Tuesday 6 October 2020

Demographic Dividends Through Communication

Ramatu Ada Ochekliye presented this paper at the 7th Nigerian Annual Population Lecture Series that happened in Abuja in 2019. The theme of the series was ‘Nigeria’s Population Issues: Harnessing 21st Century Innovations to Achieve Demographic Dividends’.


In 1758 when Carl Linnaeus introduced the term, Homo sapiens, and the rest of the world accepted it as the only human species still in existence, the ‘most advanced of the lot’, the ‘wise man’, he probably didn’t know that a new species of humans were on their way to becoming the extant species. Granted, it took a couple of centuries before this new species came into existence. And unlike the Homo sapiens that were erect, with a skull rounded at the back of their head to denote a reduction in neck muscles and straight fingers, this new species was slightly bent over, with elongated necks and crooked fingers. These new species are…you. 

Today, it is very common place to see most people bent over their mobile devices, scouring the internet for the latest news, juiciest stories, salacious gossip or just to share their day with their significant other, their family, friends, acquaintances or people they want to – and I hope you pardon me for doing this – shoot their shot with. All of this is made possible by the internet, and its loudest child, social media.

Social media is the most commonly used mode of communication in the world’s fourth industrial revolution today.  It is a sure-fire way to reach millions – and dare I say, billions – of people at the very same time. It is also very intimate, allowing you to be ensconced in a different world with just one person. 

I have a theory for why social media is such a powerful, albeit addictive tool, for communication. But to really explain it, we have to go all the way back to the first industrial revolution.

It was a time when mechanization had just begun to gain grounds in agriculture, extraction, and transportation. Granted, a lot of these weren't happening in Africa or even Nigeria; in fact, we were on our way to decades of colonization. But there is a link that brings us to the Nigeria that we have today. So back to my story. The first industrial revolution saw an acceleration in human and economic exchanges. However, there was a gap that was still missing; communication. People could only communicate with each other either by being in the same space as each other, writing letters, or sending out emissaries (what we would call town criers). 

The second revolution brought on bigger gains in industrialization across many parts of Europe, helping them solidify the gains they made prior to colonizing many countries, and setting them as world powers. During this period which ran between the late 1800s and early 1990s, the telegraph and the telephone were invented, making long distance communication a bit easier. And the era of the newspaper was born. Communication with individuals and groups of people never seemed easier. You could walk to any phone booth and call anyone or just pick up a newspaper to find out what was happening. But as good as this was, it still presented basic communication with many constraints. 

Then the third revolution brought on the rise of electronics with transistors and microprocessors, telecommunication and the invention of computers and maybe, birthed the digital revolution that began in the middle of the 20th century. Radios, television...big opportunities to reach millions of people at the same time. Think NTA Network news where we all watched the most recent happenings in the country at 9pm daily, or the Presidential broadcast on Radio Nigeria on Workers and Independence Days yearly. But interpersonal communication still posed a problem. It had similar constraints like the first industrial revolution and if you didn't have call units or a phone at home, you couldn't make calls to people. Thankfully, there was another option that continued to remain relevant through all these; the letter. We still wrote to friends and families and – even pen pals that were total strangers – with our ‘golden pens from our golden baskets of love’ and responded with a ‘doxology’.

And finally, we came to the fourth industrial revolution and the internet was invented. This was a major game changer for everything, but especially for how communication began to happen. Everything was faster, easier, relatively cheaper, more private yet, more able to reach even more people at the very same time. The birth of chat sites – think Yahoo messenger – revolutionized the entire way people interacted. Now, you could talk to different people from different parts of the world at the click of a keyboard. And as cyber caf├ęs began to take over every street, access to people became even easier. Then the mobile phone was created, and all that information and interaction was brought to the tips of our fingers.

So, my theory about human’s addiction to social media is not necessarily about the platforms but a salient need to communicate with people, to see and be seen, and to feel a connection to life that transcends ours.

What then is the correlation between Nigeria, the industrial revolutions and social media today?

Well, for starters...Nigeria really didn't take off with the revolutions because one, Nigeria didn't even exist as a nation during the first revolution; two, it was a collection of colonies in the second revolution; three, it gained independence as the third revolution began to give way to the fourth; and four, Nigeria is trying to catch up with the rest of the world in terms of technological advancements. What is clear however is that Nigeria picked the aspects of communication that came with each revolution and adopted it quickly. Our town criers gave way to traditional media which is gradually giving way to new media and with an estimated 15 - 20 million active users of the internet in the country, communication using social media is at its highest in Nigeria today; especially among young people.

A big problem however begins to unfold. Nigeria's population is on a sharp rise, with national population sources estimating the population at around 190 million and international sources estimating the population to be closer to 201 million. The median age is 17.9 years. Without a proper census, it is nearly impossible to get a clear figure but what is clear is this: women have an average of 5.3 children according to Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey conducted in 2018. With women marrying at a median age of 19.1 and having their first births within a year of marriage, it is impossible for Nigeria's population not to explode. In fact, it is estimated that Nigeria would reach a population of around 500 million by 2050. 

Looking at just these numbers, this is great. It speaks of a human strength and capacity that cannot just improve the nation but cause a ripple effect of development for neighboring countries, the continent and the rest of the world. Think of China and how they are using their population to advance technology, or India, medicine. But Nigeria is mired in many problems that prevent us from achieving these demographic dividends: education and access to healthcare that needs to be improved on; a restive youth population with many unemployed; the recent security challenges affecting different parts of the country among other issues.

So, when you bring social media, a mostly young, inadequately educated and unemployed youth population, and the poverty indices of Nigeria, you have a ticking clock on a very potentially destructive bomb. It is not surprising that many young people have used this same communication channel to don a life of crime, like internet fraud commonly called ‘yahoo yahoo’. But a bigger problem lies in front of us; and that is the spread of fake news and falsities...and this doesn't just lie on young people.

Remember when many Nigerians panicked because the Ebola virus was about to ‘cross the bridge’ closest to them and infect them? The resulting salt baths and skin care routine to keep the virus at bay? Or most recently, the alleged wedding of the President of Nigeria? These messages were spread via social media, becoming viral news items that even today, many continue to believe.

But social media isn't all bad. In fact, there are more pros to using these platforms than there are cons. 

Think of Rwanda. I have never been, but it is atop my bucket list of countries to visit in my Afrocentric tour of the world. People who have been have said that it looks like 1980s Nigeria. To me, that is fine. What matters to me is, are citizens given equal opportunities to access quality education and healthcare? Is there a move towards more inclusion of women and young people in all spheres of development? Do the citizens feel safe and trust that their government has their best interest at heart? And from all the things we see on social media, the answers to these questions are yes, yes and a resounding yes. Rwanda doesn't have to look like Times Square in New York City to be said to be developed. It just needs to ensure that its economy grows as a result of the change in its age structure due to a reduction in fertility and mortality rates and the provision of basic infrastructure – physical and mental – for development.

Which is why I am worried about the government's plan to regulate social media. The first thing worthy of note is that, by planning this regulation, the government will be regulating their own opportunities to improve Nigeria's demographic dividends. Let me sidestep a bit. When Instagram has a new update, they send a story to their over one billion users to announce the update. And while SMS are not necessarily social media, the government got the general idea when they sent out messages during the elections to every Nigerian urging them to be peaceful at the polls. 

What was the overarching goal? Reaching millions of people at the same time with one message. Imagine a situation where the government sends messages via social media about its policies on health, education, security. Imagine social media campaigns where the government explains why spacing pregnancies for at least two years is beneficial to fathers, mothers and their children. Again, imagine a message sent to all Nigerians asking if they have had their Yellow fever vaccines to curb an outbreak, or if they know about the housing scheme the government is deploying for working Nigerians, or even a simple, 'Dial 112 for emergencies'

I want to say Nigeria is a great country but right now, that is an aspirational statement. Nigeria has the potential to increase its working population in comparison to its dependents, thereby improving the economy and general wellbeing of its people. This is what would make Nigeria a truly great country. This potential is directly proportional to the education its citizens get concerning all aspects of life. The government has the potential to switch things around by facilitating the provision of this education and they can do it in small bits through social media. Again, I need to reiterate that regulating social media may work to curb the spread of fake news and the rampart cases of internet fraud but it also serves to regulate the government's opportunities to get Nigerians, especially young people, on its economic recovery and growth plan geared towards changing  Nigeria's narrative. 

Few things empower (or destroy) a person like the information in their hands. Today, that information is literally in our hands. How are we going to use it to rewrite the Nigerian story?

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