The scheduling of the national and housing population census for 2018 has sparked a debate about the desirability of holding it close to 2019 elections. DARE ADEKANMBI looks at the arguments for and against the 2018 census, situating it within the context of issues in census exercises in the country.
IF the proposal of the National Population Commission (NPC) that a census exercise be conducted next year syncs with the thinking of President Muhammadu Buhari, then another national population and housing census will be observed in the country before the 2019 general election.
This will be coming two years behind schedule. Nigeria, like some other countries, had keyed into the proposal by the United Nations that a census exercise is best conducted decennially or every 10 years, although the military interregna had made census irregular. The last military-supervised census was in 1991.
Following the return of the country to civil rule, another headcount was expected in 2001. However, on account of the then civilian administration of Olusegun Obasanjo still settling down to correct the ills of the military era then, census was delayed for five years and held on March 21, 2006.
Another census, which ought to have been conducted in 2016, did not hold. Again, the inability to hold it was predicated on the administration of President Buhari just coming on board as well as the biting consequences of the recessed economy, which nearly crippled all sectors of the economy.
But, convinced of the desirability of the exercise to the country and planning for its future, the NPC has embarked on demarcation of enumeration units as part of preparations for the exercise. Its chairman, Chief Eze Duruiheoma, has disclosed that the exercise would gulp N222 billion. He has also boasted next year’s census would correct all the inadequacies of similar past exercises, particularly with the planned introduction of technology to capture the biometrics of the enumerated.
Reactions have since trailed the announcement of a national population and housing census for 2018. Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, has warned against conduct the exercise as scheduled. He said the exercise would be hijacked by politicians who would manipulate the process for political reasons, adding that the country could not afford to combine the tension of census conduct to that the build up to the 2019 elections.
“I won’t advise anyone to conduct national census in 2018. I said it before that if we are not going to achieve it in 2017, then we should just forget it until after 2019.
“If you conduct census just before the elections, there will be so much pressure, crises and a lure for people to manipulate the figures for political reasons, such that the agency cannot even cope with.
“So, it is better for a fresh administration to conduct this exercise from the beginning of that administration when we do not have any pressure of elections in sight. Then we may have something that resembles reality, but I can bet on it that if the census is conducted in 2018, the outcome will be unreliable.
“I know who we are and I know the kind of litigation, backlash and the pressure that come with this kind of exercise and we don’t need that now to be candid.
“We have so many challenges; let’s empower the agency to keep building on the blocks that it will leverage upon in the future in order to conduct the exercise but doing it in 2018, honestly, it is nothing I would advocate,” he said.
Dogara’s position resonated with a constitutional lawyer, Mike Ozekhome (SAN), who not only supported the postponement of the exercise because of its proximity to the 2019 elections, but also reasoned that there was no reason to rush through the exercise since it was already behind schedule.
“Conducting a national census in 2018, I want to state that historical revisionists, those who do not mean well for the country, will use it as a stimulant to disorganise Nigeria, so that elections do not even hold in 2019. So, I totally agree that whosoever emerges as the next president, one of the first tasks he should immediatelyembark upon is to quickly have a head count.
“If we have not done it for more than ten years, there is no reason to rush it between now and 2019, because I can assure you that serious politicking would have commenced,” the senior lawyer said.
But there is a school of thought which reasons that regardless of 2018 being a pre-election year where build up is characterised by violence and tension, conduct of headcount should ordinarily not generate any crisis if well-handled and done transparently.
Issues in Nigeria’s headcount
What is the human population figure for Nigeria? The answers this question will elicit will be probably as many responses as the letters in the sentence. Even in discourse about Nigeria, varying figures are bandied by government officials and those who are not in government. While some in such discourses put the figure at 180 million, there are others who guesstimate that Nigeria is a country of about 150, 160 or even 170 million people.
But how long will guesswork continue to be the basis upon which the number of citizens of Nigeria will be based?
The first post-Independence headcount in the country resulted in a big crisis over the credibility of the exercise. The one before it-the 1952 census-had been largely avoided by many on the suspicion that the outcome would be used to impose tax on property and individuals. But with enlightenment having grown, the citizens prepared well and showed keen interest in the 1963 exercise.
Allegations of large scale irregularities and manipulation of the outcome triggered widespread condemnation of the exercise which was held on May 13, 1962, leading to its cancellation and rescheduling for November 5-8 of the same year.
The outcome of the 2006, the last census, was no different. For instance, many queried the population figure of 9.3million given to Kano State, while Lagos, considered to be more populated, recorded 9 million figure. The Kano figure was queried on partly on the basis that, despite the creation of two states-Katsina and Jigawa-from the old Kano, the North-West state continues to be the most populous in the country.
Another criticism of the 2006 census was the assertion that there were more male citizens in the country than female citizens, a development described as a demographic aberration.
From 1866 when attempts were made at the first countrywide census exercise till 2006 when the last exercise was conducted, population figures arising from the various censuses have been subject of heated debate, with rejection trailing the outcomes in many states figures.
Census has never seized to be a vexed issue in the country because its outcome is one of the parameters to determine the size and shape of monthly federal allocations and other federally shared revenue.
When Dogara called for the postponement of the headcount to avoid its hijack by politicians, the question many asked was: who have been the known hijackers of census if not the politicians? More than anyone, politicians have been the ones manipulating the census process to either maintain the undue advantage they have got in similar exercise in the past or plot another.
This is why census figures have been dismissed as being largely ethnically tainted, a development that has fuelled distrust between the Northern and the Southern parts of the country. For instance, it is claimed that the vast expanse of land in the North is largely desert which is uninhabited. Those who hold this view, therefore, see the result that the North is more populated than the South as nothing but inflation of the actual figures.
However, Northern leaders have counter-argued that the North would continue to be more populous than the South because of certain inherent cultural and religious factors. First, population control, through family planning, has been more effective in checkmating indiscriminate population growth in the South than in the North. It is argued that men, in the North, marry more than one wife and father as many children as their wives could produce, while one-man to one-woman campaign is the order in the South.
Closely related to this is the issue of enumerating women who are in purdah and predominantly in the North. It is said that male enumerators are not allowed into such places and that incidence of multiple counting is most fertile under such situations.
Another volatile issue in the conduct of not just a national headcount, but also the political life of the country is religion. So sensitive was the issue debate over whether or not religion should be included in the census questionnaire that it was hotly debated across the country.
Etete Nyiang, lawyer, kicked against the inclusion of ethnicity and religion in the census questionnaire. “Including religion and ethnicity in the headcount and at this fragile level of politicking will cause more harm than good for the nation. It will encourage many forms of sharp practices in which these two factors will lead to inflation and desperate manipulation of figures to falsely project the numerical strength of a group. It will encourage unhealthy rivalry and competition in which each ethnic or religious group will seek to outdo one another by aiding and abetting rigging in the exercise.”
Headship of NPC
Appointment of heads of NPC has also come under sharp focus as far as the issue of census is concerned. Tongues have been wagging that the non-experts usual find their way through a maze of political connections to head NPC. Rather than making it a political appointment, it has been suggested that technocrats should be appointed as NPC chairman to not only reduce the influence of politics and politicians but also ensure that those who know the job and what is required to get it done should be saddled with the task of census conduct.
Considered against the background of health of President Buhari, it appears unlikely that a national population census will hold next year. Besides, the budget of N222billion is not captured in the 2017 budget currently being considered by the federal lawmakers. In addition, there are two governorship elections scheduled for next year in Osun and Ekiti states, just as the build up to the 2019 elections will hot up from next year. Already, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has announced dates for the elections.
But whenever the headcount is going to be held, the Federal Government has a bounden duty to, for the first time, conduct a census whose outcome will be generally accepted as credible and fair. Issues that have hampered the conduct of credible census should be addressed frontally and once and for all.
The importance of census cannot be over-emphasised, for a near accurate population figure will enable government to embark on development plans and forecast future population increase. But one critical area is for government to ensure there is adequate infrastructure in the country, especially in the rural areas to make it easy to document birth and death rates. The country can also harness from the advertised resources of the various satellites it has dispatched to the orbit. If these facilities can’t help solve some of the problems, of what use then is the billions of naira spent on them?