Problem with Nigeria’s national census

The regularity with which a country takes stock of its population to determine how fast it is producing more human beings, or whether the reverse is the case, speaks to the efficacy of planning over guess work.

Presently, there are countries that are experiencing negative population growth and need regular data to know how many citizens there are. If need be, such countries try to shore up the number of people within their boundaries.

Serious nations, the world over, consider human beings living within their boundaries a resource. They, therefore work conscientiously to plan with the goal of delivering basic services, which would create the framework for the citizen to explore his/her potential within the nation space. The idea of the national space as the bedrock of dreams and ambitions had gained traction as far back as the time of the ancient city-states of the Greeks.

In those times, the idea of the polis, the ubiquitous city-state, which presented itself as the exclusive basis for socialisation and interaction in Athens, was that any man living within that space must have access to all it would take to realise his potential.

In fact, the Athenian State was so sure of the opportunities it was creating for citizens that it constantly drove home the point that outside Athens, no citizen could realise his full potential.

For those opportunities to be created, it was critical for the city-state to know, and for citizens to reach a consensus on how many they are in the common space. The critical point to note, even in these somewhat pristine times of history, was that the city-state contextualised its role in terms of creating opportunities to enable citizens find expression for their talents.

The city-states did not conflate their roles in terms of giving handouts to indolent groups of citizens. This short historical excursion becomes necessary for an understanding of the problems that have dogged national censuses in Nigeria since independence in 1960.

The very idea of Nigeria as a cauldron of hundreds of ethnic nationalities, which found themselves caught up in a web of cut-throat competition for national resources endangered the vey logic of counting.

More so, the colonial venture of cobbling together disparate nationalities meant that to gain the upper hand, groups had to manipulate, dispute and deploy all sorts of vile tactics to gain the advantage. The result is that whenever it came to determining the number of human beings in the national space, the sanctity and universality of numbers no longer mattered. Instead, what mattered was the extent of noise, and manipulation that could be deployed to get the upper hand, which would then translate into contrived access to centrally distributed resources.

Bad enough too, Nigeria did not pass through the crucible of serious national visioning like the aforementioned city-states of ancient Greece. In the absence of a broad national consensus to mobilise the minds of citizens, it was easy for ethnic champions to quickly dictate the direction. The result has been that the simple matter of taking count of citizens has become hostage to the forces of geo-ethnic and sectarian discord.

Across the country, perceptions based on stereotypes are rife that some parts are favoured during censuses and that even animals are counted as human beings. There have been cases were some communities are reported to have “annexed” other places in order to have the census process report bigger figures for them. The desperation to shore up figures during head counts is driven in the main by the centralised model of resource allocation.

This is further accentuated by the grotesque realities of what has been derisively described as Nigeria’s homegrown “feeding bottle” federalism.

The abysmal failure of governance at the local level, and the subsequent death of initiative in local communities have propped up a big brother model of resource allocation. Stakeholders have argued that if the Nigerian system was such that fiscal federalism holds sway, and there is a push for good governance at the local level, there would be no incentive to actors within the polity to pad figures. The current system of handout precipitates a scramble for scarce resources at the national level, thereby killing off the potential and initiative at the local level. This in turn motivates the resort to desperate tactics in order to post big population figures.

A corollary to this mindset is the impunity of the political elite; the controversies generated by census figures are not very much different from chaos precipitated by electoral outcomes. A culture of impunity, entrenched by the political class gives scant regard to the logic and universality of numbers. This is why it is on record in this country that an election of a forum of state governors degenerated into a situation where the idea was being peddled that 16 could be greater than 19.

Such resort to pre-scientific posturing speaks to the readiness of the typical Nigerian to bend fact, truth and the nation’s destiny, in the service of personal ends.

In the light of these realities, it is significant that a major political actor has drawn attention to the minefield created by the antics of the political class, as it relates to willfully using the census process to create tension in the polity.

Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara’s decision to sound the alarm bells about the dangers of conducting the 2018 National Population Census a year before the general elections of 2019 has serious ramifications.

In the first place, it is a clear signal to the National Population Commission (NPC) that its assignment goes beyond the technical work of taking a count. The Speaker’s admonition is an urgent call to those saddled with the assignment to begin thinking of ways to avoid the bobby traps that the political class is likely to set in order to undermine the census.

What this suggests is that the NPC has no choice but to put in place a robust programme of communication and outreaches to communities. The essence will be to provide counter-narratives to the usual trouble that the political actors would always foment. The commission necessarily has to be on top of its game by being proactive in terms of ensuring that politicians don’t get to define the coming census in their negative terms.

As for Dogara’s prescription that the census be put on hold until after the elections of 2019, the reality is that there will be no perfect time. Asking for a shift in the census year because of the antics of recalcitrant politicians, would be akin to asking for a suspension of elections due to the same destructive streak in the political class. That cannot possibly be tenable because it is the height of escapism.

Maybe what the speaker needs is to begin to reach out to his colleagues in the political class, and get them to understand why Nigeria as a country should come first in all national efforts. In the end, the constant squabbles over a simple exercise as self-counting serves as a reminder of the urgent need to restructure Nigeria.

The goal of such reworking should be to get the foundations of nationhood right, such that every part of Nigeria gets a sense of belonging. All the other agitations and upheavals that have undermined stability are connected to the national question. There can be no running away from this task of defining a new vision for the nation.

Good enough, many of yesterday’s proponents of structuring are part of the current ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). They must therefore not allow the ink they spent agitating for restructuring to go to waste. If Nigeria gets it right in that regard, all the hue and cry of minor national activities, which are taken for granted elsewhere will be a thing of the past.

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National census
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