Census has remained a veritable mechanism through which countries around the world garner the data of their citizens for sustainable development.
Constitutionally, Nigeria’s census should be done every 10 years by the National Population Commission (NPC), but it has been difficult to sustain due to the pressures on the economy and lack of political will to follow the timeline. Oftentimes, the government might be avoiding the political, social, ethnic, and religious controversies, as well as the geopolitical mistrust and disputes that have followed headcounts in Nigeria. Since 1866, census exercises have triggered national disagreement and mistrust.
The country has organised a handful of censuses — 1871, 1896, 1901, 1911, 1921, 1952, and 1973. The census in 1973 was never accepted by the government. In 1988, the Federal Government established the National Population Commission.
The fact that Nigeria still does not have effective and reliable census data have repeatedly been bemoaned as being responsible for the country’s policy summersault and under-development.
It is probably against this backdrop that President Muhammadu Buhari, recently approved N10 billion naira (about $US26m) funding to prepare for a new census, demarcating enumeration areas scheduled to be completed in 2021.
However, the House of Representatives has kicked against conducting a population census, while urging the Federal Government to suspend the upcoming census exercise until security in the country improved.
Rep. Shehu Beji (APC-Niger) while moving a motion of urgent public importance titled “Call on the Federal Government of Nigeria to suspend the Proposed 2021 Population and Housing Census to be conducted by the National Population Commission”, lamented the state of insecurity in the country.
The lawmaker said that the current insecurity crises have displaced numerous citizens and dwellers of various communities. He added that some displaced persons had even crossed over to neighbouring countries for refuge and would not be captured if the census was conducted.
Beji said that the state of insecurity would not guarantee accuracy if the census was conducted now, especially in view of those who are under the captivity of bandits.
He argued that conducting such a census without them means infringing on their constitutional right.
The APC lawmaker added that posting enumerators or Adhoc staff to volatile areas of the nation in the name of conducting a census is irrational and is like giving them out to criminals.
According to him, past exercises were carried out in good times yet ended in controversy; therefore conducting any census in a time of insecurity may be worse.
As earlier mentioned, attempts at determining the population of Nigeria has been a very contentious issue since the first census was conducted by the British in 1866. The census in 1973 was never accepted which followed the establishment of the National Population Commission in 1988.
It was not until 1991 that another census was held with an official headcount of 88.5 million people, which was far below the 110 million that many population experts had expected. This followed with accusation and counter-accusation about falsification and inflation of figures.
After a number of postponements, the 2006 census was conducted, but it met with strong rejections by some states.
Recently, Mr Babatunde Raji Fashola, Minister of Works and Housing saddled with the responsibility of providing critical infrastructure for improved welfare of the Nigerian people, expressed frustration and palpable anger over the dearth of reliable census data for effective socio-economic planning.
It is as a result of the absence of reliable data from the NPC, that the global institutions including the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have been the most reliable suppliers of estimates and forecasts for the growth of the Nigerian economy.
Although the 1991 census was estimated at 87.5 million, World Bank posited that the number should have exceeded 120 million. The divergence of 30 million has continued to generate strong reactions till date.
Some analysts are of the opinion that lack of accurate census figures may have contributed to Nigeria’s underdevelopment. NPC has not been able to meet expectations largely because census taking has always triggered various agitations.
This is following the perception that a higher population figure is a political weapon in a diverse society like Nigeria, which translates to selectiveness in terms of demand for more local governments and states to be created from a particular tribe or region; more seats in the National Assembly, as well as more government amenities accrual. This perception may hold forte because the younger generation has absorbed this consciousness of ethnic sentiment and superiority.
While past administrations have not been able to garner the political will to undertake another census enumeration as enshrined in the Nigerian Constitution, the current administration’s quest to get the census done is on the verge of stalling by the National Assembly and spate of insecurity.
The present commission, since its inception in June 2012 has meticulously gone through the review process and now came up with strategies that are reassuring enough to deliver a successful census.
According to the NPC, the bane of previous censuses had been coverage, conflicting claims of multiple or ghost enumeration of persons, as well as non-enumeration of certain places.
It highlighted that the coverage issues, real or imaginary, distorted the outcomes of past censuses and undermined its general acceptability.
In order to nip in the bud these shortcomings, the commission is planning to conduct a biometric-based census in which the fingerprints and facial impression of respondents will be captured through the use of Electronic Data Capture Devices (EDCs).
The NPC proposes to adopt a de-facto method of enumeration in which only persons physically seen by the enumerators will be counted.
The biometric approach to the census will checkmate any tendency towards multiple enumerations of persons and make the outcome of census verifiable and auditable.
Other strategies include adopting a meticulous and scientific approach towards the Enumeration Area Demarcation (EAD) to combat the coverage issue of certain places being omitted. This involves the division of the country into small unit areas called Enumeration Areas that can be covered by a pair of enumerators.
The commission is equally using satellite imagery in order to ensure that the whole land area of the country is captured and demarcated ahead of the census exercise.
With the acquisition of satellite imagery covering the country, the whole land size of Nigeria including settlements can be seen, which would have to be accounted for after the EAD. Therefore, areas not carved into EADs can be easily identified for correction.
With all these in place, there should be a strong orientation for Nigerians not to see census as an instrument of dominance but as an instrument of sustainable development.
However, the challenge still remains. Will aggravating security challenges allow enumerators to work effectively? Will citizens in hot spots like Borno, Yobe, Zamfara, Imo, among other troubled states, have the opportunity to be adequately counted? These are vital issues that must be resolved if the planned population census must take place.