The End of Plenty: Nigeria’s “Malthusian Curse”

In April 2009, one of Nigeria’s foremost journalist, Ray Ekpu of Newswatch, in an article titled, Nigeria: Paradox of Plenty wrote, “Even in the midst of the apparent opulence, there is grinding poverty and about 67 percent of Nigerians, according to the World Bank, go to bed hungry every day. Nigeria is thus a classic case of the Paradox of Plenty.” Ray Ekpu in that piece concluded, “The question is: are we ready to bite the bullet?”  My question is: are we condemned to Malthus’ curse?

The End of Plenty: Nigeria’s “Malthusian Curse” by Dr. A. Austin Yekpabo

Following the French Revolution, Thomas Robert Malthus, a mild-mannered English clergyman and mathematician, unlike many of the Enlightenment philosophers of his time who were too scatty from the success of the French Revolution to see the forest from the trees, observed that human population increases at a geometric rate, doubling every 25 years if unchecked, while agricultural production increases arithmetically, much more slowly.

Writing in his highly publicized, Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, Malthus, who gave us terms like “Malthusian collapse” and “Malthusian curse,” stated, “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.”

By advocating that population should be controlled voluntarily through birth control, abstinence, or delayed marriage – or involuntarily, through the scourges of war, famine, and disease, Malthus was derided by his peers and he even earned a nasty mention in Charles Dickens’ book, A Christmas Carol, as Ebenezer Scrooge.

For anyone who has either read the book or watched the movie, Ebenezer Scrooge is portrayed as a heartless banker who, when asked for alms said that the destitute should head for the workhouses or head for prison. And if they’d rather die than go there, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”  It is 2010 and humanity has not been able to escape the biological trap about which Malthus predicted more than 200 years ago. You might be wondering how the prediction of the Englishman, who many, erroneously, I might add, considered the “glass is half-empty” kind of a guy factors in present day Nigeria. All I ask is that you bear with me; I have a new found fascination for history, especially the history of political economy.  

In April 2009, one of Nigeria’s foremost journalist, Ray Ekpu of Newswatch, in an article titled, Nigeria: Paradox of Plenty wrote, “Even in the midst of the apparent opulence, there is grinding poverty and about 67 percent of Nigerians, according to the World Bank, go to bed hungry every day. Nigeria is thus a classic case of the Paradox of Plenty.”

Ray Ekpu was expressing his disgust, it seems,  that Nigeria, our beloved country, with all its oil wealth still did not meet the criteria to be a member of the 20 largest economies in the world; the G-20 it is called, the group that controls  80 percent of the world’s economy while the remaining 189 countries (this number varies between 189 and 195 depending on the source) “scramble for the 20 percent crumbs that fall from their table,” was how this esteemed journalist put it. Needless to say, Nigeria’s economy ranks between numbers 36 and 41 in the world depending on the source.  

One sad fact; however, is that Nigeria’s economy is over-dependent on the capital-intensive oil sector which provides 95 percent of its foreign exchange earnings and accounts for 80 percent of its budgetary revenues – a far cry from the agro-based economy that we ‘inherited’ from the British at Nigeria’s independence in 1960. 

Several international organizations have described Nigeria’s mono-economy as one that is hobbled by political instability, corruption, inadequate infrastructure and poor macroeconomic  management; an economy that our leaders, both military and civilian, despite promises by successive governments have failed to diversify since the discovery of crude oil in Nigeria shortly before our independence from British rule. Since the discovery of oil in Oloibiri in present day Bayelsa State in 1957, neither the people of the Delta region nor the more than 124 million people (Nigeria does NOT have an accurate population count because the figures are tied to representation in the national assembly and the distribution of the national wealth.

Thus, we have to rely on UN estimates! The 124 million was the UN estimate for 2003) of Africa’s biggest oil producer have seen much of the nearly $2.1 trillion (based on estimates obtained from the Central Bank of Nigeria) that Nigeria’s oil industry has made in revenues in over 50 years. Instead, the government of Nigeria and a handful of corrupt politicians and their cronies have pilfered our coffers, and left the country with a lower standard of living in 2010 than it was in 1960.

The environment has been damaged and the agricultural sector that used to account for more than 80 percent of the country’s GDP has been neglected; a country that used to export agricultural products has become a net importer of food – the consequences of our nation’s inaction will be profound. It is 2010 and the world is consuming more food than it can produce. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, “agricultural productivity growth is only one to two percent a year globally.”  

The Nigerian situation, like many countries in Sub Sahara Africa and other developing countries in the world, is worse than it is for the developed countries of the world since people in the developing countries tend to spend more than 50 percent of their income on food.  Earlier, I referred to the damage of the environment by the uncontrolled oil exploration in the country’s Delta region – a situation that has adversely affected the ecosystem. My 75 year old uncle who, to this day talks about the promise of a better life, or so he thought, when oil was discovered in the late 1950s, remembers when one could live a decent life as a fisherman.      

In the rest of the world, especially the developed world, the question many experts are grappling with is how to increase food production, but of course, Nigeria has not heard of the green revolution that is taking hold on the rest of the world. Governments the world over have recognized that to avoid Malthus’ curse, they must grow more corn, rice and wheat, instead, my country, Nigeria, whether by omission or commission has been waiting on the sideline while involuntarily, the prevalence of HIV/AIDS has continued to significantly impact the population – it is estimated that nearly 7 percent of the adult population between the ages of 18 – 50 are currently living with the virus, and the AIDS epidemic is the leading cause of infant mortality and lower life expectancy.   

When one thinks of all the problems of a country like ours, you start to wonder what leaders do. In trying to answer this age old question of what leaders do, Jeff Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, one of the corporate executives that I truly admire, listed 10 things. Two things from that list are: Personal responsibility and understand breadth, depth, and context.  

If these are some of the things that leaders do, my question is, do our leaders know what they should do for our country, for our economy, for our people?  Does personal responsibility mean anything to our religious, education, business, traditional and political leaders?  

Have we elected leaders with breadth, depth and context? Can our leaders explain in very simple terms what the country needs and how to find solutions to our problems? Based on all estimates, Nigeria’s oil reserves will be exhausted over the next 40 years if we maintain the current production level.  Even with such discouraging news, Nigeria is probably the only member of the oil exporting cartel, OPEC, that has not heeded the clarion call to diversify its economy and breakaway from its over reliance on oil. Many countries in the Middle East which had traditionally depended on oil are investing heavily in solar energy and other forms of sustainable energy.  

In all fairness, a green revolution in Nigeria today would not be anything new; I remember President Shehu Usman Shagari’s green revolution of the early 1980s that lasted but one minute! As Nigeria approaches the “end of plenty” as we have been led to believe, what are we doing to ensure that we leave the country a better place than it was for our children and grandchildren? I do not want to sound like a lone voice in the wilderness, but the many voices that have been sounding the doom and demise of our beloved country have sometimes been branded as ‘rebels’ and divisive.

When Thomas Robert Malthus warned that epidemics, pestilence and plague would control the population, there were many naysayers.  When Jean-Jacque Rousseau, although an opponent of Malthus’ theory, advocated an egalitarian society, he had many opponents and naysayers.

We all know how his writings and teachings influenced The French Revolution. It is 2010 and less than one year ago, Ray Ekpu in that piece to which I referred, concluded, “The question is: are we ready to bite the bullet?”  My question is: are we condemned to Malthus’ curse?

 Dr. A. Austin Yekpabo is a professor of Organizational Leadership and a Consultant based in USA.