No. The timing is not right for the exercise

The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Yakubu Dogara, last week called for the postponement of the planned 2018 population census on grounds that such an exercise, coming on the eve of the 2019 general election, could end in chaos. We agree with Dogara. If indeed we must observe the ritual of a headcount to validate the projection that we are currently over 180 million in population, let us not do it on the eve of an election. If it holds as scheduled, chances are that the figures will not be credible and that could on its own engender crisis.

We therefore subscribe to the suggestion that the exercise should be shifted till after the election in 2019. That is the only way to avert a political crisis in a nation where groups fiddle with numbers on every critical issue. It is therefore important that before the exercise, there is need for a reorientation of Nigerians to see population counts as an instrument for economic planning rather than for the allocation of unearned resources.

Aside the political consideration, there are other challenges with the proposed census. The Director General of the National Population Commission (NPC), Ghaji Bello, for instance, said two weeks ago that it would hold only on certain conditions that were currently not in place. “If we are given all the resources that we need today, it may take possibly the first quarter of next year before we can do proper census. There are quite a number of processes that have to be undertaken as part of the preparatory activities between now and the actual census phase itself,” said Bello. He said since the last census exercise was conducted in 2006, the current exercise should have been done in 2016 in line with the United Nations recommendation of a 10-year benchmark.

To the extent that a census provides primary sources of basic statistics on the population characteristics of any nation in a disaggregated format, we understand the concerns of Bello and that of the NPC that would ordinarily want to deliver on their mandate. We also subscribe to the fact that a census is very important for our country.

However, besides the fact that resources are currently scarce, there is also a very important question that should concern all stakeholders: Are we still intent on the antiquated, expensive and inaccurate system of conducting census through periodic physical headcounts? The challenge, as Dogara has aptly captured it, is that just like our manual election system, our periodic census exercises are programmed for inaccuracy, political manipulation and financial waste.

Going by the NPC estimates, the proposed 2018 national population census would cost N272 billion of which the federal government would contribute 51 per cent while the international donor community was expected to fund the remaining 49 per cent. That is not a solid plan. Besides, while 51 per cent of that hefty sum will amount to about N140 billion, there is nothing to indicate that the federal government can muster that kind of money, given its current scale of priorities, especially for a project that could end in a fiasco. The fact that the NPC intends to include religion and ethnicity in the data to be collected makes the proposed census even more tricky.

For sure, we are for a proper census because once the baseline demographic footprint of a nation is done properly, subsequent demographic changes can be determined almost accurately through satellite imaging and statistical projections. Population updates can then be carried out through mandatory birth and death registrations, patterns of migration such as internal displacements or the attraction of economic opportunities in parts of the country, etc. But we are also mindful of the fact that such an objective may be jeopardised by the timing of the exercise.

In recommending that countries should conduct a census every 10 years, the UN believes that it will allow for the capture of changes in structure and movement of population. But all factors considered, we share the position of Dogara that conducting a census in 2018 will be counterproductive for Nigeria.

We are for a proper census because once the baseline demographic footprint of a nation is done properly, subsequent demographic changes can be determined almost accurately through satellite imaging and statistical projections