Monday, March 2, 2015

The unending controversies over Nigerian Census

This was my response to posers from Sunday Newswatch correspondent Kehinde Adegoke. The interview was published on page 11 and 12 of the newspaper in its edition of March 1, 2015 under the title’ NPC needs financial autonomy.’

No credible population census has ever been conducted in Nigeria

I agree with the position of Eze Festus Odimegwu that Nigeria has been lacking in accurate census since inception. We have had about 15 censuses to date and all of them have been steeped in controversies. This is because National Census has been a political and economic instrument. Political in the sense that it gives voting advantage to a more populous community. It also forms the basis of creation of state and local government council. It is also the basis for delimitation of electoral constituencies particularly State House of Assembly and Federal House of Representatives constituencies. Economic wise, it is the census figure that is used for national planning and resource allocation. Thus, during enumeration exercise many political and community leaders work hard to compromise the census officials to allocate higher figure to them than the number of people physically enumerated.  Little wonder that people are incentivized by their communities to travel to their homestead (place of birth) to be counted during census rather than being allowed to be enumerated at their places of residence.

It would be recalled that during the preparation for the 2006 National Census, while the Christian leaders and many southerners want religion and ethnicity as part of the data to be gathered during the census, Islamic leaders and opinion leaders from the north kicked against it.  If these two indicators had been allowed on the 2006 census checklist, it would have revealed the numerical strength of the adherents of different religions in Nigeria. Secondly, it would have also shown the population strength of each of the about 250 ethnic groups we allegedly have in this country.

Moreover, in order to validate the pronouncement of the sacked NPC chairman, the national census tribunal sitting in Abuja in 2013 nullified the 2006 census in 14 of the 20 local government areas of Lagos.

Need for amendment of the laws governing census in Nigeria

In terms of the call for the amendment of the census law, I do not know of any specific area in need of amendment.  In fact while section 153 (j) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria established the National Population Commission, section 158 (2) of the Constitution guaranteed full independence of the NPC by stating that:

“The National Population Commission shall not be subject to the direction or control of any other authority or person:-  (a) in appointing, training or arranging for the training of enumerators or other staff of the Commission to assist it in the conduct of any population census;  (b) in deciding whether or not to accept or revise the return of any officer of the said Commission concerning the population census in any area or part of the Federation;  (c) in carrying out the operation of conducting the census; and (d) in compiling its report of a national census for publication.”

Perhaps Chief Festus Odimegwu wanted the census law to accommodate the use of proposed biometric-based census. It would be recalled that NPC under Odimegwu developed a national population data infrastructure that would cover all the 200,000 localities in Nigeria, stream the data through a Wide Area Network where every Ministry, Department and Agency of the Federal Government, state governments, local governments, the Organised Private Sector and all data users in the country would plug and play and get the information they needed for national development and global competitiveness.

In essence NPC had wanted a biometric based census especially one that would be centralised and synchronised with working technology, where if anybody registered twice, the system would take one. In explaining this, Chief Odimegwu had said that the biometrics will capture the face, iris, 10-finger digital signature and perhaps the voice of the person being enumerated. If we go by the current controversies over the use of card readers by INEC for the forthcoming elections because our electoral law forbids the use of electronic voting machine, NPC may actually want the census law amended to accommodate the use of biometrics which will also capture ethnicity and religion as part of questions on its enumeration checklist.

On whether accurate population is attainable in Nigeria

Yes,  it is if there is political will to do so. This political will include giving National Population Census free hand to operate. Aside administrative independence, NPC also needs financial autonomy. It is noteworthy that the conduct of nationwide census is a capital intensive exercise. For example the strategic architecture NPC formulated in 2012 with detailed operational plans has a cost component of N576bn covering the entire work of the commission for five years. Is this administration willing and ready to adequately fund the forthcoming census due next year? Will the government amend the legal framework as may be deemed necessary for the NPC to conduct accurate and credible population census? Adequate funding, sound legal framework, highly professionalised staff are some of the ingredients needed for us to have a globally accepted and standardised National Population Census.

On multiple birth registration

There is a way to avoid this and this is by an agency that should be responsible for the exercise. I think National Population Census should be the government agency to issue birth and death certificates. This is because NPC has offices in all the states and FCT as well as the entire 774 LGAs of this country. If we leave this important exercise to our various hospitals, it will be difficult because not all births take place at the hospitals. Some people give birth at homes, religious houses, public or private hospitals. This presents challenge of coordination which can be removed if NPC is allowed to do it. Also, there is need for sustained and comprehensive sensitisation of the citizenry on why it is important to register their births and deaths and where they can do it. NPC can do the enlightenment campaign in collaboration with the National Orientation Agency which is another agency of government with offices nationwide and in all the 774 LGAs. NPC can also partner with public and private media houses to do this for it as part of their corporate social responsibility.

Solutions to faulty enumeration in this country

As I have said earlier, there is need for political will. Also, there is need to embrace the use of contemporary technology in the conduct of our population census. Enumeration officials also have to be well trained and put on oath to be of good behavior. There should also be punishment for any erring staff of NPC be they permanent or ad-hoc who compromised on their duties.  Public enlightenment of the populace on the importance and benefit of accurate census should be explained to people so that they will stop subverting the exercise.

Jide Ojo, Executive Director of OJA Development Consult, Abuja.