A typical apartment block is known as a “Face Me, Face You” because whole families squeeze into 7-by-11-foot rooms along a narrow corridor. Up to 50 people share a kitchen, toilet and sink — though the pipes in the neighborhood often no longer carry water.
At Alapere Primary School, more than 100 students cram into most classrooms, two to a desk. As graduates pour out of high schools and universities, Nigeria’s unemployment rate is nearly 50 percent for people in urban areas ages 15 to 24
Last October, the United Nations announced the global population had breached seven billion and would expand rapidly for decades, taxing natural resources if countries cannot better manage the growth. Nearly all of the increase is in sub-Saharan Africa, where the population rise far outstrips economic expansion. Of the roughly 20 countries where women average more than five children, almost all are in the region. Elsewhere in the developing world, in Asia and Latin America, fertility rates have fallen sharply in recent generations and now resemble those in the United States — just above two children per woman.
“The pace of growth in Africa is unlike anything else ever in history and a critical problem,” said Joel E. Cohen, a professor of population at Rockefeller University in New York City.
Nigeria, already the world’s sixth most populous nation with 167 million people, is a crucial test case. If this large nation rich with oil cannot control its growth, what hope is there for the many smaller, poorer countries? Nigeria made contraceptives free last year, and officials are promoting smaller families as a key to economic salvation, holding up the financial gains in nations like Thailand as inspiration. Some experts worry that it, and other African nations, will not act forcefully enough to rein in population growth. For two decades, the Nigerian government has recommended that families limit themselves to four children, with little effect. Nigeria, like many sub-Saharan African countries, has experienced a slight decline in average fertility rates, to about 5.5 last year from 6.8 in 1975. But this level of fertility, combined with an extremely young population, still puts such countries on a steep and disastrous growth curve. Half of Nigerian women are under 19, just entering their peak childbearing years. In a deeply religious country where many Roman Catholics and Muslims oppose contraception, politicians and doctors broach the topic gingerly, and change is slow. Posters promote “birth spacing,” not “birth control.” Supplies of contraceptives are often erratic.
“Population is key,” said Peter Ogunjuyigbe, a demographer at Obafemi Awolowo University in the small central city of Ile-Ife. “If you don’t take care of population, schools can’t cope, hospitals can’t cope, there’s not enough housing — there’s nothing you can do to have economic development.”
Parfait M. Eloundou-Enyegue, a professor of development sociology at Cornell University, said, “Many countries only get religion when faced with food riots or being told they have the highest fertility rate in the world or start worrying about political unrest.” In Nigeria, experts say, the swelling ranks of unemployed youths with little hope have fed the growth of the radical Islamist group Boko Haram
Sub-Saharan Africa, which now accounts for 12 percent of the world’s population, will account for more than a third by 2100, by many projections. Because Africa was for centuries agriculturally based and sparsely populated, it made sense for leaders to promote high fertility rates. Family planning, introduced in the 1970s by groups like Usaid, was initially regarded as foreign, and later on, money and attention were diverted from family planning to Africa’s AIDS crisis. As Nigeria urbanizes, children’s help is not needed in fields; the extended families have broken down. “Children were seen as a kind of insurance for the future; now they are a liability for life,” Dr. Ogunjuyigbe said
Dr. Eloundou-Enyegue worries that Africa’s modestly declining birthrates reflect relatively rich, educated people reducing to invest in raising “quality” children, while poor people continue to have many offspring, strengthening divisions between haves and have-nots. “When you have a system with a large degree of corruption and inequality, it’s hard not to be playing the lottery because it increases the chances that one child will succeed,”
In Nigeria’s desperately poor neighbor, Niger, women have on average more than seven children, and men consider their ideal to be more than 12. But with land divided among so many sons, the size of a typical family plot has fallen by more than a third since 2005, meaning there is little long-term hope for feeding children, said Amadou Sayo, of the aid group CARE