In 10 days’ time Nigeria will embark on one of the most important exercises in its history with the start of the 2023 census, which is supposed to let us know how many people actually reside in the geographical entity called Nigeria. While the importance of the exercise which, among others, is to provide a database on which to build population and workforce projections, and also basic data for all sectors in the country: education, housing, healthcare, population, etc. With less than two weeks to its start, the proverbial ‘Nigerian factor’ is already rearing its head.
The fact that it is taking place only weeks to the end of the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari is itself a surprise. Considering that the last exercise took place some 17 years ago, and ended in controversy with some states heading to court to challenge the population ascribed to them, one would have expected that everything possible would be done to ensure that the same fate does not befall the current exercise. By the way, the National Population Commission (NPC), which conducted the 2006 exercise, put the nation’s population at 140,431,790 with Kano and Lagos leading the way with 9,401,288 and 9,113,605 people, which prompted Lagos to contest the figures ‘allocated’ to it by the Chief Samu’ila Danko Makama-headed Commission.
Although Lagos was not the only state to contest the result, most of the critics of the exercise did so because they believed the figures were politically manipulated for financial advantages that accrue from the Federation Account to states based on population and other indices. Lagos also argued that looking at the UN Population Prospects for Lagos Urban Agglomeration which stood at 8.6 million as at 2000, how was it then possible that the population of Lagos could have been static or risen just by an insignificant, ridiculous figure of 348,000 plus, in six years? Also not left out of the protest was the then governor of Abia State, Dr Orji Uzor Kalu who contended that with the level of birth-rate, economic and human activity and population density in the country, Ni-geria should not be less than 200 million.
The governor, who is now Chief Whip of the Senate, saw the figures as laughable and politically manipulated to undermine the economic interests and political relevance of certain parts of the country, particularly the South East. Even the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja, was not left out in this protest as the authorities believed that since the movement of the federal capital to Abuja, the city had witnessed increased influx of people and subsequent population growth such that the figure of 1, 406, 239 published as its population was morally questionable. All these protests were made almost two decades ago. And after waiting so long for another exercise one would have expected the government to pull out all the stops to ensure that loopholes would be plugged so there is no room for protests this time around.
But, sadly, there is nothing to show that the nation is ready to embark on the hugely complex enumeration exercise in which enumerators are expected to traverse the length and breadth of the 923,768 sq.km that make up the 14th largest country on the African continent. Due to failure to conduct the exercise, which is universally expected to be held every 10 years, various international agencies, including the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) and even the NPC, have estimated the population to be roughly between 210 and 230 million – making Nigeria one of the most populated nations on earth.
So far, there has been no massive media campaign to sensitise citizens on the exercise, which outcome will go a long way in determining their future wellbeing in the ‘Giant of Africa.’ Only last week Dr Garba Abari, a member of the Publicity and Advocacy Committee on the 2023 National Population and Housing Census, confirmed that unlike the last exercise which lasted for a week, this edition would be for just three days. Abari, who is the Director-General, National Orientation Agency (NOA), explained that the census exercise would capture every person, household and structure for national planning and project execution purposes. On its level of preparedness, the DG assured that the nation was ready to embark on the exercise, which he described as a significant event that would aid in national planning and execution of developmental projects.
According to him, the census is absolutely important because it is for development, planning, security, infrastructure development, educational, health and other demographic considerations, all encapsulated in one. Unfortunately, we have heard such lofty promises from government officials before. Not too long ago the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Prof Mahmoud Yakubu, promised the nation heaven and earth in ensuring a free and fair election, only for millions to be let down with the way and manner the exercise went. There are presently hundreds of petitions before the various election tribunals as aggrieved parties turn to the judiciary in an effort to ‘reclaim’ their ‘mandates.’
Yakubu’s NPC counterpart, Nasir Kwarra, is also towing the same line, assuring the nation of an accurate headcount. “Over the years, the Commission has invested considerable time and resources in planning for the census by drawing from its rich institutional experience spanning two censuses and a pool of tested professionals to give the nation a truly digital and scientific census that will generate data for planning within the context of our present realities,” he said recently, adding: “The Commission has made significant progress in preparation for the census. We have completed Enumeration Area Demarcation, conducted two pre-tests and trial census, trained facilitators for the census and other preparatory activities are presently going as we speak. “These efforts have laid the groundwork to ensure that the census succeeds and is implemented according to best practices. In addition, the Commission has developed a Census Strategic Plan and Implementation Strategy detailing a whole range of activities to be carried out in the pre-census, actual census, and post-census stages.” But the rocky build-up to the census is apparent with 467 ad hoc staff of the NPC in Bauchi State taking to the streets to protest non-payment of their allowances (incidentally, INEC ad hoc staff had also protested over the same issue). On funding, the Federal Government is hoping on foreign assistance to complete the exercise. Prince Agba, the Minister of State for Budget and National Planning, had already given a sense of the national head-count’s daunting funding scope. He said that a total of N869 billion ($1.88 billion) will be required for the exercise, including post-census activities; N626 billion ($1.36 billion) for the census at $6 per capita and N243 billion ($527 million) for post-census activities up to 2025. However, beyond funding, there is the even more daunting task of ensuring the safety of the enumerators in a country where kidnapping, banditry and other forms of criminality are rife. In 10 days’ time we will all know if we will be shouting hosanna over a job well done by the NPC or gnashing our teeth over another massive let-down a la INEC!