Dr. Aliyu Tilde
This article was first published in Leadership in February 2006 under the title "Sultan and the Burden of Numbers". A reader from Radio Deutche Welle sent me a two worded email in which he summarized his feelings: "Abokin Darwin", i.e. A friend of Darwin, he called me. I have earlier listened to his program in which he castigated Darwinism and its influence on western thought and the present world order, rightfully I think from the perspective he looked at it. But I insist that my call for curbing our indulgence in reproduction does not in any way contradict the broadcaster's views and remains very important to our development as a nation. In fact, my ideas could be more aligned to Malthus than to Darwin. In the article, I have challenged the validity of our African concept of unlimited children - a vestige of our hunter-gatherer and agrarian past - which is out of place in today's technological society. It will certainly sound challenging particularly to our mainstream religious thought but I am ready to submit a credible defences from that angle should the need arise. Meanwhile, here, the reader is offered the rational angle, untainted. I seized the opportunity to print the article as I await the completion of Discourse 275, Begging in Northern Nigeria and Its Solutions, which I hope will reach my readers next week. Happy reading.
I think His Eminence, the Sultan of Sokoto, has a valid point here, 100% valid on the scale of both logic and nature. He is barely seated on the throne and people are flooding him with the advice to undertake the danger of increasing the size of his family on the x-axis, to become polygamous in short. They think a Sultan should have, like all his ancestors, more than a wife since in that position, they assume, he has the capacity to maintain her. I salute his courage to say no. Few of us would resist the temptation of nodding at the first adviser. They missed the point. The Sultan is challenging any of his advisers to produce a verse that makes polygamy obligatory on him. Of course, there is none.
Gradually, we are shedding burdensome traditions. I am not against polygamy. I am polygamous. Yet, that will not prevent me from stating the obvious here: the need to plan families in a Shariah compliant manner – according to our abilities. Some people, Muslims and Christians alike, will find this difficult to swallow because, in their view, procreation is a natural process that must not be hindered by man.
The myopic would count the privilege of the Sultan and call him a coward who is afraid of hurting his wife. After all, we have seen many pensioners taking in sweet-sixteens soon after receiving their gratuity. What a wise investment! We have also seen people with limited income adding wife upon wife, whenever they can afford just a dowry. And how often small is the dowry! It is usually difficult for such people to see the implications of their reckless decision until it is late when the pile of children and the burden of their responsibility turn the sweet sixteen into a bitter mama. Plenty children mean plenty lives to cater for, too many things to provide for and, more often than not, too many worries to keep one awake at the midnight. Little by little, with every inability, the bitterness turns into regret.
The challenges of food, schooling, health, clothing, housing, and customs for many children (and their mothers too) – talking simply from the economic perspective – will be very daunting for a pensioner or a small income earner, with a monthly salary of N20,000.00 or less. Had the husband restricted himself to a manageable few, he would have relieved himself of high blood pressure. Our ancestors did not suffer so much because different factors are at work today. Let us look at just four of them.
One, chances of survival are better today because our lifespan is longer, thanks to absence of wars, famines, plagues, predators, and so on. One of these factors alone or a combination of some was constantly responsible for shorter life span of "savage populations," as Charles Darwin put it in The Descend of Man. Instead, we have improved security, nutrition, health care, etc. And if W.H.O. is allowed to achieve its goal of health for all, the chances of survival of every child will become higher. So, to see two or three of his children survive to maturity today, a father does not need the liberty of many wives and concubines as our ancestors once did.
The second factor is the nature of our economy. Number used to count in absolute agrarian economy; the larger the family, the greater the units of production. Kids and wives were a blessing. Technology has made labour less desirable today. Farmers, whose number is dwindling, are happier with their tractors than they are with their children. Child labour, after all, is a crime, another wahala. Thus, our children today contribute literally nothing to the economy of modern households.
The third reason is the high cost of bringing up a dependent child, in terms of education, health care and so on. Education of any kind – the project of raising a skilled and behaved child to maturity – was, until recently, free through apprentice or Qur'anic school. Even in recent past, before things turned sour, western education was free and parents were begged, in this part of the country, to enrol their children in schools. Not anymore. To educate a child adequately from primary to secondary school, a parent must be prepared to spend not less than a million naira. Regretfully, the education that was recently democratised has traced its way back to its aristocratic roots, available only to the children of the upper class. Here, I agree with Darwin when he stated in The Descend of Man that those who cannot prevent poverty for their children should desist from marriage.
The fourth factor is age. Like in all other mammals, it is better for Homo sapiens to deliver children at their prime, as much as possible, when they can adequately foster and protect them.. Today, those who can afford it should better get married and complete turning out their children between the age of twenty and forty. Below twenty there are problems associated with immaturity of the couple, especially the dominant male and the marriage often breaks. Beyond forty, the bread winner is confronted with problems of economic and biological nature that are associated with age.
Should one have his last born at 40, for example, things being equal, he will be free of such responsibility at sixty, the age of retirement. So, what we should be concerned with is not our present status when a child is born but we should workout a sensible permutation of the most probable condition we will be faced with in the future when the child needs our attention most.
Bearing a child at forty has its attendant risks. Life for most would be in its declining phase thereafter. First, on the average, the father may not reach sixty before he passes away, since life expectancy is somewhere around fifty-three in this country. At sixty or sixty-five, he many not have the energy or connections to maintain the rate of economic growth that he enjoyed at his prime, in his thirties and forties.. He is also likely to be perturbed with aging associated diseases that would weaken him. He would thus have less cash to fend for his children and less attention to pay to them. At seventy, there is a consensus that he has started returning to the age of childhood, when he would require attention once more after going full cycle. At that age, a child he had earlier at 55 would be only 15 years old, somewhere in his senior secondary school! Therefore, we can assert here that beyond forty, the older the father, the lesser would be the probability that his newborns will be successful in life.
We can now understand why children born to aged parents are poorer in many respects than those he raised at his biological prime. The father, if he remains alive, hardly controls them, because he has brought them when he was slipping into the age of liability or when his time was about to expire. Often, such children are left to their young mothers, who, more often than not, are ill-prepared to shoulder the responsibility of bringing them up. The mothers, more often than not, would themselves re-marry and the children would thereby be consigned to an uncle that is already inundated with his own battalion of children.
Now, these are the implications of the advice that some of us are giving to his Eminence, the Sultan, who is already 55. Their advice defies the above natural calculus of growth and decay. A sweet sixteen is definitely not for him. From this I have concluded that His Eminence is a wise man because from his seat, he has seen what many of us cannot see using telescopes. I guess that His Eminence wants us to learn through his actions what we have failed to learn through our books and brains. This is wisdom at it its peak.
How I wish that we his followers would heed to his advice. I look around and see appalling poverty that could be prevented. Kids are growing at sub-normal rates. Parents and elders are relentlessly complaining of their bad habits. The children themselves are blaming the parents for failing to cater for them adequately – making them undesirable rebirths of the cynic, Abul Ala. People are living in overcrowded homes with parents sharing a single room with over ten children, many of them grown ups. Governments are overburdened with an ocean of youths they cannot educate properly or engage in meaningful jobs. Thugs, armed robbers, and drug addicts lurch in every nook and totter in every corner of our cities.. Yet, amidst this confusion, instead of standing up to our responsibility, we shift the blame to God by invoking Predestination. God, the culprit? Glory is to Him and exalted is He over the regretful consequences of our misconceptions and recklessness.
It is obvious that other factors, like unequal distribution of wealth, corruption and mal-administration, have also contributed to our poor state of welfare and development. That not withstanding, in this article, I have emphasized that consulting reason will substantially reduce many of our personal predicaments and improve on our welfare. No one should, therefore, accuse me of taking cover behind the Sultan and firing ballistics of family planning into the battalion of Nigerian poor. I am only concurring with his philosophy that sky-rocketing increments, on whatever axis, could be a burden.
Equally, His Eminence should not bother about his critics. I am enough a shield against them. So let him remain with his "one and only, forever and ever." Allah ja zamanin Sarki.
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