Family Planning Legislation in Nigeria?

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan made headlines – and caused controversy – this week by saying that his country may need “birth control legislation,” potentially along the lines of China’s one child policy. Nigeria’s population currently stands at an estimated 160-170 million people, and is projected to grow so rapidly that Nigeria may have over 400 million people by 2050. Jonathan has recommended that the newly formed National Population Commission pursue a campaign of “advocacy” and “sensitization” to promote birth control and the idea of child spacing.

This is not the first time someone influential has proposed such a policy for Nigeria. Last year, American economist Jeffrey Sachs suggested that “Nigeria should work towards attaining a maximum of three children per family,” an idea that also drew criticism and debate.

Nigeria’s massive population has sometimes been the subject of gloomy, even apocalyptic commentary, as in the New York Times article “In Nigeria, a Preview of an Overcrowded Planet.” That article pointed out that “for two decades, the Nigerian government has recommended that families limit themselves to four children, with little effect.”

Critics said that the NYT article’s attention to families’ choices about children distracted readers from other ways of looking at the country’s problems, especially in terms of the failure of the state to provide services to its people. Obadias Ndaba wrote to the NYT,

Economic prosperity isn’t driven by population size but rather by how a country invests in its human capital and manages its resources. Nigeria has deeper issues, such as corruption and poor governance, to deal with. Fear-mongering based on erroneous Malthusian population theory must stop.

If one embraces this argument, Jonathan’s talk of family planning could also be seen as a distraction technique, a way of displacing blame for Nigeria’s problems from the government to the people. One of the Christian leaders quoted in VOA’s article on the topic makes essentially that argument: “The population of Nigeria cannot stop the progress of Nigeria…If our leaders can stand on their obligations and apply the wisdom of God and the fear of God, we can make it and succeed also in Nigeria.”

Politically, Jonathan’s suggestion may play poorly in many areas of the country, including much of Northern Nigeria, where his popularity already runs low.

Does that mean family planning efforts are doomed in Nigeria? Not necessarily. Muslims in Northern Nigeria are often depicted as exceptionally conservative when it comes to dealing with issues related to sex and health, but at the grassroots level, VOA and USAID have reported some successes with family planning programs in the region. In 2009, VOA reported:

In Zakarai village, about 50 kilometers from the main city of Kano, a community-based outreach project is helping low-income families get the education and contraceptives they need to act responsibly.

Community volunteers, with technical support from the Community Participation for Action in the Social Sector, COMPASS, a USAID-sponsored project, are helping women avoid unwanted and often high-risk pregnancies.

COMPASS is a five-year integrated community-driven project with nine implementing partners, including the Federation of Muslim Women’s Association and the Nigerian Medical Association.

The project, which started in 2004, seeks to improve the health and education status of 23 million Nigerians in three northern and two southern states.

COMPASS field officer in Kano, Mohammed Gama, says putting the community in the driving seat was the catalyst for the program’s success in one of the most conservative communities in Nigeria.

For more, see this USAID report on COMPASS activities in Nasarawa State.

It would be deceptively simple to say that the solution to the issue of family planning in Nigeria is to go “bottom up” instead of “top down,” and US government sources have a clear interest in describing US-backed programs as successes. But at the very least, I think Jonathan’s top-down style proposal will have difficulty getting much traction, and will be an easy target for his various opponents. The larger issue also remains: is family planning even the right place to start in addressing problems like poverty, food insecurity, and crime? What do you think?