De-politicizing the 2017 Census for Better Outcomes

 In Thinking Aloud

Tosin Osasona

History records that as far back as 3800 BC (nearly 6000 years ago)[1], the Babylonians counted people and livestock, as well as quantities of butter, honey, milk, wool and vegetables in preparation for war. Persians, Romans, Egyptians and other successive civilizations, eventually followed suit and even the Incas who had no written language found a way of recording information collected through censuses. Across time and civilizations, census has been a tool for fiscal, labor, social and military planning. In the middle ages, censuses were undertaken to facilitate the issuance of land grants, for taxation purposes and to provide a register of citizens and their property, from which their duties and privileges could be listed. The English Domesday survey of 1085-6, which was drawn up on the orders of King William I is an example of this.

In contemporary times, censuses remain critical sources of data and underpin planning for education, agriculture, housing, rural-urban migration, health, manpower and labor and the distribution of infrastructural facilities.  As vital tools for socio-economic planning, they are expected to be inoculated from politics. In Nigeria this principle of political immunity is confounded by the attachment of fiscal rules and revenue allocations (to states) to population numbers within states. The process therefore cannot but be influenced by political considerations. Although, censuses are executed differently around the world, the expectation is that the output numbers will conform to a high standard of accuracy. The conduct of censuses are guided by other rules which include fixed regularity; ensuring that they are undertaken simultaneously in the various locals; physical counting and effective and efficient management process by competent personnel.

Unfortunately, organizing reliable, accurate and acceptable population counts appears to have been beyond Nigeria’s organizational and political capability in the last five decades. It will not be farfetched to suggest that Nigeria’s developmental problems are inextricably intertwined with the nation’s inability to conduct a credible census. Strategic planning is central to development and one of the key determinants of success for socio-economic interventions is empirical information about factor inputs including a nation’s population and its major characteristics. Considering the heated disputations that have accompanied all post-independence censuses in Nigeria, all national post-independence socio-economic policies have been based on population data that are more of assumptions than facts. Budgeting and planning services for a population of 120 million is a rather different proposition than 180million people.

The first post-independence census in Nigeria was held in 1962 but the result was annulled because it did not meet the “undefined expectations” of the political elite. Result of the next census conducted in 1963 was adopted and placed Nigeria’s population at 55.7million.  As constitutionally prescribed, Nigeria had a population census in 1973 which showed a 44% increment in Nigeria’s population within a ten-year span. This census result was contested as being theoretically impossible, considering the prevailing birth rate and pattern of migration in the country; the results were later annulled by the government. No census was conducted in 1980’s.  The validity of the results of the 1991 and 2006 censuses were also contested by critical stakeholders.

Plans are in progress to conduct another census in 2017, this time with the stated objective of achieving a headcount and a determination of the nation’s housing stock. The 2017 census offers yet another opportunity to remedy the failures of the past and organize a process that should for the first time in Nigeria’s post-colonial experience provide a figure and population characteristics that stacks up to international standards, is acceptable to all stakeholders and fit for planning purposes. Significantly, it will be an acid test of President Buhari’s commitment to transparency and fearless integrity- an ethos captured in his statement “I belong to no one and everyone”. Beyond the President’s reputation and courage however, are issues of adequacy of resources, the capacity and competence of national agencies to conduct a credible census and the willingness of ethnic, religious and political stakeholders and interests to uphold the integrity of the process among others.

Questions should be raised on the capacity of the president and his political party to frame the narrative around the 2017 census as one of population information and data, given Nigeria’s heterogeneous and deeply fractured societies and the past history of politicization of census process. The ability of the president to disperse the toxic cloud of suspicion and distrust that has continuously pervaded the issues of census, by actively seeking the buy-in of national and sub-national stakeholders to accept the process as nothing more than a source of information for planning is central to the success of the 2017 census.

Provisions of the constitution and some pivotal laws make regional and ethnic population size important factors for political and economic status. This is so because population size remains a critical yardstick for resource allocation, appointment to public office and for determining representation in national affairs; census results have been and is still critical to the Nigerian zero sum game politics. Allegations and counter allegations of inflated figures to boost absolute populations of various ethnic groups in dogged the censuses conducted in 1962, 1963, 1973, 1991 and 2006. The controversy has grown in intensity with successive censuses.

It is also pertinent to initiate an anticipatory interrogation of how managers of the process will prevent the 2017 census from becoming another battle ground for religious and ethnic primacy which has the potential to lead to dominance. Religious and ethnic plurality is one of the realities of the Nigerian state and there is the need for accurate information of this subcomponent. The 2006 census questionnaire in a bid to sidestep some of the controversies of the past omitted questions on religion and ethnicity but this did not prevent the result of the census from being disputed by stakeholders. Will the 2017 census questionnaire include religion and ethnicity and what will be the consequences of such an inclusion or exclusion?

Census exercises across the world are expensive and complex logistical operations which require effective planning, technical competence, and a surfeit of equipment and materials. Nigeria’s economy being in recession will limit resources that can be committed to a census. Low public service salaries, most of which currently remains unpaid will have an effect on motivation and responsible agencies may be unable to take on, much less train the more than half a million ad-hoc staff that have been estimated as necessary for the process. The cascading effect of delayed release of funding or inadequate funding on the success of the process and acknowledged inefficiencies of public agencies makes the prognosis for the 2017 census very poor.

In 2006, Lagos conducted a parallel census with the national census and released figures with large variance from the national census for the State. This continues to hang ominously over the 2017 census and chafes relentlessly at legitimacy of government agencies and veracity of the census numbers.  Lagos is Nigeria’s only megacity and according to the UN, the fastest growing megacity in Africa. However, the 2006 National Population Census puts the city’s population below Kano’s at 9,013,534 while the state government published a figure close to 17.5 million. The disparity between the figures presented by the federal and the Lagos state governments is so huge (in excess of 8 million), that it undermines the very essence of the process and creates problems for users of census report for strategic planning. As it happens, a national tribunal voided the 2006 enumeration figures for Lagos mainland Local Council on the grounds that the National Population Commission did not refute allegations of non-enumeration in the Council.

It is incontrovertible that accurate demographic information is essential for planning and invariably for development and that manipulating census process ultimately undermines socio-economic development in a country. It does not therefore make economic sense to invest billions of naira in an exercise whose outcome is will be roundly rejected by stakeholders. The success of the 2017 census depends not only on the President and the managers of the census process but equally on effective management of a host of ethnic, religious and political interests in Nigeria. Interest groups and their representatives must be prepared to understand the primary rationale for the process and accept it as a tool for socio-economic planning. Until there is a national consensus on expectations on the 2017 census, it is strongly advocated that it should be suspended and the allocation for such an exercise put to better use in other programs, the national safety net being one such area of national life in desperate need of funding.




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