Given the role of data in projecting and planning the economy, the importance of next year’s population and housing census cannot be overemphasized. Like the previous headcounts before it, the biggest challenge facing the census remains the fear of politicization of the exercise by the elite. Observers believe previous censuses were marred by political interferences, which hampered the scientific processes leading to them. Deputy Political Editor RAYMOND MORDI examines the challenges that may cast dark clouds over the exercise
The National Population Commission (NPC) has an enormous task on its hands. It has another chance to produce a comprehensive database to aid national planning and development during the population and housing census scheduled for next year. President Muhammadu Buhari has given his assent for the census to hold in April. To facilitate some of the activities that will lead to the headcount, the Federal Government approved the sum of N177.33 billion for the NPC in this year’s budget.
The commission has already put in motion the process that will culminate in the census. The forthcoming census is going to be the first fully digitalized one in the country. The digital approach will change how the exercise will be conducted. This approach, according to the information posted on the NPC’s website, began with the demarcation of enumeration areas, covering the entire territorial space of the country using mobile handheld devices and geographic information systems (GIS) and satellite imageries to create the digital census map. In other words, it is going to leverage on the advancement in technology by using mobile application (app) devices. This is a major shift in census methodology because it implies a change in how data on population and housing information are to be captured.
Experts say there are three stages of the exercise: pre-census planning, census, and post-enumeration surveys. Before the census, the public is made aware, geographical enumeration areas are demarcated and maps are procured. A journalist and population communication specialist, Isaiah Abraham said preparing for a census is like getting set for war. He said the census is going to be a very highly sophisticated research that will be conducted nationwide to gather data that should provide reliable information on the population size at national, sub-national and lower administrative levels.
How ready is the NPC for the census? Its Director of Public Affairs, Isiaka Yahaya acknowledges that the NPC is facing some challenges ahead of the headcount. But, he said such challenges are not insurmountable and that the commission will tackle them before the census. Yahaya said President Buhari has given his assent for the census to take and it is scheduled to take place after the general elections in April. He said there is no such thing as a low level of awareness. He told The Nation that over 80 per cent of Nigerians are aware that the headcount is coming up next year. He attributes the NPC’s inability to commission jingles on radio and television on the census to financial constraints. He added that since the headcount is still six months away, the commission can still do something to create more awareness about the census among Nigerians.
Nevertheless, there are doubts about whether the census will hold. Indeed, there is also a low level of awareness among the populace nationwide; many Nigerians are not aware that an event of that magnitude is in the offing. The level of preparedness of the commission is also in doubt. The commission’s website has virtually no information on milestones and preparedness. Census, experts say, is a huge scientific responsibility that requires a high level of preparedness, transparency and quality assurance. Ideally, experts say it is better to conduct a census every 10 years to reflect changes in population dynamics. But, given the enormous logistics challenge of conducting a census in Nigeria, the country has not been able to do so at regular intervals. For example, the last one was in 2006. The current census has already been postponed twice in 2016 and 2018 due to several contending factors that have still not abated.
Renowned economist, Dr Ayo Teriba said it is not certain that the headcount will hold, particularly given the Buhari-led administration’s penchant for postponing similar national programmes in recent times. Dr Teriba who spoke to our reporter on the phone said: “Nobody is going to talk about the census until after the general elections. That’s number one. Two, this administration has the tendency of postponing the implementation of some important national programmes. For instance, many postponements have been associated with linking SIM (subscriber identification module) cards with each subscriber’s national identity number (NIN). Voter registrations were also postponed several times. Besides, April 2023 is just one month before the Buhari administration goes; so let’s wait and see.”
But, as Dr Teriba added, lack of awareness may not be the biggest hurdle facing next year’s census. He said: “This low level of awareness may not constitute a problem because the Nigerian government has this habit of declaring a holiday and restricting vehicular movements to conduct such exercises. So, if a holiday is declared and you cannot travel, why won’t you be counted? It’s not an optional thing; it’s mandatory. You don’t go to a census booth; the enumerators come to your house. So, you will be counted whether you are aware or not.”
Like the previous headcounts before it, the biggest challenge facing the current effort remains the fear of politicization of the exercise by the elite. Observers say the 2006 census was marred by political interference and hampered the scientific processes. Some of the most important information, on fertility, mortality, migration and disability, was not collected. Political interest in the exercise affected the composition of the population commission board, of 38 members. Those nominated to superintend over the exercise were not professionals in population or statistics but appointed mostly for political reasons. This put a lot of stress on the census activities. Thus, it could not fulfil one of its critical mandates: providing data below local government levels.
Besides, censuses have always been problematic in Nigeria over the years. The challenges range from staff and logistical shortages to undue political interference and manipulation. The censuses of 1962, 1963 and 1973 were bedevilled with controversies. They were accusations about deliberate manipulation of census figures at sub-national levels. The 1973 census provoked debate along ethnic lines. In 2006, the Lagos State government rejected the figures and ran a parallel census.
The controversy often associated with population figures has been attributed to the fact that population is the basis for distributing resources to states and local governments in the country. Observers believe that it is only when governance is decentralized by restructuring the polity that the politicization of census figures will end. From the first headcount in the 1950s to the last one in 2006, population census has always been a controversial issue in Nigeria. The country is yet to produce acceptable and satisfactory demographic data for infrastructural development and nation-building. The population of an area is often considered a political weapon because it is used for the provision of amenities, and as a guide in the allocation of resources and fiscal planning. During the colonial era, certain parts of the country, it is said, deliberately undercounted themselves because of the fear of taxation.
However, Abraham, the author of three unpublished books on population-related issues does not agree with those who claim that the results of previous censuses did not reflect the realities. He said not conducting a regular census has denied Nigeria the opportunity of knowing how population dynamics have been changing over the years. His words: “A lot of people have been saying that the results of the census we have been conducting in the past are not correct. But, people making such claims are not necessarily correct because they may not have the technical knowledge about what is involved. To validate a census, you must conduct another census. You cannot just make such a claim based on nothing. When people make such assumptions, you must interrogate them to find out why they are doing so. Being a professor in another discipline, for instance, does not make one an expert in population. People have their biases against censuses conducted in Nigeria.
“But, it is usually the viewpoints of the elite and one must not swallow them hook, line and sinker as gospel truth. Don’t forget that a census is a research work; in every research, there is always a margin of error. A population census is not an exception. The margin of error may not be enough excuse to write off the whole exercise. If censuses are conducted every 10 years, it gives one a very comfortable ground for to be able to know by what percentage population dynamics have changed in the country. This is because population dynamics are expected to change every 10 years. If no mid-census making an effort to conduct a census. This is very commendable.
“There are also topographical challenges. Some places are not readily accessible either for delineation or enumeration. Some places are not motorable, some places are on top of the water, some are located in jungles and to access them will be very difficult. These are also part of the challenges.”
Besides, one of the biggest challenges facing the current census is the worsening insecurity in all parts of the country. Enumeration officers may not be able to get to some areas. Mid-last year, the House of Representatives had called on the Federal Government to suspend next year’s census owing to the deteriorating security situation in the country. This was a sequel to a resolution passed by the lawmakers on the matter. Its Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, quoted in reports attributed to a series of tweets on the official handle of the House of Representatives, said the accuracy of the figures that would be obtained and the overall success of the exercise will largely depend on the level of security in the country. He added: “Many households would be unwilling to make family members available for enumeration because of the fear of the unknown. It would be unwise in the prevailing circumstances to post enumerators to some parts of the country currently considered volatile.”
Against the background of the insecurity in the country, the NPC chairman, Nasir Isa Kwarra has solicited the support of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) to provide security cover for personnel and materials to be deployed during the exercise. Kwarra who made the request when he visited the Commandant General of the NSCDC, Dr Ahmed Abubakar Audi at the NSCDC’s headquarters recently said the security of the personnel and materials to be deployed was vital to the successful conduct of the census.
Experts say a census is a colossal, expensive and labour-intensive statistical operation that requires extensive planning. The success of a census depends on several factors. These include technical expertise, independence from political interference, excellent geo-referenced maps, huge human and financial resources and good timing. For the present exercise, some of the pre-census activities like the enumeration area demarcation have been well implemented. For instance, in July, the NPC conducted a trial census with field works in six states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja. The states include Anambra, Bauchi, Kaduna and Imo. It was a two-week programme that was meant to assess the level of preparedness of the commission. It was aimed at evaluating all aspects of census operations before next year’s headcount.
Over the years, the lack of adequate and necessary data, among other issues, has been identified as one of the constraints to Nigeria’s development planning. The dearth of data in projecting and planning has stunted growth in the economy. Insecurity has also been worsened by data inadequacy; just as it has undermined the Buhari administration’s numerous social investment initiatives and other interventions targeted at the poor. Across sectors, poor data collection and management have robbed the country of the benefits of its enormous resources. For instance, Nigeria is believed to have a young and growing population but the lack of data such as the age, sex of the population and how they are distributed spatially has denied the country the benefits of such a population because planning is often based on projection and speculation.
Dr Teriba has advised the Nigerian government to invest in the education of its steadily growing population to be able to get benefit from its large population. “The country should also equip them with skills and the necessary tools to harness their potential for the benefit of the country,” Dr Teriba said. He added: “If you allow them to be out of school or you allow the schools to be closed for months, then they become liabilities.”
He said the “endSARS” protest was an exceptional situation. He said: “It was an aftermath of a pandemic that made people already touché; a hungry man is an angry man. Somebody who can’t go to work; who can’t earn an income and SARS was compounding the matter by provoking them. So, they told the government to put an end to SARS. Initially, it was not a protest against the government. It was because the government was adamant that made the situation change.”