Of National Development and Lying Numbers

Whereas every country likely has some aspects of its existence that is based on a fudged foundation, Nigeria deserves special credit for staying somewhat erect despite having a foundation underpinned by distorted facts, half-truths, and plain lies. While we joust a lot about some persons’ real names, real birth dates, real parentage, real educational history, etc., all these debates pale in consequence when compared to a fundamental question: “How many Nigerians are there in Nigeria?”  

This question is fundamental because it affects many aspects of national planning, development and delivery of public programmes, business forecasting, market segmentation, etc. Very simply, how well can you plan for the number of primary schools required if you do not “truly know” how many children of school age exist? Or, how well can you determine the market size for your product if the census figures are disputed? A simplistic example of the problem is seen in the Central Bank’s cash mop-up policy that somehow misjudged how much paper cash is actually used in daily transactions across Nigeria because the data it relied upon was likely “disputable”. Another example could be the 2023 presidential elections that had so much hype with over 87 million Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs) collected. Many persons would argue (anecdotally) that everyone they knew was interested in voting, and many first-time voters joined the fray, yet less than 26 million votes were cast.

Historically, every census figure in Nigeria has had a question mark hanging above it like the Sword of Damocles. Initially, census figures were associated with taxation, so there was incentive to restructure the numbers downwards to reduce the expected taxes from a community. Thereafter, census figures became associated with resource sharing and allocation of parliamentary seats, so the incentive was reversed. This time, the numbers were fed enriched fertilisers to improve their rotundity.

Allegations that census figures were skewed to favour one part of Nigeria became commonplace. In fact, the 2006 census took things further by being the first time that a state (Lagos) disputed the numbers assigned to it and went ahead to publish its own figures, such that for any study involving Lagos State, you have the choice of two census figures to pick from. The same 2006 census would later lead to the exit of a National Population Commission (NPC) Chairman who alleged that Nigeria had not had any credible census since 1816.

When we understand that census figures influence how much money each state and Local Government Area gets from the federal Claus, and how many House of Representatives members would come from each state, and how many State House of Assembly members would exist, we would understand why there is an incentive to falsify the numbers. NPC has now announced its plans to undertake a 2023 census “driven by technology”, but coming right after INEC’s multibillion naira election disappointment, it is easy to doubt whether the census would deliver the true goods or be yet another case of wasting scarce resources, or as some would put it, political dorime.

I have not seen NPC’s detailed plans, so it is possible that some ideas articulated here might already be on the cards. For me, I think the 2023 census presents Nigeria with an expensive opportunity to answer the fundamental question of its true population. A good thing is that with the National Identity Number (NIN) and the Bank Verification Number (BVN) already rolled out to a large chunk of the population, this census could easily be used to tie the ends together. Imagine NPC collaborating with the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) for the census such that identities are validated via NIN, and anyone not on the NIMC database is registered immediately as a precondition to being counted. This way, all things being equal, every person who is counted would be a real person, not a chicken nor a cow.

Implementing this verification mechanism would also address the common allegations that in some parts of Nigeria, census enumerators are not allowed to see the members of certain households but are merely informed by the patriarch that he has X wives and Y children. NPC may need to flood such areas with more female enumerators to avoid religious or cultural reasons being used as an excuse to keep faces from the enumerators. INEC’s use of permanent markers to ink the thumbnail of accredited voters could be adapted for the census, such that once a person’s details have been validated, he or she would receive the acknowledgement ink. This would reduce the number of persons that would be counted more than once.

Another common allegation is that non-Nigerians are counted as Nigerians under the number growing initiative. For this, I am not sure how we can address it without having to rely on some kind of good faith behaviour. While we could have said everyone should present some evidence of citizenship to be counted, the fact is that there are many Nigerians, especially in the rural areas, who do not have any documentation of their existence. Maybe we would just be forced to rely on community leaders to attest to a person’s citizenship where no document can be tendered. NPC could create a means for enumerators to indicate which persons’ documents were sighted and which persons were counted based on attestation by community leaders.

17 years have passed since we last tried to know how many Nigerians exist. Since then, we have merely applied a constant annual growth rate across all states without accounting for different birth and death rates, rural-urban and urban-urban migration, and the small proportion of our brethren that have emigrated. If we let the ghosts of past censuses make a comeback, we would continue trudging in the dark while other countries with reliable data are able to make and implement credible national development plans. Who knows; maybe if we had more reliable data, the Central Bank would not have caused us immense suffering in hastily withdrawing currency notes widely used for informal transactions.

Image Credit: oneofakindsales.com

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