Friday Discourse 234
The Population Threat
The laudable response which Sultan and the Burden of Numbers received has encouraged me to go a step further and write on the threat that population poses to this country and the North in particular. It seems the previous article did touch on the reality which cannot be disputed in anyway. Twenty years ago, I would have been called names for preaching restraint in marital affairs. Without the current socio-economic challenges, some of which were mentioned in the previous article, few of us would have agreed that unrestrained polygamy can ruin our lives through perpetual poverty and its resultant social crisis. Amma yanzu mun ga haza. Lest we forget, polygamy – through succession disputes – was rightly indicted by Bertrand Russell as responsible for the collapse of most empires. I can see the Sultan smiling because he is not making that mistake.
More contentious than polygamy, however, could be the issue of population control. Surprisingly, to biologists, the link between polygamy and population is weak because only the female is considered as a unit of reproduction. So biologists concentrate on the number of issues per woman, not the man. Marriage to the biologist is just a social medium of intercourse – nothing more – and polygamy being just a variant of the medium. That is why I separated them, knowing fully that we are interested in controlling population due to sociological reasons, rather than biological ones.
Some people are against population control based on their perception that Nigeria has the capacity to contain hundreds of millions of people given its vast land and forest resources. They are biologically correct, I must admit. What they miss is that population is controlled for sociological, not biological, reasons. In civilisations, unlike under savage conditions, standard of living is crucial and it goes a long way to determine the quality of life of a nation and its survival on the globe. Good standard of living is arrived at through the provision of adequate and balanced food, education, healthcare, housing, security, etc. Once a society is poor, for whatever reason, it will be difficult for it to acquire civilisational values like knowledge, justice, peace, honesty, love, etc; rather, it will descend to the biological level where it will be guided by natural selection through survival of the fittest. Thus, the anti-thesis of civilisation – violence, dictatorship, deceit, lawlessness, hunger, disease, unrest, etc – becomes its order.
That is why I was not surprised when President Ahmedinejad revealed that the Iranian government is thinking of limiting the number of children per couple to only two because the country does not have the capacity to sustain a further increase of fifty million people. (Iran has a monogamous culture, I suppose) That position is arrived at, in my understanding, because of the Islamic character of the regime that is welfarist in nature, not in spite of it. This is the reverse of the thinking among Nigerian Muslims and Christians who believe that we are under a divine order to fill the planet with children. Well, any fair minded person will not question the religious credentials of the Iranian government and that announcement coming from Iran is a big relief to us and a deadly blow to those who misinterpret religious precepts to fight population control.
The Iranian government must have realised that no nation can progress today without limiting its population. If it is to ensure that the civilizational values we listed above are enjoyed by every citizen, then adults must accept to limit their biological right of procreation. Islam stands for peace, justice, honesty, sharing, progress, knowledge and so on. Today, these values cannot be acquired in the midst of poverty, for under poverty man is known to resort to his biological instincts to survive. It was not surprising, therefore, that the Holy Prophet urged us to work hard and fight poverty because, as one of his sayings indicated, poverty is a carrier of infidelity (kufr). Poverty, in other words, endangers religion through erosion of the values that religion stands for.
This leaves me to wonder really why some of us choose to ascribe unrestrained marriages and reproduction by misinterpreting the saying of the Prophet: "Marry and reproduce such that I will be proud of your number on the Day of Judgement." Yet, there is no record to prove that his companions married recklessly, or reproduced without restraint. In fact, in some traditions, the Prophet did approve of some forms of contraception where a couple did not desire an issue. That is why under the Shariah, a couple can agree to stop reproducing altogether. Our misinterpretation of the tradition is selfish.
We must understand that having children is not only lawful (halal) but enjoined, as indicated in the above hadith. But for every injunction, no matter how important and necessary, there is a limit beyond which it is disapproved of. Though eating is enjoined and even rewarded, for example, we are not allowed to eat so much to our detriment; we are asked to stop at a point and allow room for water and breath. Such limitations are set also on even rituals like prayer and fasting. The Prophet did not hesitate to show his disapproval of a group who took their pledge of piety to the extreme: one of them vowed to pray all night without sleep, the second resolved to fast every day throughout his life, and the third decided to remain single forever. He debunked their vows by asserting that he (as the Messenger of God) sleeps, eats and marries. God will make things difficult to whoever takes to the extreme, he warned.
Similarly, reproduction, though enjoined, must not be done to the point of detriment. A child has the divine right to good fostering and upbringing which he must claim from the parents who connived to bring him into this world. If these rights cannot be guaranteed, the father and the society will be held responsible for the bad conduct of the child. He is a product of their recklessness, especially in an age when science has made it possible for couples to severe the natural link between recreation from procreation; today, the two are joined only by choice.
Since the juvenile of human species requires extensive fostering, perhaps more than that of any other animal, it has become essential under any system to introduce some measure of prudence. At any time a couple is deciding to bring a child into the world, they must work out the calculus that will ensure not only the welfare of the child but also his training for skill acquisition and moral rectitude. This means a lot in terms of funds and attention as we mentioned last week. The desire for prudence is further demanded by the capacity of the society to provide the child with essential services. Today, it is impossible for Northern governments in particular to accord free healthcare or qualitative education to every child under their domain for the sheer reason that their populations do not reflect their resources. This is one of the major reasons behind the falling standards in our public schools. And where over 90% of the population relies on such schools, like in the North, this disaster translates into higher percentage of misfits in the society. It will be very easy to prove a strong correlation between population, falling standard of education and poverty.
Having thus canvassed arguments for planning families, I do not support the idea of legislation unless under extreme circumstances. People must be given the freedom to make informed choices based on their respective capacities. Here, highlighting the two sides of Darwin's argument is important. On the one hand, he held that "all ought to refrain from marriage who cannot avoid abject poverty for their children: for poverty is not only a great evil, but tends to its own increase by leading to recklessness in marriage." Yet, on the other hand, he held that "the most able should not be prevented by laws or customs from succeeding best and rearing the largest number of offspring." The issue of capacity was extensively discussed in the previous article.
Our failure to support family planning in the past had to do with the perception that it was planned by the West. Populations of advanced countries are decelerating at alarming rates due to reasons peculiar to the Technological Society, as the French sociologist, Jacques Ellul, would put it. Many publications against family planning in Muslim countries – like those of Maududi – were done with this in mind. But that does not deter us from checking our population for our own benefit today.
The main factor that will militate against the idea of a modest family is not religion, as I see it, but ignorance of the means by which birth can be controlled. I have come across many women who, living in hard conditions, are very willing to stop birth, once they will be permitted by their husbands and have access to such services. There is therefore the need to intensify effort to educate people on various means of male and female contraception. Male contraception is usually safer but harder to employ in a society characterised by male supremacy; the burden is oppressively shifted to the female, normally.
Our refusal to check our population will lead to the disastrous consequences we mentioned above. Standards of living and morality will plummet as poverty takes over the wheel of life. In this part of the country, these are already responsible for our increasing insecurity, shorter lifespan, dismal participation in Nigerian economy and loss of political grip. I, therefore, agree with a reader who noted that apart from ignorance, our worst enemy is our skyrocketing numbers. Our destination is still very far. Our jet is short of fuel. A crash is imminent.
1 March 2007