African ChildA week ago, I was in the two most populous countries in Africa. Okay, I admit, I only spent a cumulative seven hours in Addis Ababa and three days in Abuja. These are the capitals of countries that together contain almost a quarter of Africa’s population.

Nigeria is a country of big and religious people, where travelling Muslims stop their cars on the roadside to pray, Christian churches are thriving, and a popular greeting reply is “We thank God.” Ethiopia, the little I saw of it, is a rugged country of ancient culture and beautiful people, and the biggest economy in East Africa.

In the last thirty years, the population of Nigeria has shot up from 70 million to 155 million and of Ethiopia from 37 million to 85 million inhabitants. Kenya’s increased from 17 million to 40 million in the same period. Should our population continue growing at the current projected rate, we will hit 85 million within the next forty years while Uganda might soar to 95 million. This undoubtedly is Africa’s population boom.

Economic planners of the mould of the 1960’s apocalyptic Paul Ehrlich are worried that the population boom is actually a bomb. That Kenya’s population is outstripping the rate of infrastructure development and provision of social services. They do not believe in an ecological and socio-economic dividend from soaring population, but have forecast economic crisis. So for them, 85 million Kenyans by 2050 is a horror. Julian Simon’s economic prescription of human innovation as the ultimate resource is beyond their grasp.

Even the evidence of thriving Ethiopian and Nigerian economies, averaging annual growth of 9 and 6.5 percent this past seven years, cannot console them. The fact is that Ethiopia, with half its current population, suffered brutally from the 1984 famine. It is gliding over the current East African drought without falling into famine. Nigeria, with half its current population, largely wasted its oil boom, causing oil gloom and doom. But currently its dwindling oil resources are triggering an economic take-off.

Economic planners in the mould of Ehrlich believe in population control, a jarring concept. The concept treats population as a hostile reality, a pest or weed, that risks getting out of hand. One can control beasts or fire but surely not people, who should be left free to make responsible choices about their family sizes.

The idea of parental autonomy and generosity in determining family size is a foreign concept to population controllers. China is their model due to its forced one-child policy. Where public compulsion is not possible, they support other state pressure being applied on families. The socio-economic cost of irreversible decline in population growth, seen in some advanced economies like Japan, is something they ignore.

There is a delightful word that can be used to respond to 21st Century ‘Paul Ehrlich’s worried about African over-population. The word is ‘serendipity’. It is one of those playful English words borrowed from foreign culture. In the Persian fairy tale, three clever princes of Serendip (Sri Lanka) make great journeys, helping passersby and solving problems as they pass along.

Serendipity means innovation, but is something more. It includes resourcefulness, but also something extra. It implies both chance and planning, both good fortune and hard work. Serendipity is the knack of the person or group to come up with good ideas that solve problems, expand capacities and transform society. The modern agrarian, industrial and information revolutions are all products of collective serendipity.

The idea of a thriving Kenya of 85 million souls in 2050 is one to be welcomed. I confess, one of my dreams is to live to see that Kenya come about. The old man Simeon, holding the babe Jesus in the biblical narrative, could rejoice and proclaim, ‘Nunc dimittis!’, ‘Now let your servant go in peace, because mine eyes have seen your salvation’. I hope that in 2050 Kenyans will likewise see a large thriving country and rejoice.

Charles Kanjama
(The author is an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya)

Adopted from with the kind permission of the author

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