Nigeria’s protracted wait for fresh census

By Chekwube Nzomiwu

Nigerians are waiting eagerly for President Bola Ahmed Tinubu (PBAT) to make a proclamation on the new date for the rescheduled Digital National Population and Housing Census. The immediate past administration of President Muhammadu Buhari earlier scheduled the exercise to hold between May 3 and 7, 2023. However, in the course of the transition of power from the former to the new government, Buhari deemed it fit and proper to put the exercise on hold, to allow the incoming administration to make inputs and determine the date of the census.

A year after taking over power, President Tinubu is yet to announce a date for the exercise. Nigerians who know the importance of census are bothered by the delay in the announcement of the new date. They are more worried that no provision was made for it in the N27.5 trillion 2024 budget. Furthermore, information in public domain shows that prior to the rescheduling, the National Population Commission (NPC) had concluded the implementation of all the necessary preparatory activities. They include the Enumeration Area Demarcation (EAD), conduct of pre-test and trial census, recruitment and training of census field staff, procurement and configuration of Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), and the establishment of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) infrastructure across the country.

According to the NPC, all the processes of the census are going to be technology driven. As the enumerators are getting information in the field using the PDA, it would be transmitted automatically from the system to the server. The use of technology would make the fresh census more credible, transparent and acceptable than previous censuses conducted in the country.

The commission equally conducted robust advocacy and publicity campaigns across the country, to sensitise Nigerians on the exercise. They were in the process of recruiting enumerators when the immediate past administration rescheduled the exercise. Given that Tinubu promised during the campaigns to continue where Buhari stopped, many Nigerians, including this writer, thought that the census would be handled with sense of urgency, considering its immense benefits to the country. So far, our expectations on the exercise have not been met.

Conducting census is a very capital intensive exercise. There is no doubt about that. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) described the census as “the most expensive data collection activity a country can undertake, involving thousands of workers and millions of dollars of cost.” The process of conducting census involves many events and stages. However, in considering the cost and the rigourousness, we should also look at the numerous benefits.

The census is the spine of the national statistical system. For example, development planners need population information for all kinds of development work, including assessing demographic trends and analyzing socio-economic trends and economic conditions. Similarly, data generated from the exercise are vital to budgeting and the implementation, monitoring, as well as evaluation of the effectiveness of government programmes and policies, including immunisation and Universal Basic Education (UBE) programmes.

Likewise, census data could be used for tracking the progress towards national and international agreed development plans, such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), designing evidence based poverty reduction strategies and empowering local communities with information to enable them to participate in decision making.

In the political sphere, census data are used for the creation of federal and state constituencies to enhance effective representation in government. Nigeria practices representative democracy and the constitution makes population a prerequisite for the creation of federal and state constituencies, which constitute a critical basis of representation in the country. The Senate and House of Representatives have passed resolutions, asking the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to carry out its mandate of creating new federal constituencies in line with Section 73 (1) of the Constitution. The electoral umpire often used the prolonged non-conduct of population census as an excuse for refusing to do so.

In addition, data generated from census could be used for academic research and feasibility studies by Research and Development (R&D) departments of companies and corporate organizations, for promotions, programmes and projects. These are to mention but a few.

Regrettably, Nigeria, the widely acclaimed “Giant of Africa” has been deprived of these benefits for almost two decades, as a result of her inability to conduct census. The last population enumeration in the country took place in 2006. Since then, Nigeria has been planning based on population estimates and projections, using outdated data. We should also not lose sight of the fact that the last census was marred by controversies like previous ones.

By international convention, a census exercise should be held in a country at least once every 10 years. The United Nations recommends at least once every five years to guarantee better and more current data. Nigeria held its last census 18 years ago. If we should go by the UN recommendation, Nigeria ought to have held at least three censuses and should be preparing for the fourth one by now. We are, however, lagging behind our peers. South Africa conducted its most recent census in 2022. Ghana, Nigeria’s next door neighbor, conducted the same 2022. Kenya held in 2019. We pride ourselves as citizens of the most populous black nation on earth. Yet, we don’t know our population. What an irony.

A few days, the Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister of the Economy, Wale Edun, announced that the Federal Government has started paying N75, 000 each to 75 million vulnerable citizens selected from 50 million households in the country under the National Social Investment Programme (NSIP). Permit me to ask. Which data did they use in selecting the beneficiaries? We are all aware of the corruption scandal that the trailed the door-to-door verification of the discredited social register developed by the immediate past administration.

Therefore, the current administration should prioritise the conduct of the Digital National Population and Housing Census. If the Federal Government could afford to spend N6 trillion on infrastructure in the past one year, there is nothing wrong with spending N500 billion to conclude the rescheduled census. If you know the size, location and characteristics of the population, it will enable you to plan better.

Thankfully, the President re-appointed a good number of the Federal Commissioners in the commission who have been part of the planning and execution of the preparatory activities over the years. Shortly after his assumption of office, he promised to support the NPC to conduct a credible and acceptable census for the country. The time has come for him to match his words with action by announcing the new date for the census and empowering NPC financially to conclude the process that was started many years ago.

Luckily, on May 29, he told the Joint Session of the National Assembly to expect a supplementary budget soon. Nigerians expect that the funds for the conduct of the census will be part of the supplementary appropriation. If the President does the needful, he will take the glory as the man who broke the jinx of not conducting census in Nigeria for 18 years. This year (2024) has gone half way. We have six months left. The census is a five-day exercise. There is no need for further procrastination.

• Nzomiwu, a policy analyst wrote from Awka, Anambra State.

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