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Nigeria’s census has always been tricky: why this must change

A census counter stops by a house 21 March 2006 in Asaba, Delta State, Nigeria
Nigeria’s last census was conducted in 2006. Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP via Getty Images

Demographic data are important for national development. They are useful in sectoral planning and should influence the direction of government priorities.

A youthful population like Nigeria requires accurate information on characteristics like the age and sex of the population and how they are distributed spatially. This is the basis of policy and planning for education, employment and health systems.

Demographic data usually come from four main sources: population censuses; specialised surveys (on health topics, for example); registration systems for vital events including births and deaths; and government’s administrative records. Census data provide the bedrock for other sources.

The quality and reliability of a nation’s demographic information is partly a reflection of the quality of the census.

All previous attempts at conducting population and housing censuses in Nigeria have been beset with challenges. These have ranged from staffing and logistical shortages to undue political interference and manipulation. Controversies and disputes have followed.

President Muhammadu Buhari has now approved N10 billion naira (about $US26m) to prepare for a new census. The funding is for demarcating enumeration areas, with the demarcation scheduled to be completed in 2021. It is therefore a good time to reflect on the past challenges in Nigeria so that the country can get it right this time. Population figures are the basis for distributing resources to sub-national governments. A consequence of an inaccurate census is that planning and programmes to use these resources aren’t based on evidence.

Past censuses were problematic

Ideally, a census should be done every 10 years, but it is difficult to sustain that in an economy like Nigeria’s. The timing requires political will and proclamation by the president. Constitutionally, it is conducted by the National Population Commission.

All previous censuses in Nigeria were conducted in an environment fraught with political interference. This was because there was an incentive to inflate population figures. As people became more aware of the importance of population size for political representation in a federal system, the census became more problematic. There was also competition within states and among communities to inflate their population so as to get more government resources.

The first census was in 1911 and covered only a small part of the country. The first nation-wide census was conducted in 1921. It suffered from inadequate staffing and the public boycotted it because they thought it would lead to higher taxes. In Southern Nigeria, the preliminary figures were adjusted upwards before the result of 8.4 million was published. The published figure for Northern Nigeria was 10.4 million.

The 1931 census was marred by tax riots and a locust invasion. The census of 1941 could not be conducted because of the Second World War.

Eventually, a census took place over 1952 and 1953 and returned a total of 30.4 million. This was taken as the benchmark for political representation in the country’s parliament in preparation for independence in 1960. The population of the Northern Region was 55.4% of the total, that of Eastern Nigeria 23.7% and that of the Western Region, including Lagos and the Mid-West, 20.9%. This gave Northern Nigeria 174 seats, Eastern Nigeria 73 and Western Nigeria (including Lagos and Mid-West) 65 seats in parliament before independence.

The first post-independence census was conducted in May 1962 by the Federal Census Office in the Ministry of Economic Development. It was better organised but the provisional figure of 45.1 million showed that the southern regions combined had a higher population than Northern Region. This was controversial particularly from political point of view.

The 1962 census was cancelled, and a recount was ordered in 1963. Its management was also removed from the Federal Office of Statistics, marking the beginning of direct political interference in the process.

A special Census Board was set up, census staff numbers increased, and more resources were provided. But at the end of the count, a population figure of 55.7 million was recorded, a difference of nearly 11 million.

This led to a slight redistribution of power in favour of Western Nigeria. Eastern Nigeria and the Mid-West lost five seats in parliament.

This reversal led to strident criticism of the 1963 results. Politico-linguistic rivalry brewed until it exploded in the civil war of 1967-70, which devastated much of the South East and started military rule in Nigeria.

The 1973 census returned a total population of 79.8 million with the North making up 64.4% which was a subject of controversy. In 1989, the National Population Commission was created by military decree to organise the 1991 census in preparation for handover to a civilian regime. The military government announced that the 1991 census figures would not be used for the upcoming elections, thereby reducing the political tension and the usual incentive to inflate population figures.

The board of the commission consisted of seven professionals who did not belong to any political party. Each member was responsible for one census zone which consisted of a mix of states. This reduced the incentive to inflate figures.

For the first time, adequate maps were produced and used for the 250,000 enumeration areas. Instruments and processes were also tested in advance.

The 1991 census published a total population of 88.5 million, much lower than projections based on the inflated 1963 census.

The most recent census in Nigeria was conducted in 2006 and was plagued by political interference from design through to implementation. The population estimate was 140 million people. The results were criticised and subject to litigation.

Next census: new approach

Planning for the next census must address critical issues. One is the need to strengthen the scientific structure of the National Population Commission. It needs a technical committee of Nigerian experts from universities and research centres at home and in the diaspora. The good news is that enumeration areas and maps are being geo-referenced and digitalised to make them more accurate.

Quality needs to be assured and verified transparently at every stage of the census processes. One option is to stagger the census across geopolitical zones within a specified time frame. Another is to do a sample census. The government must be open to the best option that can give the most accurate information and value for money. The post-enumeration survey must also be well planned. This is the scientific exercise conducted on a sample of census enumeration areas to validate census figures and compute growth rates.

Champions at national and sub-national levels could help check against political and economic manoeuvring of the census. They could include population experts, traditional and religious leaders, and civil society organisations.

Communities must be engaged through entertainment and education. And international and local monitors should be involved at every stage to ensure transparency, accountability and quality.

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