Viewpoint: Are there too many Ghanaians?

Ghanaians on the side of the road waiting to see a motorcade (2009)

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, Ghanaian writer and politician Elizabeth Ohene wonders whether less is more.

I am on record as having the deepest scepticism for any set of figures from officialdom in Ghana.

In any place where people have such total disregard for their personal individual statistics, the group figures cannot be reliable.

This is the country where less than 40% of births are registered and an even smaller number of deaths are registered.

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Nephews, nieces, people whose school fees you pay and those who spend holidays in your home for any reason all qualify to be listed as your children”

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This is the country where the number of children a person has is not a biological function.

For example, in other parts of the world, you can take an obituary notice as a reliable source of information on the details of the dead person's life: Date of birth, day he died, family that survived him.

In Ghana it does not quite work like that.

Nephews, nieces, people whose school fees you pay and those who spend holidays in your home for any reason all qualify to be listed as your children.

I therefore approach the announcement from the Ghana Statistical Services that the estimates from the 2010 census put Ghana's population at 24 million with all these hedges.

Is bigger better?

All the same I cannot help but be shocked and dismayed at the rate of population growth in this country - if the figures are correct, that is.

So far, most of the complaints I have heard claim that there has been a drastic underestimation of the numbers.

The only claim of overestimation has come from the main opposition party, NPP, which says there has been gross overestimation in the Volta Region, but seeing that region is the area of least support for the party, this complaint is not likely to gain any traction.

Ghanaian President John Atta Mills  turns on the valve at an offshore platform on 15 December 2010 Ghana's president turns a valve in December last year to start the pumping of oil

The chances are by the time the census people are done and the majority of people are satisfied, the 24 million figure will go up.

I know that there are some among us who believe that a big population makes us more important.


I remember before independence in 1957 when Ghana's population was just under five million - about a million more than Norway's was before that country discovered oil in the late 1960s.

Ghana and Norway in Figures

  • 1960 Ghana: 6.7m; Norway: 3.6m
  • 2010 Ghana: 24m; Norway: 4.9m

Today Norway remains the model for how to manage oil wealth and, as we in Ghana have been telling ourselves recently, Norway had already done all its basic infrastructure development before striking oil.

Today Norway's population is just under five million and we are 24 million and likely to be more when the final figures come in.

We blame our inability to develop more rapidly on corruption and bad governance and this is largely true.

But it seems to me that even if nobody ever stole any money from government in the past 50 years and we all worked as hard as we should, a 24-million-populated Ghana would probably still be receiving aid from Norway with its population of under five million.

Many Ghanaians seem to think a big population is something to be proud of, probably because of our cousins in Nigeria who are said to number 150 million.

But just imagine that we were talking about even 12 million people in Ghana, surely this would be a more manageable nation?

The rate of deforestation would slow down, the number of classroom blocks we require would be fewer, the amount of waste we generate would be less, the number of prophets and churches would be fewer, the noise level would be less and, who knows, there might be fewer Elizabeth Ohenes?

But I do fear this pressure to up the census figure, it might well mean our middle income status will turn out to be very short lived, and I was so beginning to enjoy it.

If you would like to comment on Elizabeth Ohene's latest column, please use the form below. A selection of views will be published.

For Ghana, read any country you choose. Resources (and consequently wealth) are finite everywhere, and population increase is not compatible with aspirations to reduce poverty. And even in the wealthier countries, the cost of keeping infrastructure up with rising populations is economically crippling.

Simon McInnes, Caterham, UK

I was going to argue that a higher population would, on the other hand, result in higher income tax revenues, but that argument died even before it left my mouth, considering that there is virtually no collection of income taxes throughout much of the continent. Regardless, a higher population DOES imply a larger - and more appealing domestic market for local and international firms; more governmental revenue from business taxes, excise duties, and tariffs; and more opportunity for technological innovation and gains in economic productivity. Population growth isn't a one - way street. Just look at our neighbours here in West Africa - Equatorial Guinea. There you have a very low population blessed with an abundant amount of oil. The country has among the highest GDP in the world, but the vast majority of its population has nothing to show for it, and is only doing as well as the Cameroonians next door.

Kevin Amirehsani,, Dschang, Cameroon

The conclusions are only partially right. Harnessing available resources in intelligent ways can be more important than population growth. Our earth currently supports about 6.9 billion human beings (US Census Bureau 2010) as well as other innumerable species of flora and fauna. Would the earth be better off if we were two billion? Before we pontificate about population vis-a-vis resources, ask the question: how come Ghana has a population problem when Monaco (1.95 sq km with 32,719 people) does not, or even The Vatican (0.44 sq km with 829 people)? Lessons continue to be learnt regarding relationships between stages of human development and birth rates. Every region with its available and expandable resources needs a certain critical mass of people to get to a level of development where conditions will not allow producing babies like rabbits.

Rbyaruha, Kampala, Uganda

It's a striking piece of work you've done but I think the bit about the "nephews, nieces, people whose school fees you pay and those who spend holidays in your home for any reason, all qualify to be listed as your children", should be seen in a cultural context. For example, Ashanti culture in Ghana does not recognise cousins, uncles and aunts .All these relatives are recognised as siblings, fathers and mothers respectively. Secondly, population figures, inaccurate as they may seem, only serve as a guide for future planning.

Ricky Obiri-Yeboah, Accra, Ghana

I honestly think the census officials either recruited incompetent people or the workers got tired at a point in time. I never took part in the census and neither did my colleagues at work. We were informed whilst at work that the officials were in the building and that they were going to come to ask questions regarding the exercise. No-one came, leaving all eight people in my office department uncounted. I wonder how credible that register is.

Nii Amarh Nathan, Accra, Ghana

A friend once said that the problem with Africa is that Africa does not know her problem. I agree with her submission because unplanned families take their toll on national, social and family development. When Dr Busia spoke of family planning in the early seventies I can still remember the insult Ghanaians poured upon him, because most Ghanaian men only produce children and leave them for the women or the government to take care of. Isn't it ridiculous that the government has to provide school children with uniforms? Where are the fathers? We must wake up and put our acts together.

Samuel Appiah, Accra, Ghana

I agree that the belief that larger populations are beneficial to our economies is one of the biggest fallacies and is one of the issues dragging our beloved continent deeper into poverty and dependency on the developed world. My country's President Museveni has been encouraging families to bear more children with a view of taking advantage of the economies of scale. This is a recipe for disaster and will further entrench us into poverty and unrest as fewer and fewer people get access to fundamental services.

Paul, Kampala, Uganda

This argument is true across the continent. The high birth rate is always considered a blessing, while we don't spare a thought to the consequences and effects of these births. Yes, corruption is a fundamental problem on the continent, high birth rate should not be ignored. The PEW Foundation recent conclusions on population in Nigeria has been giving me sleepless nights, while our leaders have not bothered to spare a thought about the socio-economic, political and security implications this will have come 2030 or before. Where will these extra population work? Will they be accommodated on trees like monkeys; as it is, health facilities are already over stretched, where they are available; our educational system have failed to accommodate the number of applicants; poverty is becoming more endemic; today, the future is bleak and getting bleaker. Except family planning is encouraged on a large scale, poverty will remain entrenched on the continent.

John Ojoye, Jos, Nigeria

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