(By Oshagbemi Oluwatosin)

Maybe we need a detailed visual representation to understand the impact empty oil wells might have on our future. Maybe we don’t. But for a layman like me to grasp the picture, I only need to take oil out of the revenue equation and double the current population figure. What obtains leaves nothing to be desired at all.

THE issue of Nigeria’s fast-rising population, despite being the topic of public discourse in recent times, still hasn’t received the attention it deserves from appropriate quarters. But population explosion in itself remains a relevant phenomenon to many countries around the world today.

  In 2011, the world’s population hit 7 billion, with China in all its demographic splendor accounting for a fifth part of the figure. Future projections show that India, another mega nation from Asia, is set to take over from China as the most populous country come 2028. The world population is expected to have crossed 8 billion by then, fuelled largely by Asian and African populations as Western countries such as Britain and the United States appear to have found a way to effectively control the growth of their populations.

If this is not so much a Nigerian problem then, why fret?

  Well, here’s one reason: The Nigerian population is up 268 per cent from 1960. In the time it took us to grow from 56 million to about 170 million, Britain added a little over 5 million; representing a 10 per cent increase in its population from 1963.

  Of the 170 million strong population, 68 million-plus are youths; a fair proportion you would say when considering that 50 per cent of Ugandans are under the age of 15.   However, the pace of growth in the coming years is set to follow an even more explosive trend, dictated by an army of virile youths. So it is logical that the Population Reference Bureau (PRB), a U.S-based non-profit organisation suggests the Nigerian population would be hitting 400 million by 2050.

  These mind-blowing projections bring a couple of challenges to the fore, the biggest of them being; how do we deploy our shrinking pool of resources to sustain this expanding population?

   It is no secret that our dependence on petroleum and natural minerals as a nation is legendary. This again clearly evidenced by the report of the National Bureau of Statistics which indicates that the export of mineral resources made up 84 per cent of Nigeria’s total export trade in 2012, while oil accounted for 69.2 per cent.

  The same oil resource that took wind out of the sail of Agriculture, our mainstay in the good old days, is now set to dry up in the next few decades; when our population hopefully should be closing in on the projected 400 million mark.

  Maybe we need a detailed visual representation to understand the impact empty oil wells might have on our future. Maybe we don’t. But for a layman like me to grasp the picture, I only need to take oil out of the revenue equation and double the current population figure. What obtains leaves nothing to be desired at all.

  Experts are divided on chances of the country’s future prosperity, and this has often snowballed into a doom versus boom debate. Indeed, while some are being realistic, making predictions on the back of our history and antecedents, others stay optimistic, pointing to our potentials and a brighter future ahead.

  Skeptics believe we can’t keep up with the current 3.2 per cent growth rate quoted by the National Population Commission. They fear that our narrow economic structure will not hold against a surging youth-driven population, thereby leading to an increase in the percentage of the active population that is actively unemployed or at best underemployed. And quite rightly so, they fear the swelling numbers of jobless and uneducated youths would further raise the entropy level of a country that already contends with the menace of terrorism and tribal wars in the north; and oil theft, piracy and kidnapping in the south.

  In the face of a rapidly growing population, the current fiscal model encourages governments at all levels to depend on revenue generated from the petroleum sector. The sharing formula, which ensures revenue trickles from the Federal Government down to the local governments and wards has led to a sort of redundancy. Many states rely chiefly on the hand-outs in form of allocations to run recurrent and capital expenditure, hence their economies do not develop at the same rate with the population size.

  If Lagos State, which generates huge revenue internally finds it challenging to match the needs of its population, how successful will those states that depend largely on allocations do same within the limits of its resources?

   I recall how in 2008, the Lagos state government introduced the Bus Rapid Transit system (BRT) to enhance public transportation system while trying to place Lagos at par with other mega cities around the world. The introduction was also to help put the ghosts of the ragged-looking Molue buses to rest. It was a thing of pride at the time to see the system exude such level of organisation and efficiency and it instantly came to represent the face of an emerging mega-city. Countries such as Brazil even sent officials to come and understudy the system with a view to replicating the success in it major cities. For young guys like me, it became hip to commute around the city in large comfortable blue or red buses – symbols of modern Lagos; in a similar fashion to what was obtainable in other modern cities around the globe.

  But fast forward to 2013, just five years on, the BRT system appears to have lost its sparkle. Is it still as effective as it was in its first year? That’s a topic for some other discussion. Today, the buses – most of them – have become the same ghosts they were acquired to replace. Today, the 49-sitting, 99-standing era is back, even though BRTs are still in town.

  The instinctive thing to do will be to put this on poor management. While I agree mismanagement may have played a part, this decline in quality also largely correlates with the fact that the Lagos metropolis grows by 672,000 people every year according to state data. That means more people using the same facility that was designed for fewer, thereby putting a strain on available infrastructure. The same dilemma faces education, housing and commerce.

  In the light of this, the lamentation of the Lagos State government has been placed on record. The Commissioner for Planning and Budget, Ben Akabueze has been quoted as saying each time the state rolls out services, more people arrive, and this makes it difficult to cope.

  The country’s rapid population growth, however, does not completely translate to predictions of chaos. For every realist who thinks our resources are fast shrinking and doomsday is calling, there is a balancing group of opposites, who believe we are on the verge of an economic revolution. This group of people believes we can grow our economy using human capital as a resource. They count on our numbers not as a weakness but as strength. There is a potential to tap into, which they believe, is the strength of our human capital.

  As Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria remains the focal point for crusaders of the Africa rising project. They are quick to point out the huge retail market and an expanding labour force as they preach the gospel of demographic dividends to local and foreign investors.

  I know for a fact that they do not speak lies. Truly, a lot of opportunities abound for business, whether in manufacturing, agriculture, oil and gas, technology, real estate, or the service industry. These sectors may not all be where they ought to be, but they have, at least, shown there is room for tremendous growth.

  Indigenous entrepreneurs such as Aliko Dangote, Mike Adenuga, Oba Otudeko and Jim Ovia, just to mention a few, have built vast business empires and gone global despite starting from the scratch. There has also been an increase in average disposable income in the last decade despite the scourge of unemployment; and foreign businesses are seeking ways to enter the local market, while local manufacturers are making strategic long-term plans, either setting up infrastructure or expanding already existing capacity to enable local production.

  Agriculture is another goldmine that can and should be harnessed. A country that can depend on its local food production to sustain its population has a higher chance of surviving in the future. And we cannot learn to self-sustain if we continue to depend on other countries for what we need. What we do need is to stop creating jobs for others by learning to consume what we produce. We need to eliminate the culture of exotic consumerism now more than ever.

  According to the Minister of Agriculture, Dr Akinwumi Adesina, who spoke at the 2013 AGRIKEXPO, Nigeria currently spends N1.7 trillion annually to import food. That figure represents a third of the 2013 annual budget altogether. So what if we get things right, get agribusiness to be attractive to our teeming youth population again, and keep a sizeable chunk of this sum in the economy?

  The current dispensation is making an attempt to reignite the Agriculture sector, which is quite commendable. Meeting the target of a sustainable agro economy is doable. At the moment, only about 44 per cent of land available for arable farming is being cultivated. We still record a high volume of wastage annually due to an inefficient value chain, and the requisite manpower is available. There’s little the country needs to lead an agricultural revolution.

  While encouraging local food production, the government should also be looking at boosting the informal economy, which provides livelihood for a majority of those in the lower class. Our ability to fix the power sector will play a central role to making this obtainable as well as creating a more diversified economy. It’s just not enough to embark on endless foreign direct investment drives.

  Indeed for a rapidly expanding population like ours, there are possibilities and then there are threats. Maybe we need to consider implementing policies that will help put the current population growth in check, but the truth remains that we are not yet beyond redemption. Rather we have an array of opportunities to latch on to. The perceived threats will begin to manifest if and when we fail to make these opportunities count. Only then will our blessing turn into a curse.

Oluwatosin is a PR executive with C&F Porter Novelli, Lagos.

“Opinion pieces of this sort published on RISE Networks are those of the original authors and do not in anyway represent the thoughts, beliefs and ideas of RISE Networks.”