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Half a Billion Tanzanians?

I was one of five children, so I am in an invidious position when I write about population growth. That was quite normal at the time where I grew up, but I and my brothers and sisters have had a total of only ten children, so we’re down to replacement level in this generation. This is not happening in Tanzania.

“Women can now throw away their contraceptives,” said Tanzania’s President John Magufuli last Sunday. Secondary education is now free in the East African country, he pointed out, so children are no longer such a major expense. Tanzania needs more people, and women who don’t have more babies are just lazy.

“They do not want to work hard to feed a large family, and that is why they opt for birth control and end up with one or two children only,” Magufuli continued. “I have travelled in Europe and elsewhere and have seen the harmful effects of birth control.”

This is not really a problem in Tanzania, where the average woman has more than five children. The population has grown at a steady 3% for decades, and since independence in 1961 it has increased sixfold, from 10 million to 60 million. There is no sign of the birth-rate dropping, and the country is on course for 100 million in less than 20 years.

Yet President Magufuli thinks women should throw away their contraceptives because the country needs more people. He is not alone in this conviction. President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda (which has about the same birth-rate as Tanzania) once told me that his country could easily feed 100 million people. He called the country’s population explosion “a great resource”.

Uganda’s population at independence in 1962 was just 7 million people. It’s now 45 million, and will reach that 100 million target in about 30 years – and there is no reason to believe that it will stop there. Uganda’s birth-rate has not dropped in decades either.

The end-of century predictions for these countries if birth rates gradually drop towards replacement level, as they did in Asia and Latin America in the past 50 years, is around 300 million each. But if the birth rates don’t drop in future decades (as they have not dropped in past decades), then these two countries alone will have a billion people in 2100. That’s a very bad idea.

Tanzania and Uganda together have about twice the area of France, which has only 65 million people. They would, with a billion people, be about eight times more densely populated than France – and unlike France, the great majority of their people would still be poor. The long-term economic growth rate in both countries is about 3% and their population growth rate is exactly the same, so most people stay poor.

And still John Magufuli wants to get the birth rate up. He presumably believes that a bigger population makes a country stronger, but if that were true Tanzania would already be as powerful as France. Five or ten times its current population will make it weaker, not stronger. It will also ruin the environment and leave a lot of people hungry

Magufuli has won popularity throughout East Africa with his flamboyant campaign against corruption. He is also a thin-skinned authoritarian who had banned street protests, closed down two radio stations for “sedition”, and brought charges against at least ten people for “insulting” him on social media platforms, but a recent opinion poll in Tanzania gave him 96% support.

Hardly anybody in Tanzania sees curbing population growth as a priority, and it’s certainly not a vote-winner. Indeed, this is true for sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, and those who point out that it really is a problem that could ruin the continent’s future are frequently accused of neo-colonial or racist attitudes. But there are a few bright spots, and one of them is on the other side of Africa, in Ghana.

Ghana’s population was 5 million at independence in 1957; now it’s 30 million. But with great effort it has now got its ‘total fertility’ down to four children per woman, and if the birth rate continues to fall the prediction is for ‘only’ 73 million people at the end of the century. Dr Leticia Adelaide Appiah thinks this is still too many.

Dr Appiah is the Executive Director of Ghana’s National Population Council, and a very brave woman. She has proposed that women should be restricted to having three children, and denied access to free government services if they exceed that number. It’s a long way short of China’s one-child-per-family policy (now abandoned), but at least it addresses the problem.

She has faced a storm of criticism for her proposal (almost all of it from men), but she has stood her ground. There is little prospect that Ghana will actually adopt such a policy in the immediate future, but Africa needs more women like her. Urgently.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 10. (“Tanzania…poor”; and “Magufuli…support”)

The United States of Africa

3 July 2007

The United States of Africa

By Gwynne Dyer

“Before you put a roof on a house, you need to build the foundations,” South African President Thabo Mbeki reportedly told diplomats at the summit meeting of the African Union in Ghana last weekend. Others were just as quick to ridicule the summit’s declared goal of creating a unified African government by 2015, and it certainly isn’t going to happen fast. It may never happen at all — but it might, and it would be a very good idea.

“The emergence of such a mighty stabilising force in this strife-torn world should be regarded…not as a shadowy dream of a visionary,” declared Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of independent Ghana, almost half a century ago, “but as a practical proposition which the peoples of Africa can and should translate into reality….We must act now. Tomorrow may be too late.”

Nkrumah was pleading for a pan-African government instead of the jigsaw-puzzle of ex-colonies that came into existence as the European imperial powers left Africa. He was asking for the Moon: the independence struggle was waged within the borders of each colony, and the leaders who emerged had their power bases within those borders. Wider unity would have dethroned most of those leaders, so it did not happen. But now the unity project is back.

The African Union was created five years ago out of the wreckage of the discredited Organisation of African Unity with the goal of making Africa’s rulers accountable. Now it is trying to revive the project for real African unity, and there is no shortage of Africans who argue that it is merely a distraction from urgent and concrete problems like Darfur and Zimbabwe. Maybe they are right, but what if those crises are just symptoms of a deeper African problem?

At the time most African countries gained their independence in the 1960s, they had higher average incomes and better public services than most Asian countries. Kenyans lived better than Malaysians; people in the Ivory Coast were richer than South Koreans; Zimbabweans were healthier, longer-lived and better-educated than Chinese. And there were more and worse wars in Asia than in Africa.

Now it’s all dramatically the other way round, but why? Individual Africans are no less intelligent, hard-working or ambitious than individual Asians, so the answer must lie in the system. And the most striking characteristic of that system is the sheer number of independent states within Africa: fifty-three of them, in a continent that has fewer people than either India or China.

This is where the discussion usually veers off into a condemnation of the arbitrary borders drawn by the old colonial powers, which paid little heed to the ethnic ties of the people within them, but that is not the point at all. The point is that at least half of the fifty-three African countries have greater ethnic diversity within their borders than all of China. A few, like Nigeria, approach India in the sheer range and diversity of their languages, religions and ethnic identities.

You CANNOT draw rational borders for Africa that give each ethnic group its own homeland. Even if you refused that privilege to groups of less than half a million people, you’d end up with over 200 countries. So the old Organisation of African Unity decreed that the colonial borders must remain untouchable, because the only alternative seemed to be several generations of separatist ethnic wars.

The problem is that quite a few of the separatist ethnic wars happened anyway, and many other African countries, to avoid that fate, became tyrannies where a “big man” from one of the dominant ethnic groups ruled over the rest by a combination of patronage and violence. Time was wasted, lives were lost, and things went backwards. It was nobody’s fault, but Africa needs to change this system.

There are over two hundred ethnic groups in Africa that have over half a million people, and NONE (except the Arabs of North Africa) that amount to even five percent of the continent’s population. Only three languages — Mandarin Chinese, Hindi and Japanese — account for half the population of Asia. Even in Europe, eight languages account for 75 percent of the continent’s population. Africa is different, and maybe the national state (or, rather, the pseudo-national state) is not the answer there.

The African federalists imagine a solution that jumps right over that problem: a single African Union modelled on the European Union, but where no ethnic group is even five percent of the population. Then politics stops being a zero-sum ethnic competition (at least in theory) and starts being about the general welfare. And also, in theory, the continent starts to fulfil its potential.

We will all be a good deal older before the African Union, or whatever it will eventually be called, becomes more than a dream, but in the end it may. As Alpha Oumar Konare, former president of Mali and head of the African Union, said at the start of the summit: “The battle for the United States of Africa is the only one worth fighting for this generation — the only one that can provide the answers to the thousand-and-one problems faced by the populations of Africa.”


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 3. (“The emergence…back”)

New Democracies

22 September 2004

New Democracies

By Gwynne Dyer

Vote for “the prettiest candidate,” said Indonesia’s President Megawati Sukarnoputri as the election campaign got underway, and the voters took her at her word. On 20 September, they voted overwhelmingly for her former chief security minister, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who is no beauty – but then, neither is she, and at least he sings very nicely. None of his campaign rallies was complete without a rendition of “Rainbow in Your Eyes” by the former four-star general and his wife, Kristiani Herrawati. The voters loved it.

Mr Yudhoyono is actually quite a serious man who was seen by his army colleagues as efficient and incorruptible, but even his closest adviser, Muhammad Lutfi, admitted: “This election is not about policy. This is a popularity contest so we sell (him) like a brand image.” It’s enough to give you doubts about the future of Indonesia’s new democracy.

It’s not just Indonesia. There has been an avalanche of new democracies in the past twenty years, and there are doubts about the quality of democracy in a lot of them. At the same time, many people in these countries have become nostalgic for the sheer stability of the old regimes: in a poll conducted by the Asia Foundation last December, 53 percent of Indonesians agreed with the statement: “We need a strong leader like Suharto (the former dictator, overthrown in 1998)…even if it reduces rights and freedoms.”

East Germans who miss the threadbare economic security they had in their part of the old divided Germany; Filipinos who elected an ignorant and corrupt former movie star as president because he played heroic roles in movies; South Africans who blame the huge crime rate on their post-apartheid freedoms: the new democracies of the world are full of people who are not too sure that it was all such a good idea. Was it?

The United Nations Development Programme has calculated that eighty-one countries moved towards democracy in the 1980s and 1990s, and that by 2002 one hundred and forty of the world’s almost two hundred independent nations had held multi-party elections. The old-fashioned tyrannies are a dwindling minority, and this year will see more free elections than ever before: 110 of them, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

Six hundred and fifty million Indian voters; 450 million in the European Union; 166 million in the United States; 153 million in Indonesia; 109 million in Russia; and hundreds of millions more in countries ranging from Australia and Canada to Taiwan and Ghana: at least a third of the adult members of the human race will be asked to vote in an election this year, and most of them will actually do so. The only really big countries where elections either don’t happen at all or have no discernible impact on who runs the place are China and Pakistan.

Only thirty years ago, the only real democracies in Asia were India, Sri Lanka and Japan, and there were only about a dozen in Europe. The last genuine democracies in Latin America were foundering under a new wave of military coups, and the Middle East and Africa were practically democracy-free. It has been an astonishingly rapid transformation — which may explain why people seem so ungrateful for their liberation.

Most of the world’s democracies are new, and many are still suffering from the economic upheavals that accompanied the process of democratisation. The voters are inexperienced, so demagoguery works better than in the older democracies (not that it doesn’t often work in those countries, too). There is also the disillusionment that comes when people realise that changing the political system does not solve all the country’s problems. It just changes our way of dealing with them, hopefully for the better, but it’s bound to take some time for the benefits to become apparent.

When a society opts for democracy, it is betting that the collective wisdom of the majority is superior to the judgement of any single powerful individual or group. That is almost certainly true in the long run, but it can be quite wrong in the short run. On the other hand, the kind of individuals who rise to power in tyrannies are even more prone to catastrophic errors of judgement.

Take Indonesia. The thirty-year Suharto dictatorship, covering most of the country’s independent history, delivered economic growth but siphoned off most of the profits for the benefit of a narrow elite of the dictator’s cronies and collaborators. The three presidents who have governed the country in the six years since Suharto’s overthrow, chosen by a parliament where interest groups that were powerful under the old regime still had much influence, were disastrous in different ways, but all were incapable of addressing Indonesia’s problems effectively.

By contrast, in the first election where Indonesians were allowed to vote for a president directly, they have rejected the do-nothing incumbent, Megawati Sukarnoputri, the not very bright daughter of independence hero Sukarno, and also the man who was tipped as her successor, indicted war criminal General Wiranto, in favour of the plodding sincerity, dogged honesty and fine singing voice of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The popular wisdom may not be all that sophisticated, but it probably isn’t wrong, either.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 6. (“East…it”; and “Six…Pakistan”)