At a time when restructuring is part of the national discourse, the outcome of a census will determine what restructuring could mean in the coming years. Nigeria’s development depends on our ability to get it right, or as close to right as possible.
In 2006, Nigeria conducted a census. The results put the country’s population at 140 million people, with Kano being the most populous state, followed by Lagos. These results were controversial, with the South alleging that the figures had been inflated to favour the North. There was much criticism of the census as being marred by political interference.
This was history repeating itself, as counting Nigerians has always been tricky. This history has been marked by irregularities from the count at household levels, to tallies at the agency level, but despite the issues with the 2006 exercise, the results were maintained and published by the National Population Commission(NPC) and it remains the last census the country has carried out.
The United Nations recommends that a population census should be conducted at least every decade. It has been 16 years since the last census. Nigeria’s population, as expected, has changed over the years. The population figures in play since our last census have been estimates provided by Worldometer. Currently, Nigeria’s population is estimated to be around 200 million. It is an uncertain number, as 16 years is a long time, and the various trends that affect population growth can go either undetected or measured inaccurately. Why does this matter?
While censuses determine key factors that shape the electoral process, the data is to guide governments in planning for growth and development. It is important not just for the public sector, because private sector organisations need census data as key insights for understanding the market(s) they serve or want to serve.
PLANNING WITH AND FOR PEOPLE
Demographic data obtained from a census is the bedrock of planning for national development. Figures on population, spatial distribution, age, sex, and other information captured affect the policies formulated across sectors and systems. You cannot adequately plan without understanding who you are planning for. At a time when restructuring has become part of the national discourse, the census will determine to a large extent what productivity, growth, and development could mean in the coming years.
The National Population Policy states that based on the 3.2 per cent growth rate from the 2006 census, Nigeria will have to double infrastructure, food production, education, water supply, housing, energy, healthcare and other services to meet up with projected population growth. Ideally, economic growth and the availability of social services should exceed population growth if we are to record any improvement in the standard of living.
The utility of a census is in the demographic breakdown, the estimated and projected growth rates, and the numbering of households. The figures influence how budgets are made; federal government allocations to state and local governments depend on this data.
PEOPLE MAKE GOVERNMENTS
Results from a census also determine representation in government. While Nigeria has since changed in terms of its political and administrative structure, census figures still remain important in defining representation at different levels of government. The 1952/53 census saw the allocation of parliamentary seats for Nigeria’s newly independent government; the Northern region got 174 seats (55.4 per cent of the population), the Eastern region 76 seats (23.7 per cent) and the Western region 65 seats (20.9 per cent).
The legislature is constituted of local government councillors, state house of assembly members, members of the House of Representatives, and finally, state senators. While Nigeria’s 109 Senate seats are spread equally across states—three per state and without recourse to size or population, the House of Representatives differs. The House has 360 federal representatives, representing a constituency each. Delimitation of these federal constituencies is determined by the population of the state, and that is why the number of constituencies vary across states. Kano and Lagos States have the most significant numbers, with 24 federal constituencies represented by 24 members. Bayelsa, Nigeria’s least populated state, has five.
Nigeria’s constituencies are delimited based on the population size of an area; this way, these constituencies represent the population as equally as is practicable, following constitutional provisions. There have been criticisms levelled against the country’s electoral body in regard to its compliance with these provisions, including that non-compliance has created underrepresentation in some areas.
THE CENSUS THAT WAS PROMISED
The National Population Commission announced in 2022 that it would be conducting a census after the 2023 general elections. The commission plans to make the exercise paperless by employing digital tools to demarcate enumeration areas for the analysis of data; it is to be the country’s first digital census.
Interestingly, the cost of the count has been on the rise. In September 2022, Nigeria’s Vice President Yemi Osinbajo announced that the exercise would cost N198 billion. By November, NPC chairman Nasir Isa Kwarra, stood before a Senate Committee to defend a proposed N532.7 billion budget, which he said would cover the post-enumeration survey. As of March 2023, the NPC says it needs N869 billion for the exercise.
With the country’s electoral commission working with a N305 billion budget for the 2023 election, and an economy suffering from high inflation (a 17-year high of 21.09 per cent as of October), there are concerns about the cost, the timing and the commission’s ability to fulfil the promise of ‘rewriting history’ by delivering an ‘accurate, reliable and acceptable census’.
Theoretically, innovations in census exercises such as digital-first/only tools should make them more effective. For instance, a report from the United States 2020 census showed that technology use directly improved the productivity of field operations. It mentioned that the use of laptops and mobile phones increased the speed of enumeration beyond initial estimates. Nigeria’s census going digital could significantly eliminate the kinds of discrepancies and issues that arise with digitising data recorded on paper. However, the question of human capacity, as well as the availability and functionality of digital equipment remains.
If Nigeria’s just concluded presidential election is anything to go by, the country’s agencies have much to figure out when it comes to the logistics of nationwide exercises, especially when hinged on a drive to ‘go digital’. The country’s electoral commission had introduced the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) as an alternative to faulty card readers used in previous elections. BVAS was meant to solve issues with voter identification and upload results from polling units to INEC’s Result Viewing Portal (IReV). However, in practice, there were reports of the machines failing in these 2 areas. Voter authentication did not always work as expected and results were not uploaded immediately across many polling units. The device requires regular software updates and serviceable broadband access—a clear challenge in areas with poor internet coverage. Beyond technical difficulties, machines are still subject to the people who use them, meaning digital solutions cannot always account for or curb human mistakes or deliberate acts.
The commission must properly assess both man and machine before the count begins. As of January 2023, the NPC announced that 786,741 Nigerians would be trained and deployed for the exercise, and they consist of; enumerators, supervisors, data quality personnel, field coordinators, training centre administrators, and facilitators at the local government level. Through a top-down hybrid learning approach which covers basic training, applications and tools to be used during the census—including dispute resolution, the commission is looking to have adequately trained hands by the rescheduled but undisclosed kick-off date in May.
The success of this exercise rests on the people who will be conducting it; on their ability to use the tools, how they handle human interaction as they work in the field, and a commitment to getting the job done with integrity. Without that last bit, the most functional tools, and well-curated training are as good as wasted.
ARE THERE BETTER ALTERNATIVES TO THE ‘TRADITIONAL’ CENSUS?
Nigeria has seen a flurry of activity when it comes to identifying citizens in recent years. The National Identity Number and Bank Verification Number exercises were carried out to collect data and assign identities to citizens in the National Identity Management Commission and national banking system respectively. The data from NIN/BVN present many opportunities; while they cannot produce an accurate population count, because of possible irregularities and the scope of capture (BVN only accounts for banked Nigerians, excluding the unbanked, including adults without bank accounts and children), the data could help in validation and estimates guiding the exercise. In the future, the promise of having updated databases like NIN means that it can serve in population estimates and the provision of social/welfare services. However, currently, only about 90 million Nigerians have NINs.
This census was initially planned for 2021, but plans were halted because of insecurity in Nigeria’s volatile north. Insecurity claimed the lives of a reported 10,366 Nigerians in 2021 and remains far from being resolved. Attacks, which mostly occurred in the North East and North West have spread further south; incidents like the Owo church massacre and the train attack in Edo State further reveal the government’s inability to resolve the security crisis.
For the NPC, it is yet to be seen how the Federal Government inaugurated security committee for this census will ensure the safety of personnel and materials during its conduct. The Logistics and Security Committee, responsible for mitigating logistical and security challenges, is meant to be duplicated across all states and the 774 LGAs.
LEARNING FROM OTHERS
Nigeria could learn from global best practices outlined by the United Nations and real-life applications from both advanced and developing countries. Malawi and Zambia, for example, partnered with the UNFPA to digitalize their censuses, using electronic tablets and backup power (banks). The tablets first used in Malawi were transferred to Zambia, along with key knowledge to facilitate the exercise in Zambia. Swaziland’s 2017 digital census also saw the country partner with MTN to design a closed network system that facilitated communication amongst the team. It also kept logistical costs down by recruiting field officers to work in areas where they already resided. As such, collaboration, effective recruitment and finding alternative uses for equipment post-census are key learnings that Nigeria stands to benefit from.
Nigeria must move from thinking of a census as an interregional Olympics, with gold being given to who is able to produce the most number of human beings. Nigeria’s development depends on our ability to get it right, or as close to right as possible.
There is no 100 per cent certainty in statistics, especially not in an exercise as massive as a census in a country like Nigeria. However, we must be willing to work towards figures we have confidence in, that can adequately represent Nigerians, and which will be used to better their lives⎈
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