By Hassan Zaggi
Last week, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) brought together Islamic religious leaders from across the country to rub minds and get their inputs on how to harness demographic dividend for sustainable development.
Over 200 Islamic religious leaders from across the country converged at the two day forum with the theme “Harnessing Demographic Dividend (DD) for Sustainable Development of Nigeria: The Role of Muslim Religious Leaders.
The overall objectives of the forum which was put together by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Nigeria in collaboration with the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, was to enhance the capacity of religious leaders to advocate for policies and programmes towards harnessing DD in Nigeria.
In other words, the focus of the consultative forum was to get the Islamic perspective on how to attain demographic dividend in Nigeria.
Of course, because of the importance of the subject of discussion, the Forum was highly attended by revered Islamic clerics, policy makers, stakeholders in the health sector, international partners and other leaders from all states of the federation.
As expected, many stormy issues were raised, many suggestions proffered and some bitter truth were told.
Speaking, the Vice President, Prof Yomi Osinbajo, said “the engagement is timely and it is a demonstration of our collective responsibility that we share as government and as Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and actors for building a better future for our country.
“The approach to this issue is an inspired one because there is an express acknowledgement of the general and specific roles that religious leaders have to play in the development of policies and programmes.
“In playing these roles, leaders themselves need to be exposed to the prevailing policy issues- the options, the ideas to test these ideas against their own beliefs and to see and discover ways of projecting of these ideas to the various populations that influence in one way or the other.”
On his part, the Minister of Health, Isaac Adewole, noted that Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa and the 7th most populous nation in the world with an estimated population of 192 million inhabitants (NpopC 2017).
According to him, at the current annual growth rate of 3.2 percent, it is projected that Nigeria will be the 3rd most populous country in the world by 2030 and the population is expected to double by the year 2050.
The rapid population growth rate can be attributed to the high total fertility rate (TFR) of 5.8 and low modern contraceptive prevalence rate of 14% (Track20, 2018).
“Like many other African countries, Nigeria is currently in the middle of a demographic transition with fertility and mortality beginning to show a downward trend.
“This has enormous implication for the development of the continent because of the changes that it brings into the age structure of the population,” he said.
While explaining the strategies his ministry has adopted over the years to harness demographic dividend, Adewole said over the years, “the Federal Ministry of health in partnership with UNFPA has utilized a multi-pronged strategy to address the issue. These strategies include national dialogues with stakeholders including traditional and religious communities working to harness the demographic dividend; promote human rights and empowerment of women, combat gender based violence (GBV) and child marriage; and promote access to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) and family planning (FP).”
According to the minister, the approach to engage Muslim religious leaders, faith-based and community leaders to promote and facilitate the dialogue on roadmap to harnessing Nigeria’s demographic dividend, SRH and gender equality, responsible fertility and the empowerment of young people at all levels is consistent with the broader strategy to ensure Nigeria harnesses the dividend of a demographic transition.
He, therefore, reiterated hisMinistry’s unflinching commitment to support religious leaders in advancing an agenda that will facilitate the delivery of equitable and universal access to sexual and reproductive health.
This, he said, include family planning and maternal health services that help reduce preventable deaths among women and children and accelerate progress on the ICPD agenda and Sustainable Development Goals.
On his part, Regional Director, UNFPA Mr. MabingueNgom, who was represented by the UNFPARepresentative in Nigeria, Dr. Eugene Kongnyuy, emphasised the need for religious leaders to ensure that they provide conducive environment for DD by being responsive to the needs of their followers.
This, he said, they can do by advocating to all levels of government to provide the enabling environment for harnessing the DD, including policies and laws, promote DD including FP, education, employment and good governance in their summons, while respecting the tenets of their religion; support employment generation and skills acquisition programmes through their faith-based institutions (health facilities, schools, etc.) and associations and support and forge partnerships with development partners to facilitate harnessing of DD.
He, however, reiterated the commitment of the UNFPA in providing continued technical and financial support for advocacy and capacity building in order to strengthen national and sub-national capacity for DD programming.
He vows UNFPA’s commitment to partner with all religious leaders for harnessing DD, but also SDGs generally.
In what seems to be a bitter truth, Prof. Salisu Shehu of the Nigeria Supreme Council For Islamic Affairs, further reiterated, Islam takes the issue of procreation very seriously, hence, will not support what he described as “blanket and indiscriminate curtailment of procreation.”
According to him: “On the issue of demographic dividend, Islam sees demographic dividend in two perspectives. From the perspective of quantity and quality.
“From the perspective of quantity, it is the belief in Islam that the human specie should procreate. So, procreation, is something that Islam cherishes and so, Islam does not support blanket and indiscriminate curtailment of procreation.
“Your Excellency, Europe is in dilemma. Dilemma in opening its borders to immigrants and dilemma of closing its borders to immigrants because of demographic dislocation in Europe.
“When in the first quarter of the 20th century, European countries embarked on the indiscriminate curtailment of procreation, but there was a generation gap. You get older people more than the younger people, Islam does not support that.”
He, however, said: “While Islam supports procreation, it does not do that in the expense of quality.
“When we talk about quality in demographic dividend, we only talk about the biological, that is to ensure good nutrition, good health- the physical and the body.
“We talk about psycho social- how these people are educated and we don’t talk about moral and spiritual uprightness.
“That is why in fora like this, we don’t talk against the spread of sexual promiscuity in the society and seems to encourage the spread of illicit sex.
“ We propagate the condoms and other things be just indiscriminately be distributed to young people so that they go about committing illicit sexual intercourse.
“This cannot be accepted from the Islamic perspective while we talk about quality.”