DAKAR, Senegal -- Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has sparked intense debate by saying Nigerian families should have only the children they can afford. In remarks to the newly created National Population Commission Wednesday, the president said it may be time for “birth control legislation.”
Nigeria is Africa's most populous country with about 162 million people. The United Nations says the population could reach 400 million by 2050. That's a growth rate of 2.5 percent annually that economists say is unsustainably high for such a densely populated country plagued by poor infrastructure, poverty and unemployment.
The World Bank says a Nigerian woman has, on average, five or six children. It is not unusual for couples to have as many as 10.
President Goodluck Jonathan has called on Nigerians "to only have the number of children they can manage." Managing population growth, the president said, is essential to economic planning and the government could adopt policies aimed at curbing rapid population growth and encouraging birth control use.
The president, himself a Christian, said the topic of population control is "sensitive" in Nigeria, where people, he said, are "extremely religious" and children are seen as "God's gift to man."
His comments have sparked religious debate.
Muslim leaders say Islam only allows family planning methods to space a woman's pregnancies for health reasons, but not to control the number of children she has.
Sheikh Ibrahim Umar Ibrahim Kasuwar, a senior member of the Supreme Council of Sharia in Nigeria, says he was unhappy to hear of the president's speech. He says nowhere in the Bible or the Quran does it say that people can be discouraged from having children. He says this is not the first time Nigerian authorities have talked about such measures but what they forget is that the people they serve are loyal first to God.
He says he has three wives and 16 children and plans to have and care for as many more as God gives him.
A local Christian leader in Kaduna state, Reverend Esra'a Kafaiza, said the Bible encourages procreation, but adds that parents have a responsibility as well.
"It is not right to give birth to more children that you can able to control - how are you going to educate them and guide them and lead them to the way of God," asked Kafaiza. "
Reverend Kafaiza said population growth is not the problem in Nigeria - it's leaders are.
"The population of Nigeria cannot stop the progress of Nigeria," said Kafaiza. "If our leaders can stand on their obligations and apply the wisdom of God and the fear of God, we can make it and succeed also in Nigeria."
President Jonathan pointed to the example of China, which has a one-child policy and whose population growth has slowed sharply in recent years.
Politicians and community leaders said the government would be overstepping its bounds by attempting to regulate family size.
Sociologist at the University of Abuja Umar Kari says tradition and religious values make birth control a "hard sell" in Nigeria.
He says attempts to link a reduced birth rate with poverty reduction are met with disbelief.
"The ordinary people are not impressed," said Kari. "In their own opinion, Nigeria's major problem is not overpopulation or high rate of population increase. Rather it is the inability of the Nigerian state to properly harness the resources - mineral, natural and human resources - of the country for the benefit of the people."
Nigeria is Africa's largest oil producer. However, corruption and mismanagement mean that little of that wealth trickles down to the average person.