Why the 2023 Population Census Must be Postponed

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By Michael Owhoko, PhD

Without prejudice to the extent of preparations, has the government genuinely evaluated the reasons for the dispute and rejection of the previous census results in Nigeria before proceeding to organise another headcount? Results of censuses conducted in 1962, 1963, 1973, 1991 and 2006 were all marred by anomalies and controversies allegedly engendered by the manipulation and falsification of figures.

Were there any lessons learnt from these disputes? So far, all contentious issues that diminished and undermined the credibility of the previous exercises, together with emerging fresh challenges, are still widespread.

Distrust induced by ethnic dominance, religious supremacy, nepotism, inappropriate political structure, dishonesty, insecurity, corruption, poverty and socio-economic uncertainty are still staring at us as monsters. The preconceived notion of increased revenue and political representation as the basis for census rather than national planning and development is another matter.

Without visible and genuine efforts at resolving these hiccups, the National Population Commission (NPC), charged with conducting the census, including collation and analysis of population data, has scheduled the 2023 population census for April, approximately a month after the 2023 general elections holding between February and March.

The National Council of State has also endorsed the exercise without a rigorous evaluation of potential exposures.

The timing is a miscalculation in the face of current realities devoid of enabling environment. The general elections and census are inflammable events that should not be scheduled close to each other.

More worrisome is the fact that nobody can predict the outcome of the 2023 general elections, which may likely spill into the census period. From the body language of youths across the country who are major victims of years of misgovernance, it may not be business as usual. So, why schedule a census under this condition?

Perhaps, if the government had painstakingly carried out a risk assessment of the timing of the elections and census within the context of Nigeria’s sociological complex configuration, both exercises would have been staggered apart by a minimum of one year. No amount of risk mitigation strategy can contain associated emotions, particularly under a government that is challenged by a trust deficit. Rather than resolve these flaws, the government is treading the same path, with an erroneous expectation of credible outcome.

In a multi-ethnic society like Nigeria, where population census is used as a basis for revenue allocation, the stakes are high, and so, citizens’ trust in the government as an unbiased umpire devoid of sectional leanings must not be in doubt.

Unfortunately, the distrust that characterised the previously failed exercises is popping up. This is evident from the recent statement of Oyo State Governor, Seyi Makinde, when he advised NPC to “Be accurate and impartial. Declare what you capture. If the population of the state is less than 15 million, it is false and inaccurate. Do your work accurately.’’

By this declaration, Makinde has stirred up the hornet’s nest and is ready to reject any figure less than 15 million for Oyo State. In the past, the Lagos State government rejected the 2006 census while the Igbo socio-cultural organization, Ohanaeze, said the exercise reduced the Igbo to a minority group, casting aspersion on the credibility of the whole exercise.

Besides, all over the world, peace is a sine qua non and a critical factor for the conduct of a successful population census. It is for this reason nations first determine its availability and, where otherwise, take appropriate measures to promote it, particularly ahead of major sensitive milestones like national headcount.

Currently, Nigeria lacks peace that is adequate to guarantee a free and fair census. Except to live in denial, the country faces unresolved multifaceted crises. Peace is not only the absence of war but also the existence of impediments to human endeavours. Human delivery capacity in Nigeria is currently at its lowest ebb.

Where is the peace when travel and movement of goods by road or rail across the country is threatened by insecurity and associated risks? Nigerians now invoke divine intervention for safe arrival at their destinations before embarking on a journey by road.

Inadequate security cover to facilitate the safe deployment of men and census materials to all nooks and crannies of the country may hinder the exercise. This also explains why NPC has not been able to demarcate enumeration areas in all the 774 local government areas in the country.

In the northern part of the country, particularly in the North East and North Central, Boko Haram, ISWAP, Fulani herdsmen, terrorists and bandits hold sway, driving fear among travellers. The southern part is also not better, as travellers hold their breath until they get to their destinations due to fear created by these groups and other criminal elements. So, how do you conduct a credible census in this situation?

Many families have been displaced from their places of abode and ancestral homes, while others take refuge in the bushes or are in Internally Displaced People (IDP) camps. Those who have not returned to their homes for fear of being killed or kidnapped have not been accounted for. Traces of these group of persons have not been established to date by relations or friends and, so, are unavailable for enumeration.

The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) recently admitted that insecurity affected data collection for field surveys. The Statistician-General of the Federation and CEO of NBS, Adeyemi Adeniran, disclosed this at a conference organized by the National Statistical Association in Keffi, Nasarawa State, where he said that enumerators were unable to access certain parts of the country for data collection due to insecurity.

With this revelation, do we need a prophet to tell us that the 2023 population census cannot be achieved?  In the absence of any hidden agenda and desperation of the government to score a political point, the NPC knows that it is difficult to achieve a reliable census figure under the current security setting, as no magic can contain insurgency in the troubled areas before the commencement of census in April 2023.

Where is the peace when the corruption of the census process is fuelled by subsisting economic, political and demographic interests? Some census officials are compromised when gathering, collating, analysing and producing data on the population.

These officials are either bribed, intimidated or coerced to inflate or allocate numbers for ethnic advantage. This has been the trend in all the censuses conducted so far in Nigeria.

Where is the peace when the credibility and capacity of the present administration under President Muhammadu Buhari to deliver on such an important project is smeared by scepticism induced by nepotism and presidential preferences, which have fragmented the country along ethnic and religious lines?  Suspicion and lack of trust among citizens have deepened more than ever before.

Where is the peace when the country’s border with the Niger Republic is opened and reinforced by the policy of issuance of visas on arrival, allegedly aimed at bloating the Fulani population in Nigeria? Illegal aliens from the Niger Republic enter the country unchecked, while others are alleged to have obtained National Identification Numbers (NINs) from the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) to qualify them as citizens, thereby giving the north undue demographic advantage over the south.

Where is the peace when there is no grass root enlightenment campaign to draw attention to the exercise?  The majority of Nigerians are unaware of a scheduled census for April next year due partly to a lack of access to electricity, internet and other communication networks. How many Nigerians can confidently affirm that their households were enumerated during the last trial census conducted by NPC ahead of the main exercise? I am sure millions of Nigerians were not aware.

Where is the peace when enumerators are constrained by poor demographic maps caused by unreliable digital technology, including geographic information system (GIS), satellite and aerial photographs, cartography and geographical positioning system (GPS), resulting in an inability to capture remote areas with difficult topography?

Where is the peace when insufficient capacity building and a dearth of qualified personnel are further constraints? NPC is currently not fully equipped with enough skilled personnel, forcing it to rely on ad-hoc and temporary personnel, including members of the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) who are inadequately trained.

Notwithstanding the United Nation’s recommendation that a census is conducted every 10 years, Nigeria is not ready for the 2023 census. Population census is a sensitive matter that must be conducted under an atmosphere of peace to achieve a credible and desired outcome.

The 2023 population census should therefore be postponed until NPC has addressed all grey areas; otherwise, the exercise will amount to waste of time and resources, including the over N200 billion budgeted for the scheme.

Dr Mike Owhoko, Lagos-based journalist and author, can be reached at www.mikeowhoko.com

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