On Wednesday, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said that families need to use planning and birth control to cut back on the number of children they have.
The key thing is how you will... begin to encourage Nigerians to have the number of children they can manage, before government comes up with clear policies and guidelines, he said, according to a Nigerian newspaper.
First and foremost is the personal consciousness that people should get the families they can manage.
More family planning would undoubtedly have a positive effect in Nigeria, where overpopulation is a definite problem. This most populous country in Africa, and the seventh most populated country on earth, has more than 170 million people. That exceeds the population of Russia, and it's more than twice the population of Germany.
According to some estimates from the UN, Nigeria's population could reach a whopping 730 million by the year 2100. This would put Nigeria in third place worldwide, trailing China, which has over 10 times Nigeria's land mass, and India, which has over three times the land mass.
So Jonathan's call for smaller families is warranted -- in fact, such statements are nothing new. For years, Nigeria has struggled to find ways to stem the rapid growth of its population.
In 2011, the government spent about $3 million on contraceptive and antenatal care, according to IRIN News. This was augmented by assistance from international donors and non-governmental organizations. In April of last year, the government began providing condoms and other contraceptives for free at hospitals. Demand for these products is slowly increasing, and more women seek training on the prevention of unwanted pregnancies.
But taboos still exist. Many religious leaders argue that allowing the use of contraceptives is akin to promoting promiscuity. And abortion remains illegal in Nigeria, unless a mother's life is endangered by her pregnancy.
Jonathan said he is aware that such issues are very sensitive.
Both Christians and Muslims, and even traditionalist and all the other religions, believe that children are God's gifts to man, he said. So it is difficult for you to tell any Nigerian to [limit the number of] their children because they are gifts of God, and it is not expected to reject God's gifts.
He also mentioned uneducated people in particular were having too many children.
Here, Jonathan touched on one of Nigeria's underlying problems. Poverty and lack of education are endemic to the West African country, but Nigeria is not demographically homogenous -- some areas have it worse than others.
Northern regions, whose inhabitants are mostly Muslims, have much higher rates of poverty. In northern states, the rates reach up to 86 percent, according to a government report released this year. The mostly Christian southern regions, on the other hand, have much lower rates of poverty; in the southwest, it's at 59 percent.
High fertility rates go hand-in-hand with poverty and a lack of education, so Jonathan was correct to say that less-educated families are more likely to have children they cannot support. But regional differences make the statement politically thorny -- as if debates over family planning and contraception weren't sensitive enough.
The stickiest point was Jonathan's suggestion that he may move beyond mere recommendations and, in the future, consider implementing actual policies to keep birth rates down. Such legislation could amount to a risky provocation -- its effects would be felt most strongly in northern regions, due to the endemic poverty and higher fertility rates there. This could exacerbate north-south divisions, in addition to stirring up religious objections.
It is true that legislation to bring down fertility rates, if successful, would help to stem population growth and combat poverty. But the converse is true as well: ameliorating poverty, especially if that involves improving health care and universal access to education, would help to bring down fertility rates. And since moving in that direction is less controversial -- and, more importantly, unlikely to incite any increase in religiously motivated clashes -- it would be judicious to use legislation to stem population growth from that angle instead. Family planning should be left to public awareness campaigns, not policies.
Unfortunately, the fight against poverty in Nigeria has so far been a serious failure. The central government is plagued by high levels of corruption, and nearly all Nigerians deplore its lack of efficiency. It is for this reason that the country's crude oil revenues, which have helped the sub-Saharan country achieve an impressive GDP of about $250 billion, have not resulted in a decrease in poverty levels.
But the fact remains that Nigeria does have the resources to bring assistance to the people who need it most. With money the government already makes, public awareness campaigns could be strengthened, women's health care programs could be funded, and a better public education system could be implemented.
If revenues could have been found to fund legislation to prevent large families, there's hope that it could also be found to combat the poverty-related problems that lead to high fertility rates in the first place -- and that's the safer bet.