With Burgeoning Population, Data & Information is Africa’s New Crude Oil

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Although opinion research or polling is still evolving in Nigeria and Africa, as a whole, Executive Director, Africa Polling Institute (API), Dr. Bell Ihua, nevertheless, in this interview with James Emejo, expresses optimism that data and information would soon become the new diamond as they constitute credible means through which perception and performance are gauged, in both private and public discourse. Among other things, he speaks on the relationship between polling and development as well as economic issues, particularly what the country stands to benefit by signing the AfCTA agreement

Polling still appears to be unpopular, so to speak in the country, compared to other developed economies. Why is this so and could you explain its importance to Nigeria’s development?

Well, while I agree with you that opinion polling isn’t yet where it should be in Nigeria, I do not necessarily agree that it is unpopular. This is because over the last decade a tremendous amount of work has been done in Nigeria to champion opinion research in the country. First with the work that has been done by the continental network known as Afrobarometer; and the visioneering initiative of my former principal, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, and her founding of NOI Polls, my last place of assignment before joining API.

There has been a lot of ground breaking work that have been done to till the soil in Nigeria when it comes to opinion research. So yes, we may not be there yet; but progress has been made, and it can only get better. In terms of the importance of opinion research; its importance cannot be over emphasized. For governance to be effective, it has to be participatory, and when we say participatory, we are not only talking about during elections, and after elections everybody goes to sleep. No. Citizen participation ought to be a continuum, and opinion research is that tool that allows governance to be participatory.

You know I recently stated at an event that it would have only taken a simple poll of 1,000 sample size to help the government gauge the opinion of Nigerians regarding the recent RUGA issue. If they had done that, they would have seen all the tell-tale signs to know that this may not be the best for the country at this time of our existence. I’m saying in essence is that opinion research ought to be an integral part of governance. The president should actually have an adviser on public opinion and perceptions, to help him gauge the temperature or pulse of the nation at every point in time, to test the waters on proposed policies, and to measure the impact of policies that are already being implemented, and to even assess the performance of his cabinet members. Because a minister can think he or she is performing; but the actual test of whether or not his or her work is making any impact is to understand what the people think about the work.

You can pontificate all you want, and tell us about how many megawatts of power has been generated and all; but if the average Nigerian says he received only 2 hours of electricity daily, that is enough assessment. I recall leading some work for former Minister of power, Professor Barth Nnaji, we had been asked at the time to track power supply to households on a monthly basis, and he used that to assess what the DISCOs said they were distributing to customers. So you see, the importance of opinion research to national development is extremely critical, to say the least.

How reliable are outcomes of opinion polls in Nigeria, can they be trusted?

Good questions. I would not be sentimental about the quality of our work; but I would prefer to respond to you as a social scientist that I am. As my university professor would say, the rise or fall of any piece of research is in its methodology. The reliability of the outcome of polls in Nigeria rests in its methodology. There are about 4 to 5 indicators that can help anyone assess the quality and reliability of polling outcomes, especially when you say you’re conducting a national. So firstly, how was the data collected? Was there an element of randomization and stratification? Also, what was the sample size? In other words, how many people were interviewed for the survey? What is the margin of error? Were the questions worded objectively? These are just a few questions that people can ask, even a journalist like you. So yes, I can speak for myself and the work that we do. We are members of some international research associations, and we ensure our work complies with the set standards, especially in the areas of quality assurance and methodological robustness. I always tell our partners and clients that they can go to sleep and allow us deliver credible and high quality data to them.

The AfCTA agreement has recently been signed by the government, but there are still concerns that the issues around infrastructure and industrialisation are unresolved. Do you think Nigeria could still reap benefits from the agreement?

This is an interesting question. I say so because last year, I led a piece of work to ascertain the benefits of AfCFTA to Nigeria, where we conducted a survey of over 500 Nigerian businesses as well as in-depth interviews with key stakeholders, such as business leaders, policy experts, and leaders of organized labour. I remember personally interviewing the General Secretary of NLC, Dr. Peter Ozo-Eson. The report was released in May 2019, and the findings were clear. Almost 70 per cent of businesses interviewed were of the opinion that AfCFTA would be advantageous to the country and would make a positive impact on local businesses.

So it was a source of concern to some of us when there were delays in signing the agreement, because more consultation was needed. Our research work had consulted and engaged with key stakeholders and we saw that the pros clearly outweighed the cons. Interestingly, our Chief Negotiator, Ambassador Chiedu Osakwe, a world renowned trade negotiator, led the negotiations for the continent, so it was worrisome to see Nigeria slowing down, after having led the negotiations successfully.

Our delay cost us the head office AfCFTA, and the huge multiplier effect that would have come from citing its HQ in Nigeria. In any case, I’m glad the president finally signed, but now we have to play catch-up, in order to meet up with countries like Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and Rwanda who signed the agreement early and have gone ahead to ratify it in their respective countries. Nonetheless, I believe the benefits of the AfCFTA are immense and we still have an opportunity to use our leadership position on the continent to reap huge rewards.

Could you please give us a brief profile of you?

I am Dr. Bell Ihua, a public opinion pollster, survey specialist and social researcher. I am currently the executive director at Africa Polling Institute (API), and I have had the opportunity of working in this space for the past 15 years. To the glory of God, I have consulted for several leading international and indigenous organisations. Over the last 7 years I have led three country surveys for the World Bank, over a dozen studies for DFID programmes in Nigeria such as NIAF, GEMS, Solar Nigeria, ENABLE, and FOSTER amongst others. I have also handled assignments for international organisations such as GIZ, JICA, US Institute for Peace (USIP), International Republican Institute (IRI), National Democratic Institute (NDI), British Council and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; as well as public institutions like Ministries of Aviation, Power, Works & Housing, and the Nigerian Office for Trade Negotiations (NOTN) to mention a few.

I have also been privileged to lead some landmark social research projects such as a study on the state of IDPs in the country, and a major study on the motivations for illegal migration of Nigerian youths funded by the German Embassy, what we call Europe by road; and a study on the migration of medical doctors out of Nigeria. So yes, it has been a very challenging, but exciting journey for me in the area of opinion polling and social research. The beauty for me is that no two studies are the same, so I have the opportunity to learn something new from every new assignment we handle.

What really are the objectives and achievements of the Africa Polling Institute?

Thank you for asking. Africa Polling Institute is an Independent, non-profit, non-partisan opinion research think-tank, which conducts polls, surveys, social research and evaluation studies at the intersection of democracy, governance, economic conditions and public life in order to support better decisions, public policy, practice and advocacy. So we conduct polls and perception surveys on hard issues such as politics, economy, and governance; but also on softer issues like entertainment, sports, creative sector, you name it. And given the nature of our work, we handle assignments for the private sector, public sector, international development sector, CSOs, advocacy groups and the media.

We are very big on our work with the development partners and CSOs because we believe they need accurate data to make decisions on which development projects to undertake in Nigeria or to advocate. So yes, our work with CSOs form a big part of the work that we do; but we also have private sector companies that want us to help them understand the market and the public perception regarding their product of service offerings. We help with those as well.

You asked about our objectives, in a nutshell, our objectives are first to produce and disseminate credible Africa-led and Africa-owned opinion research data to support better decisions amongst state and non-state actors; as well as to promote citizens participation and strengthen democratic governance through opinion research. We also provide a platform for the regular dissemination of credible polls, surveys and social research studies from other researchers and practitioners.

In terms of our achievement, although the Institute is relatively new, we have entered into some significant partnerships with some of the leading CSOs in the country. Consequently, we recently led efforts to conduct the 2019 Buharimeter survey and have a few national in the pipeline due to be released later in the year.

In conclusion, what future do you see for opinion polling in Africa?

The future holds great prospects for opinion polling and the social research landscape in general. Every day, we are inundated with issues and areas seeking enquiry through opinion research. As long as you have a transitional economy such as ours, there are constantly issues calling for research. I also foresee a situation where government, policy makers and business executives and advocates seek more data to help them to better understand the complex world that we currently live in.

Besides, we have positioned ourselves and our work for continental influence, and the next few years would witness more of our ascendance on a regional level. With the population of Africa estimated to hit 1.5 billion by 2030, you do not need a necromancer to tell you that data and information would become the new diamond and crude oil. With open governance, big data and artificial intelligence on the rise, I foresee rapid uptake of opinion research in Africa. And for us at Africa Polling Institute, we are qualified, experienced and positioned to be the preferred opinion polling partner; first in Nigeria, then the West African sub-region, and then the entire sub-Saharan Africa.