The outrage that greeted what looked like a one child policy of the Jonathan administration is understandable. Beyond the fact that the country's population is its selling point, the theory that the level of poverty in a country is somehow related to the size of its population has proved patently untenable. But the bigger question is: how do you legislate on what happens in people's bedroom?
The president's emergency response to our so-called population crisis was reeled out late last month at the swearing-in of newly appointed chairman and commissioners of the National Population Commission (NPC) at the Presidential Villa, Abuja. The president said the Federal Government was considering a bill to regulate the country's population and that the government wouldn't wait until it became uncontrollable before facing the menace.
"Before enacting the laws controlling birth and population, however, the government would carry out enough sensitization", the president said. "First and foremost is the personal consciousness that people should get the family they can manage. Sometimes you get to somebody's house living in a well-furnished duplex, the husband and wife there may have two, three, four children. The man guarding them has nine children. That is the scenario you have. That means there is a segment of the population that knows that you must get a number that you can manage, but the other segment of the population doesn't."
"If you are used to military barracks, you see that the officers, General this, Major General this, Brigadier this, Colonel this have three, five children but those that have no rank have eight, 12. This is the scenario. The people up, probably because of their level of education, know that they must control their population. But the people down, because of the level of exposure and education, are still not aware that you must control your population. So, first and foremost, before government comes up with regulations, guidelines or laws, Nigerians must be made to know that we cannot continue to procreate and procreate, even though we know children are God's gifts."
Why the president thinks the way to deal with wanton procreation is enacting a law to curb it, is what is difficult to comprehend. Expectedly, the issue has veered off the radar of national discourse. We have quickly moved to other issues. As I write, nobody, not the newly appointed chairman of the NPC, not the commissioners, not even related ministries, like health and national planning, will remember anything that was said by President Jonathan, much less act on it. But I digress.
Two weeks after President Jonathan's quick fix to the country's population problem, on July 11, 2012, world leaders, development partners and health and population activists met in London for a global summit on family planning. The summit, put together by the UK Government and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in partnership with the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and several national governments aimed to "make affordable, lifesaving contraceptive information, services and supplies available to an additional 120 million women and girls in developing countries by 2020 as well as prevent over 200,000 women dying in pregnancy and childbirth".
Coming 18 years after the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, in Cairo, Egypt, which emphasized the right of individuals to determine freely the size of their families and highlighted the role and importance of women in the population debate, the London Summit was groundbreaking in many respects. Nigeria was represented at the summit by Dr Muhammad Ali Pate, minister of state for health. Dr. Pate said all the right things, even though it was difficult to reconcile his claims with the situation on the ground in Nigeria. Surprisingly, no reference was made to President Jonathan's pet idea of birth and population control law.
"We are fully committed to reducing our currently unacceptably high maternal and child mortality rates. In this context, we are committed to enhancing access to, and utilization of essential, basic life-saving interventions, including the unmet need for family planning. This will be done in an integrated manner within the framework of primary health care approach," the minister noted. "Within the context of our desire to enhance maternal and child survival, as well as accelerate our demographic transition, we are committed to achieving the goal of a contraceptive prevalence rate of 36% by 2018."
The minister added: "In addition to our current annual commitment of US$3 million for the procurement of reproductive health commodities, we are now committing to provide an additional US$8,350,000 annually over the next four years, making a total of US$33,400,000 over the next four years. This additional amount will be programmed within the existing projection for the Subsidy Reinvestment and Empowerment (SURE) Programme funds for Maternal and Child Health. We will use the funds to procure the commodities through UNFPA on the platform of an already existing agreement."
It was a bold statement, except that the SURE programme the minister alluded to has since been discarded by the government. Add to this the fact that countries like Bangladesh (with a predominantly Moslem population) and Nicaragua, the poorest country in Central America (with a predominantly Christian population) currently have about 50% and 70% contraceptive prevalence rate respectively, then you begin to understand how unserious Nigeria (currently at 14%) is about reproductive health issues.
Ahead of the London Family Planning Summit, I tried to access the website of the National Population Commission (NPC) to no avail. The message that popped up each time was that the site had been taken over by "hackactivists". A week after the summit, I returned to the site. This time around, it was up except that it contained no information about Nigeria's commitment at the London summit. Beyond the scanty two-page National Population Policy, there was nothing to show what the country was doing in the area of reproductive health. Surprisingly, President Jonathan's statement at the inauguration of the new leadership of the NPC was conspicuously missing.
A visit to the website of the ministry of health yielded no result. There was no mention of the London summit and no information about the pledge Dr. Pate made on behalf of the Federal Government. In the midst of this chaos, however, the real troubling aspect of Nigeria's population programme is the clear disconnect between President Jonathan and the managers of our population policy.
The London summit put woman at the heart of the reproductive health agenda and highlighted the link between family planning and development. It emphasized the fact that family planning is a human right. It affirmed that access to family planning services and information is perhaps the best way to deal with the population issue. It showed that millions of women who want to delay or avoid their next pregnancy can exercise that right with modern contraceptives; that countries need to invest in families, in education for girls and boys, and reproductive health; that religion and culture should not be barriers to contraceptive security; and that the ability of women to choose when to get pregnant and how many children to have is empowering for women and essential for safe motherhood.
If the Nigerian government is interested in understanding how to deal with its imagined population crisis, it necessarily must take a few lessons from the outcome of the London Summit on Family Planning.