Olurode: We need a new orientation to conduct successful census

By Kikilola Oyebola   |   28 May 2017   |   4:34 am  


Lai Olurode, Sociology Professor at the University of Lagos and a former National Commissioner of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) told KIKELOLA OYEBOLA why accurate headcount is difficult in Nigeria.

Why can’t we conduct a census before 2019 elections?
I think it makes sense not to simultaneously embark on two major projects, such as the census and the election into the National Assembly, a presidential election and state houses of Assembly and electing majority of governors. This is because the census of a nation involves the entirety of the population of that country. It is a massive project and in terms of geography, the landscape of this country, it is going to task all our resources. We need a lot of funding to be able to carry out the exercise, as well as doing recruitment of audit personnel on a large scale. So, it will not be advisable to do it at the same time we are mobilising resources to do elections.

I think I agree with Dogara’s position. The economy is very bleak; it is not a robust economy, where a quarter of the budget is expended on servicing debt. And it is not really good for us to rely on the philanthropy of international development partners to do such major and sensitive projects as census and election.

Did we make good use of past census?
We haven’t made any good use of past census because everything is highly politicised, which is one of the reasons we might not be able to have an accurate census. We actually do not approach census from the point of view of statistical imperative, which is to provide statistics to guide development processes: the number of people that are ageing and will be catered for; the active population and the population that need employment and those that will be going to school, and so on. Census is meant to guide the regime of development, but because of its polticised nature, each community will be jostling to make higher returns.

For instance, if a community had recorded A+ in previous census, it wouldn’t want to score anything less. If possible, it would even want to record higher figures. It becomes a kind of competition, with states competing with themselves. The same applies to communities and so on. You can see Lagos and Kano States competing to make returns and it is not really a good guide for development practices. In the process, we face a lot of conundrum regarding how really we can go about it. They are talking of use of satellite imageries, maybe that might be able to address the issue. But again, they will return the figures to politicians, who will subject them to all kind of scrutiny: Is it politically acceptable? The South-south is said to have more people than the north central, northeast, etc.

It is so politicised because it is highly tied to revenue, and everybody wants to get as much as possible from the so-called national cake, if the national cake is still the correct epitaph.

When will it be possible to have an acceptable and accurate census that is devoid of past controversies?
First of all, I think there has to be continuous census education of citizens, which will enable them appreciate the scientific nature of census. It is really an exercise that is just to guide and give an idea of how to implement development programmes. For instance, Scientifically speaking, schools should be established in areas where there are more children of school age, and who are willing to go to school. But to build schools based on falsified figures, to build schools where there are no children to attend or establish hospital facilities in places where population of the elderly has been falsified, results in a waste of resources, as there will be no patronage. We need to know that social indicators are very important to expending our national resources wisely. So, there is need to depoliticise and stop seeing census returns as competition between states and communities.

Secondly, for us to have figures that are close to the ideal, census should not just confer benefit, but it should be made to also confer a kind of burden. For instance, if a particular state or region claims to have certain number of people of 18 years and above, then we should expect more returns from that place in terms of tax. So, it shouldn’t just be about how much states or regions are collecting from the centre.

This, in a way, calls for a different regime of revenue allocation, so that a community that is taking is also made to make returns. It should be a two-way affair of reciprocal relationship. So, it is not a case of the more people you have, the higher resources you get from the centre. In fact, it can even turn out to be that because you are more, you may not need resources from the centre. Since you have more people that can generate more resources, the centre will only support you to put those people to work, so that after a while, you can become virtually independent of the centre.

But it is going to take time for this mentality to change. This effort to resocialise Nigerians into a different regime will take time. We don’t need to make census a central issue. Census shouldn’t be made a national project because of our ethno-religious rivalry, whereby we only want to see whether there are more Muslims than Christians and vice versa, which can tear the country apart. Such sentiments shouldn’t really matter, because at the end of the day, your religion doesn’t have anything to do with your welfare.

Regardless of their religion, what people need basically are food, shelter, clothing, education and such things that are equally needed by even non-believers or traditional worshippers.

But I can’t see us in Nigeria not collecting census information without actually including such issues as religion, ethnicity, etc. In the US, for instance, they try to de-emphasise all these and make their citizens have the consciousness that resources allocation should not be tied to these social things. So, wherever citizens reside, they are counted and catered for there.

We need the same approach in Nigeria. So, whether you are Urhobo residing in the southwest, for instance, you should be counted in that place and the state should cater for you. But the way it is done here, people usually return to their places of birth three to four days during census. Even if they don’t want to go, their community leaders will be urging them to come, so that they can be counted at home. All this will not make us have accurate census that approximates reality. What is important is that people are taken care of where they reside and not where they come from. Your place of origin is not as important as your place of residence. There might not be a coincidence between your origin, where you are absent for nine to 10 months and only visit during Christmas or some such festivities, because if you are counted there, it will be of no use. Resources should be allocated where people reside and not their places of origin, as that is where their social needs are being met.

So, the place of residence should be emphasised. Of course, people can still include their religion and ethnicity, but they should be counted where they reside, so that they don’t trigger unnecessary wave of migration because of census. This way, the whole exercise will become less agitated and people will probably begin to connect it to their wellbeing and welfare.

The other point is to take care of some basic social needs of people. Census can’t be depoliticised in our country without talking of politics of revenue allocation, the way states relate to the centre. What we have is some sort of hierarchical relationship, where the centre sees the state as lower level and the state also looking up to and expecting from the centre. The same applies to the relationship between states and local governments. But as long as there is that imagination of what is in the central is for looting and sharing, there will be that fierce competition to want to go in there and take as much as possible for your region.

There should be power redistribution to give states more power to conduct census by themselves. For instance, what is wrong with Lagos conducting its own census? The census return of 1991 said Lagos State has a population of just five million, but that is not true, because Lagos can’t be less than 20 million.

I’m sure Lagos is taking care of more than five million people, probably 18 to 20 million people. So, the centre can give the states more power, but with the condition that whatever the population of their areas, they won’t get more than certain allocation.

We need to be refocused and reform the formula for sharing resources. If states are allowed to take control of their resources within limits and they pay tax to the centre, you will see a complete revolution of attitude and approach towards census and elections. The only reason why it becomes a kind of fight-to-finish is because everybody wants to get in there and take as much as possible for their regions. But you can make the competition less fierce, when you redirect people’s orientation, when people are made to see that the centre is not a Father Christmas that just disburses, and you just go and loot without any responsibility.

There is also need to rearrange along the horizontal and vertical lines. The states and local governments can begin to relate on the basis of equality. So that local governments can begin to muster some strength to have their own autonomy, which will also eliminate the need for competition. For instance, within the same state, a local government chairman can be paid Z amount per month, while another is paid X amount. They don’t have to earn the same amount because the money has to come from within the state, from the local government itself to service political appointees. But the moment people begin to know that if they create more local councils, it will be a burden, they will think twice.

Take for instance, Lagos State, which has 57 local council development areas apart from the 20 local governments. Lagos State thought for it to be more effective at the grassroots, it needed to create more local council development areas and it went ahead to do that. The Supreme Court said it has done the right thing, as it went through the necessary legislative formalities. Osun has done the same thing, just like Ogun. This way, local governments can begin to be what they should be. Local government should be under the purview of the state, with Federal Government having no hand in its affairs. With this kind of arrangement, there will be no need to compete with others to have a higher census result, since it won’t affect the allocation given to you. It is a holistic approach we need to adopt for us to be able to approach census figures with concern for justice and equity.

There are also concerns raised over our porous borders…
The people coming in through the borders are most likely Nigerians. You need to know the kind of campaign that census exercise triggers in our country. People will be sending for their children to return home to be counted. And these people are residing in Abidjan, Liberia, etc. It is the perception of the whole thing. People even recruit to swell the figures of their communities. No community wants to sit back and not recruit to swell their community figures. But you cannot wait for that holistic restructuring of the polity for us to have an acceptable census; we still need to do something in the interim. Presently, census is purely political.

But personally, I think conducting a census shouldn’t be priority for now. There are other challenges of governance that we really should be addressing. Office of Statistics General of the Federation collects and releases information on statistics on regular basis, which can be used for now. This is an office that has been in existence for some time now, and it has professionals, who have also been on ground for some time, though the base they use is very wrong. You know, they use the 1991 census returns or whatever as the basis for their statistics. So now, it is really difficult to have census returns that reflect reality, as it may not be politically acceptable to some sections of the country. Dogara’s caution is reasonable, especially with what we know of the violence associated with our elections.

To scale these hurdles, there is need for sincerity on the part of all stakeholders. The issue is beyond government alone. Census of a population is definitely not rocket science. It’s been done in some places like Ghana and other countries and it is not as politicised, but in our country, it is somehow difficult. And this has to do with the way it has been done from the beginning— who is going to be the president, governor, local government chairperson, etc. is tied to where the constituency of the president is. Until 2015 or so, probably the belief was that a candidate from the north could rely on votes from the north and still be the president of the country. That it is immaterial whether or not he got support from other regions, because of the distribution of population. How many people that will be in the National Assembly, how many polling units a place has, etc. are all tied to population. It is like the more the population, the merrier and the more the locus of your power.

You see politicians, when it is time for census, they leave Abuja to go to their constituencies to mobilise and if possible, they will bribe census officials. They mobilise funds from within their communities to ensure they make higher census returns. They will be looking at figures from other places, because they know that may be tied to the recruitment for higher political positions. So, you need that base to sit comfortably on to jumpstart your political career. If you have a larger population, you will be expected to register more voters, and everything will go on like that from there.

So, what is the way forward?
We have been socialised into that mindset for far too long. And unless we now have a complete resocialisation, whereby we empty ourselves of that outlook, we can’t make any progress. But if all we come to agree that what we need is good governance, then it wouldn’t matter what the number of people in a particular part of the country is. And even if you have the highest number of people, you don’t need to be the one to produce the president. Let it go to anybody that can serve this country’s interest best and cater for the people’s welfare. The basic things everybody needs are shelter, good education, health and food, among others.

But Nigerians have been made to believe that what they need is for one of their own to be at the helm of affairs, and this has been so engrained. Maybe the current generation can make a difference, but then the generation taking its exit will have resocialised the younger ones into believing that unless it is us, it cannot be anybody else. It is really a quagmire, which could be difficult to get out of it. However, we can surmount such, if we can close our eyes and forget about population census. We should try and restructure the country in such a way that each region will take more responsibility. The Federal Government can give regions more resources to enable them take more responsibilities.

For instance, if a region says it has a population of one billion, very well, then let it be responsible for them. The Federal Government will only concern itself with issues relating to currency, external affairs and all that and maybe collection of federation taxes and redistribution. So, a state cannot be saying we have federal roads that should be maintained by the Federal Government. What is federal road? Deal with it. This way, federal government will not be involved with a federal medical centre in one remote place in Oke-ogun, how do you get there? This is why the country is being held down. Federal Government will only intervene, when there is an emergency or disaster.

The centre has become too lucrative in Nigeria. And this is all because we feel insecure. People believe they cannot survive without having access to the Federal might. But this is wrong. What about countries that don’t have oil? Don’t they survive? This misconception has made us lazy and blind, even to the resources we have within our states, our regions and local governments.

So, when the time is right, which may not be 2019, we need to seek more external support in terms of expertise, so that maybe if we can’t do it for ourselves, other people will do it for us. There is no point talking of pride. Though we may have the right personnel, but because of politics, we are not going to get it right. For instance, I cannot see anybody from the southwest, if he is the chairman of the census, making a return that says southwest is the least populated in the country. His people won’t let him return home. And this applies to every part of the country. They will ensure they juggle the figures, or at the worst, let the status quo be retained. So, those ahead before still remain ahead, but we all know that the status quo does not reflect the reality. It is wrong.

There are other alternatives that can be used to arrive at a workable census figures. These include looking at the number of people that are paying tax and using that to generate an imaginary population return, but if you use people that are in school, you are not likely to get anything useful. Most of Africa population tends to be youthful, with those that are 18 and below constituting like 40 or 50 percent of the total population, while those that are 60 and above is usually five to 10 percent.

So, this can be used as a rough idea to get the trend and structure of the population. We know we have a very youthful population, where children and those below five and 18 are preponderant. We can collect statistics on that, but then, how many local governments can be said to have credible database for recording birth. Most people just go and swear to an affidavit, that they are born on so-so date. Even children that are being born now are outside of hospital facilities, and where they are born in a hospital, it may not have facilities for recording birth. It is a big challenge.

But I think the political will is key to solving the problem. There are so many challenges that the current political elite is confronted with. The issue of corruption cannot be insulated from census returns. Once they see census officials, they treat them very well, settle them, provide them with accommodation and make them feel comfortable. Then you tell them not to even come to a village that you will go and do it for them, and they will allow you to do so.

There is need for patriotism to get it right. But then, if you are patriotic and your neighbour is not, what happens? That’s what makes many people to be involved in corrupt practices. If you say you won’t do this, you won’t take, what about the person taking? He will shine more than you. For instance, if you say you want to make honest census returns about your village, that is accurate and scientific with no exaggeration, what about the other villages that won’t behave ethically? So, it requires simultaneous upholding of ethics on the part of all stakeholders— the political elite, the census experts, media practitioners and everybody.

State should endeavour to accommodate and care for all, regardless of their places of origin. This will make people identify with their states of residence.
When people realise that what matters most is the individual, the character of the person you are dealing with, his moral ethics and so on, and not any other secondary consideration, it will go a long way in changing things for the better. This is referring to an inclusive citizenship. State should demonstrate and exhibit an appreciable degree of exceptionality. There can be a ray of light at the end of the tunnel. We need to demonstrate in practical terms the shift of loyalty from religion, ethnicity and all that sentiments.

In this article:
INECLai Olurode

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