National pride and Nigeria’s growing population

National pride and Nigeria’s growing population

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Nigerians have long taken pride in being a large nation.“We are very grateful to Britain for giving us Nigeria. It is a great thing to belong to a big country. There is always an unspoken contempt for small countries in international affairs, and we are happy to be citizens of a big country,” said Obafemi Awolowo in 1958. Nigeria’s size and population as guarantor of global gravitas has since become entrenched in the national psyche. Especially as numbers remains the essential foundation of our claim to the “Giant of Africa” status. In terms of sheer natural wealth for instance, countries like Congo and South Africa are no lesser than Nigeria.

But with 198 million citizens to manage, and counting, according to Eze Duruiheoma, Chairman of the National Population Commission, is Nigeria’s population size a misguided source of national pride and how capable is the Nigerian state of handling such numbers?

It has become a bit of a cliché to say a large population offers both opportunities and challenges. But this it boils down to. If mere population size determined national success, China and India, with roughly 1.4 billion citizens each, should be the world’s two main economic superpowers. But more efficiently-governed China is the only superpower of the two, with a $12 trillion economy, second only to America’s. Meanwhile, India’s 1.4 billion population generates a GDP of $2.6 trillion, far less than the $4.9 trillion of 127 million-strong Japan and significantly less than the $3.7 trillion GDP a “mere” 82 million Germans generate. Switzerland’s 8.6 million population enjoys a GDP double that of 204 million Pakistanis while 37 million Canadians have grown an economy six times the size of 168 million-strong Bangladesh. Clearly, a large population is no guarantor of national success, much less greatness, a fact we would be wise to always remember.

On the other hand, while many Nigerians might be too quick to equate their large population with preordained greatness, there are also those who say Nigeria is grossly overpopulated. This too is hardly the case, at least not in terms of population density. In 2018, there were 215 Nigerians per square kilometre, making Nigeria less densely populated than successful Britain, Germany, Japan, South Korea and Holland. Considering much of Nigeria is habitable land, the country is not (yet) physically overpopulated per se.

The problem lies in the ability to manage the existing population. Let’s leave aside government corruption for now. The Nigerian state quite simply lacks the physical capacity to manage a territory the size and population of Nigeria. Privately, those running the country often feel as overwhelmed with Nigeria’s myriad problems as the rest of us. They too scratch their heads trying to figure out where to start from. But, of course, they can’t admit this publicly, so ministers and government officials put on their brave clever faces and pretend they have control over events they have limited or no control over.

Take security, the key concern for many Nigerians today. In 2016, Lt.-Gen. Tukur Buratai said Nigeria’s army needed to increase its active personnel from 100,000 to 200,000 by 2024, recruiting 12,000 new soldiers per year. So, by now, Nigeria has perhaps 136,000 soldiers tackling Boko Haram in the North-East, keeping an eye on Niger Delta militants and various other armed groups across the country, and generally trying to secure a volatile and angry territory four times the size of Great Britain. For comparison, Egypt has 440,000 soldiers securing a similar area-size with half as many people.

A 2016 survey showed Nigeria with 219 police officers per 100,000 citizens, below the global average of 300 and sub-Saharan Africa average of 268. And we know how underpaid, under-trained and under-equipped Nigeria’s police are, often wielding lower-grade weapons than armed robbers and kidnappers.

From security to education, the capacity of the Nigerian state to manage the situation on the ground is extremely low. Critics of the governing class often speak of a “lack of political will” to solve this or that problem in Nigeria. The implication being if only Nigeria’s leaders were genuinely interested in making the country safe and prosperous, they could do so tomorrow. This is a fallacy. Scarily, it is no longer just a matter of “political will”, but of sheer capability. If a police chief orders officers to secure area X by all means, but those officers end up over-run by better-equipped bandits, who do we blame for this?

I know nobody likes “government” in Nigeria (except when they are in it), but the single most pressing requirement to manage the country’s galloping population is a much stronger state. Alongside trying to slow population growth via well thought-out family-planning campaigns, the strengthening of state capacity is key to preventing all-out chaos in Nigeria. Last week, we discussed the tiny budget Nigeria’s government has, smaller than what the likes of Angola, South Africa, Pakistan or Bangladesh have to spend on their citizens. Even if one kobo of Nigeria’s budget was not stolen, it still wouldn’t be enough to run a functional country. The Nigerian state undoubtedly needs more money to perform its everyday functions.

The only way I see to raise significantly more revenue is via vastly improved nation-wide tax-collection a la Lagos. I know some of you will be hissing loudly by now, but apart from mega oil-rich tiny-population Gulf countries like Qatar or Kuwait, I know of no prosperous safe state not significantly financed by its citizens’ taxes. Yet, while South Africa, with a population of 57 million, collected $90 billion in tax revenues last year, Nigeria raised the equivalent of $15 billion, which turned out to be a historically record amount!

Of course, to increase tax revenues, Nigeria’s leaders would need to do two things: foster an enabling economic environment in which people have money in their pockets to pay taxes from and build trust in the citizenry their hard-earned money won’t be squandered and stolen. But there is no escaping the fact a big country is expensive to run. Without a boost in state finances, national pride will continue to be sought in population numbers rather than state functionality.And without the ability of the Nigerian state to provide basic security, infrastructure and social services for its citizenry, it will continue to be the worst of possible states: strong enough to oppress the individual, but too weak to enablethe collective.

 

Remi Adekoya



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