A man leaves with his children on a motocycle after attending the Eid al-Fitr prayers at Kofa Mata praying ground, to mark the end of holy month of Ramadan, in Nigeria's northern city of Kano, July 6, 2016.REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye - RTX2JYIO
The fertility rate in Zamfara state is 8.4 children per woman © Reuters

Lawali Audu, a Nigerian primary school teacher, is proud to have had “as many children as possible”. He has 18 with three wives.

Explaining that he sees his large family as part of his contribution to society, Mr Adu hopes his children will give back to the community. But he also has a practical rationale: he believes his children will guarantee him a comfortable future.

“When I get old, I know they will take care of me,” says Mr Audu, who is in his mid-40s.

The size of his family is an extreme case, but such sentiments are common in Gusau, a city in the north-west Nigerian state of Zamfara, where the fertility rate equates to an average 8.4 children per woman. The statistic highlights one of Africa’s most pressing issues: whether the continent’s population expansion will be a demographic dividend or a disaster.

Two years ago, the rapid growth of Africa’s — and Nigeria’s — population was touted as one of the attractions drawing investors and multinationals to the continent. With the number of Africans forecast to double to 2bn by 2050, chief executives and economists talked up the potential of an aspirant, youthful populace wanting to open bank accounts, buy the latest smartphone and splurge on consumer goods.

But the fall in commodity prices and resulting economic slowdown in many nations has refocused attention on the risks associated with a swelling youthful population, which is jobless, trapped in poverty and frustrated.

“Our people are an asset but we have to have the wherewithal to invest in them — without that, it’s a tragedy,” says a Nigerian government minister who did not want to be named. “It’s frightening.”

Africa’s population is growing at 2.6 per cent, while birth rates are slowing or stabilising in most parts of the world. But its economic growth has dipped to its lowest pace in more than two decades, with the World Bank forecasting that gross domestic product will expand by 1.6 per cent this year.

“The doubling of the population in 30 years points to enormous challenges — for productivity, for food production, for health provision, for education,” says Kevin Watkins, head of Save the Children UK. “Governments are not rising to the challenge, either in terms of provisioning or in terms of accelerating the demographic transition [with policies to lower birth rates].”

Children in a primary school in Bungudu, Zamfara state. Schools in parts of Nigeria are at a breaking point Credit © Maggie Fick

Youth unemployment is widespread across the region, with many young people idle or in part-time work in the informal sector. The continent will have the world’s largest working-age population by 2034, according to McKinsey.

The consultant group said in a report last month that African markets still have huge opportunities for growth driven by their demography, in particular its status as the fastest urbanising region.

“To benefit from this, African governments and the private sector urgently need to work together,” says Acha Leke, a director at McKinsey, adding that job creation will be critical. “Clear policies are needed to ensure that industrialisation takes off, that youth are equipped with the right skills to create the jobs needed and that entrepreneurs are enabled.”

In Nigeria, the continent’s most populous nation, demographic pressures are already being felt as nearly 200m people push the country’s rundown roads, schools and hospitals to breaking point.

The government plans to spend billions of dollars on infrastructure to boost growth but is struggling to fill a $11bn budget gap with the country in recession.

In Gusau, barefoot children clutching plastic begging bowls roam the streets fighting over food scraps. But civil servants, subsistence farmers and professionals still see it as an obligation to have many children.

Yahya Abdullahi, an economics professor at the university, says most of his colleagues have large, polygamous families.

“They have their head in the sand about the impact of this, yet they criticise me,” he says, explaining that he has just four children and one wife.

Apart from the financial constraints, cultural norms hold sway in the conservative north, a predominantly Muslim region where poverty and high unemployment are cited as factors behind the rise of Boko Haram, the jihadist group.

In the poorest northern states, the fertility rate is twice that in more prosperous southern ones.

In Lagos, the commercial capital, the average is 4.1, less than half the average in Zamfara state, according to a 2013 US government-funded survey.

“People still do not see the connection between being poor and having four wives, 14 kids and a limited plot of land and resources,” says Lamido Sanusi, emir of the northern state of Kano.

Maryam Ibrahim, a director at Zamfara state’s education board, says Islamic clerics in the north bear responsibility for not clarifying the precept that “God will provide”.

“It does not mean that poor people should bring children in to the world that they cannot feed,” she says. But it is a sensitive topic.

Abdul’aziz Abubakar Yari, governor of Zamfara, acknowledges that “the way we are going, we are bound to have a problem”, adding that education is critical to changing mindsets.

Yet for the governor to speak out in favour of smaller families would be “political suicide”. “I would be stoned,” he says.

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