World Population Day: Politics, intrigues keep Nigeria from knowing its true number

As World Population Day is marked the world over today, there is need for renewed focus on the decades-old contentious subject of Nigeria’s actual population.

According to the World Bank, Nigeria’s current population is estimated at 184 million. In late 2016, the Director-General of the National Population Commission (NPC), Dr Ghali Bello, revealed that Nigeria’s population was 182 million.

He asserted that the basis for the estimate was consistent with the figure of 140 million arrived at in the census of 2006, using a yearly 3.5 per cent growth rate weighed against other variables such as declining mortality rate and rising life expectancy.

Dr Ghali’s statement was expectedly greeted with disbelief and skepticism in many quarters especially following the very controversial comments made by one of his recent predecessors, Chief Festus Odumegwu. In 2013, Chief Odumegwu, while serving as Director-General of the commission had said that “No census has been credible in Nigeria since 1863. Even the one conducted in 2006 is not credible. I have the records and evidence produced by scholars and professors of repute.” Chief Odumegwu was fired following these comments by President Goodluck Jonathan owing to the national furore it generated.

The reprimand and ouster of Chief Odumegwu notwithstanding, it is difficult to argue with the fact that hardly any census conducted in Nigeria had been devoid of serious controversy. Since independence, there have been five different national censuses conducted— 1962, 1963, 1973, 1991 and 2006. Of these censuses, the 1962 and 1973 exercises were arguable the most contentious, leading to their eventual cancellation. Other censuses were not without their share of controversy involving allegations and counter-allegations of sinister motives and dubious agenda to either under-count or over-count.

Since census has so far succeeded in generating more controversy than resolving any after gulping humungous sums of money, one wonders whether there is any hope for any future credible and widely acceptable census in Nigeria.

The most recent census of 2006 was fraught with multiple points of contention. Before it was even conducted, a major sore point arose around the debate as to whether or not religion and ethnicity should be included as essential categories for determination, leading to the (majorly core) North and South-East taking direct opposite positions. While the North opposed it, the South-East supported it and each threatened boycott should their position not be sanctioned. Eventually, the position of the North was upheld much to the chagrin of the South-East.

The census was thus conducted against the backdrop of not only a long history of deep mutual suspicion and intense disagreements, but under a cloud of anxiety and distrust. When the census eventually held and its figures released, the entire population was put at 140 million. It generally came as no surprise when the historical trend of rejection, accusations and counter-accusations manifested. The real surprise came with the reverse figures involving Kano and Lagos States. Whereas the 1991 headcount had put the population of Lagos at 5.686 million and that of Kano at 5.632 million, the 2006 census revealed that Kano had a population of 9.384 million compared to the Lagos’ figure of 9.014 million. This was received with widespread disbelief and rejection in many parts of the south and prompted an official response from the Lagos State Government.

The government of Lagos State which had conducted its own state-wide census which put the population of the state at 17,553,924 dismissed the NPC result as inaccurate especially evidenced by its very low Lagos figures. It therefore approached the Census Tribunal to authorize a recount in 14 Local Councils, a prayer which was granted but whose execution is still pending.

Since census has so far succeeded in generating more controversy than resolving any after gulping humungous sums of money, one wonders whether there is any hope for any future credible and widely acceptable census in Nigeria. For now, it appears that estimates from international organizations like the World Bank and local organizations like the NPC and NBS constitute the convenient path for policymakers.

But for a country without a reliable census data upon which to base population estimates, many will remain skeptical about such estimates regardless of the organization releasing them. In any case, given the historical, economic and socio-political importance of an accurate national census, effort must be made to conduct a national census that will be deemed accurate and acceptable by stakeholders and outside watchers.

More so, since the cost has been a major issue delaying the conduct of another census, a broad financing scheme involving funding support from international organization partners and other partners, should be developed and deployed to ensure that the financial burden for an exercise of such magnitude is well distributed, hence limiting the impact on other essential expenditures.

In the meantime, for accurate national planning and policy formulation, government must rise to the challenge of finally developing an accurate and encompassing national identity database. This is a national emergency that must be approached with every sense of urgency and seriousness. All pending issues surrounding contracts with technical partners and integration of databases must be resolved as soon as possible with a view to laying the groundwork for accurate and targeted policy formulation. Nigeria cannot afford to lag behind in this digital era!

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