During his official visit to Nigeria last week, President Emmanuel Macron did not shy away from raising a particularly thorny topic. The African continent as a whole, the French leader told his audience in Lagos, is afflicted by a massive rate of population growth that is already spilling over abroad with hugely destabilising consequences. Things will get much worse, he continued, because the population of Nigeria, which has a birth rate of ‘seven, eight children’ per family, is expected to double over the next twenty years. African states, he concluded, ‘must’ do something to control and contain such growth.
We should be hugely grateful for such candour. Mr Macron has shown a willingness to raise a topic that a good many Western leaders are reluctant to even mention. If they do raise it at all, then they barely even dip a toe into what they regard as a minefield. And media reports about the causes of mass migration typically refer to ‘war and poverty’ as the key driving forces behind the migration crisis but make no reference to demographic pressures.
This is because the issue touches all manner of sensitivities, not least the rights of women to choose how many children they have, and the allegedly ‘eugenicist’ and racialistic approach of Western governments – ‘the white man’ – towards their counterparts in the developing world, particularly sub-Saharan Africa.
Because many people are afraid of provoking a hostile reaction, from within African states or back home, this vital issue simply does not get the attention it merits. Yet anyone who is aware of the terrifying demographic statistics, as well as the reality of living in a country with such a rapidly growing population that consistently outstrips natural resources, would know that we cannot afford to be silent about the issue. Without tackling it, we cannot hope to tackle the migration crisis, into Europe’s borders, at its very source, as well as poverty elsewhere.
The world needs to be hugely grateful to Mr Macron for taking this issue centre stage- and doing so with such a different tone from other Western representatives. Compare and contrast these approaches. Back in March, Britain’s ambassador to Nigeria, Paul Arkwright, commendably
highlighted the importance of the issue to a private audience. ‘There is a scenario of demographic disaster’, he told his private audience. But his conclusion was distinctly underwhelming: ‘I think this issue of demography should be looked at’, he gently told his listeners.
Consider, too, a speech that the British minister for Africa, Harriett Baldwin, made in London last month. She seemed reluctant to even portray massive demographic growth in negative terms: the fact that ‘by 2050 the population of Africa is expected to reach 2.5 billion people’, she argued,’ is a both a great opportunity and a great challenge’. She added that the UK could help to meet this ‘challenge’ by helping Nigeria and other countries to boost their economies and promote ‘jobs and opportunities’. Not only that, she continued, but Britain wanted to promote family planning to help African women ‘to choose when they have children’. This was because ‘we know about the wider societal benefits of empowering women to take control of their life and health choices’. Engendering enormous families and a massive population boom, in other words, is a matter of ‘choice’.
But Macron’s imperative tone contrasts profoundly with this wishy-washy ‘do-as-you-want’ and ‘let’s-be-aware-and-look-at-it-further’ approach. Ever since he came to power, he has displayed an admirable willingness not only to raise the topic but make it clear that something dramatic has to be done at once. It isn’t a matter of ‘choice’, let alone about ‘female empowerment’.
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For example, speaking in Cape Town a year ago, he argued that subsidising Africa with ‘simple money transfers’ would be futile if those countries ‘still have seven or eight children per woman’. And referring to ‘civilisational’ problems that afflict the entire continent, it was plain that he did not mind ruffling feathers. More recently, he has called Africa’s demography a ‘bombshell’, while commending a recent book, Stephen Smith’s The Rush to Europe, that looks at these demographics in detail and argues that they are the key driving force behind the migration crisis.
Let us hope that other leaders, within Africa as well as across the world, echo Macron’s admirable tone and translate their words into effective action.
RT Howard is the author of five books on international relations, most recently ‘Power and Glory: France’s Secret Wars with Britain and America 1945-2016‘