Revised politics of birth control

There has been a resurgence of debate on the adverse impact of Uganda’s rapid population growth. The focus has been on fertility and its impact on economic growth and development. The analysis so far has missed the migration and political dimensions. Uganda has become a magnet attracting many people from the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes Region whose fertility has not yet been assessed. The debate also appears to overlook the political dimension. Therefore, this article will focus on the politics of birth control to provide lessons that may be useful as Uganda develops its population policy.

The politics of birth control has evolved since the end of the Second World War largely within the context of power relations. Politics is the science and art of getting power and how to use it to improve one’s welfare, making it essentially a struggle among groups. In this struggle numbers matter: groups with large numbers have an advantage over those who do not. The numerically inferior group knows its disadvantage and tries various ways including birth control to weaken the numerically superior group.

At the global level birth control was launched after the Second World War because population in the Third World was growing faster than in the developed countries. By early 1970s the global population had ‘exploded’ from 2.5 billion to 3.7 billion over two decades. This growth took place mostly in developing countries. Developed countries expressed fear that if the population explosion is not controlled it would lead to mass starvation and global societal catastrophe. Third world governments rejected that view because it was considered a neo-colonial strategy to weaken and control Third World countries. They argued that economic and social development would take care of population growth.

In Africa birth control was introduced during colonial days mostly in countries with minority settler communities like Kenya, Namibia and South Africa because the population of blacks was growing faster than that of whites. African suspicions were heightened by horror stories coming from apartheid Namibia where birth control programs had been designed to reduce black population. Birth control injections were administered to some women immediately after child birth often without their consent or knowledge.

In the great lakes region there has been a struggle for political power since the interaction of the two ethnic groups of Bantus who originated from the Nigeria/Cameroon border and the Nilotics from Southern Sudan. The Nilotic group used its military superiority to conquer and subdue the Bantu group in spite of the latter’s numerical superiority. The minority control over majority was strengthened during colonial days through an indirect rule system thereby intensifying ethnic rivalries.

The struggle for independence was based on democracy and majority rule. Consequently the majority (commoners) won elections and formed governments in Uganda and Rwanda. The minority groups that had ruled before in Rwanda and Uganda took notice and confirmed that numbers matter in politics. Knowing they would never regain power through the democratic process because they do not have the numbers, the minority group has resorted to the use of force with foreign backing. Additionally, in Uganda a liberal policy on migration and refugees from neighboring countries is attracting many immigrants. If sustained over a long time it may change the country’s demographic dynamics to the disadvantage of the current numerically superior group. The resurgence of birth control may be seen as an additional instrument to this effort that will disproportionately affect the poor people who produce many children and happen to be commoners. Suggestions from a senior officer that Africans in Uganda must learn to live together in harmony are raising thorny issues that may have implications in the current population debate. The population in the north and east has suffered so much from the war that birth control may not be of immediate concern in their reconstruction and development process. A one-size-fits-all approach may be inappropriate.

In Rwanda, the ethnic demographic imbalance against the ruling Batutsi who are ten percent and the ruled Bahutu who are 90 percent is raising serious questions regarding Batutsi ever sustaining power indefinitely in that country. Reducing the number of Bahutu seems to have emerged as a policy option for the ruling group. The reported massacre of Bahutu since 1990 in Rwanda and since 1994 in eastern DRC is being interpreted by many as an attempt to drastically reduce Bahutu population.

In the first quarter of 2010 I visited Burundi, DRC and Rwanda and population growth and control issues came up in the discussions. Those who believe in birth control argued that unless population growth is controlled, conflict over scarce resources will intensify and undermine prospects for peace, security and development. On the other hand those who oppose birth control reason that the principal goal is to reduce drastically the population of Bahutu so that they are politically dominated forever. Ugandans at heart forum has reported stories (August 2010) about plans by Batutsi in Rwanda to even up the population of Rwanda to 50 percent Tutsi and 50 percent Hutu. Because of these differences, Rwanda parliament was unable to pass a law about birth control.

To avoid the politics of birth control, the Government of Uganda should focus on development in general and specifically the education of girls and empowerment of women so they are able to determine their reproductive behavior. Birth control facilities should be provided for voluntary access.

Foreigners and nationals involved in population programs need to pay attention to the human rights and political aspects of birth control.