside the box and to reflect on novel panaceas or embrace structured and unorthodox ideas.If disaster is to be staved off, the government must take a very hard look at its financial management orthodoxies. This goes beyond fighting corruption or catching a few thieves. The government must strike at the root of the problems that engender inefficiency. The first step is to restructure the country away from huge spending on needless items such as bloated bureaucracies and bogus political institutions. Parliamentary spending has become uncontrollable partly because the parliament is unwieldy and costly, and partly because the countrys political structure itself commits everyone to a centralised rather than a federal system. In addition, the configurations of states is more than the country needs or can sustain, and bureaucracies are unwisely and needlessly replicated. Funds that should be allocated to capital and infrastructural needs are senselessly spent on recurrent and unproductive needs. In fact most states are not viable and have become a national and unbearable burden.But in addition to tightening Nigerias fiscal supports and restructuring the polity, it is also urgent for the government to jettison its parochial predilections and seek out policies and programmes that would not in turn produce future crises. Land and grazing policies, for instance, must reflect modernisation trends, away from backward, ancient, crisis-ridden and ethnic-inspired policies. Climate change is real and unrelenting. The government must find practicable and lasting solutions to desertification. Israel did it; others have done it; Nigeria can also do it. Instead of conniving at ethnic-inspired seizure of lands under the aegis of grazing policies, the government must face the reality of the moment and think of the future. But can they'Population growth cannot be arrested overnight, especially with the subtle hints by some analysts that larger population figures are an electoral asset. After all, the initial failure of the polio immunisation programme in some parts of Nigeria was attributed to suspicion that the programme was designed to reduce or limit population increases in certain states. But in the long run, something major must be done to check the crippling expansion of population growth and to take more and better cognisance of economic growth policies. Checking population expansion must also go hand-in-hand with other social, political and economic policies to ensure sound financial management, sensible and efficient bureaucracies, and a far better political cum economic structure designed to take care of the needs of the future. What is not tenable is to make noise over the issue, label it as frightening, and end up doing nothing about it. If nothing significant is done now, the country must prepare for apocalypse.
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