How Many Really Are We?

Yemi Kale

Except a proper population census devoid of all the familiar acrimonies and manipulation is conducted, the estimated 200 million Nigerian population figure could be said to be fictitious and unreliable, writes Shola Oyeyipo

So many things have been said about the obviously bogus and over-bloated Nigerian population figures over the years. But while there are several reliable instruments for empirical verification of human population per time in a location, evidence abound that the numbers being brandished are primarily products of unreliable assumptions.

Despite the irregularities that have characterised all the previous censuses, just as most of the country’s elections, authorities both home and abroad have continued to rely on the poorly estimated population, which puts Nigerians at over 200.96 million, earning the West African country 7th most populous country in the world ranking.

Fact is, it is not only correct to say that the estimate is incorrect, such projections should not form the basis for any reasonable planning and the reason is because the available Nigerian population statistics are basically a reflection of the political rivalry, tendencies for manipulations amidst unabated supremacy quests among the regions and some ethnic nationalities within the states as well as inadequate logistics for proper census.

For instance, at the national level, in its quest to maintain its dominance on the rest of the people of the country, northerners arrogate to themselves the title of the most populous zone in the country. However, while no one may contest that, it is best when it is a subject of verifiable data and not mere assumption).

Similar thing is happening in Kogi State, where the Igala people of the East senatorial district claim population dominance over the West and Central senatorial districts. The story is not quite different in Kwara, Delta, Akwa-Ibom and a host of other states, where a zone exerts political dominance over the others just by the fact of doctored or assumed population figures.

No student of history will hurriedly forget the story of Nigeria’s 1962 census, when political leaders in the South, who wanted to end north’s political dominance, thought that the best way to achieve that was to have a reliable census.

Back then, just as it is now, population was a huge factor in determining parliamentary representation, local government administrators, allocation of revenue, and employee distribution in the civil service. Thus, when in May 1962, Nigeria had her first census under an independent Nigerian government it was an open competition between the North and the South. The south went on a campaign to mobilise their people to participate en mass.
Though eventually the final results were not made public, facts from the preliminary results showed that the population of the North had gone up from the 16.5 million recorded in the 1952 census to 22.5 million, an increase of 30 per cent.

In the east, some parts recorded population increase of up to 200 per cent, and more than 70 per cent overall. Also, in the West, there was over 70 per cent increase and as such, the north lost its majority share of the country’s population.

The 2006 census was also faced with similar challenge. Kano in the north was ranked as Nigeria’s most populous state with 9.4 million people, while Lagos purportedly had 9.0 million people. The northern states were said to have 75 million people, while the southern states had 65 million putting Nigeria’s population at 140 million back then.

But some Nigerians had since disagreed with the outcome of the census on the grounds that the figures were not a reflection of the true population of the country.

Pan-Igbo socio-political organisation, the Ohanaeze Ndigbo was particularly disgruntled that the exercise reduced the nation to a minority. Then governor of Lagos State and presently a stalwart of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), Senator Bola Tinubu, demanded a recount on the grounds that the census figures were false. Even former Senate President, who was in office at the time, Senator David Mark, also complained about the outcome.

He said the census was not credible, saying, “Every time we talk about statistics in this country…we don’t appear to have the accurate figure,” he told reporter.

Previous population censuses in Nigeria ended in controversy, including the well-commended 1991 census, adjudged as the best so far in the country. It was followed by 107 court cases across the country.

Another population data collation in 2012 by the Nigeria National Bureau of Statistics (NBC) put the population of Nigerians at about 166.2 million people. The 2016 estimate put it at over 178.5 million. Then the United Nations (UN) projections placed the population as high as 186 million.

It is easy to conclude that the figures are not real, because apart from the political interests of the various nationalities, the unresolved conclusion that the colonialists rigged the estimated 45.2 million population figure of Nigeria, which favoured the north at independence, the practical and cultural constraints encountered by the enumerators during census have never been well-addressed to ensure that everybody is counted.
There are many parts of Nigeria that are not easily accessible due to the difficult terrain, poor road conditions or in the Niger Delta region, where some parts are reverine.

Also, in the north, due to religious beliefs, where women are kept inside the house and not allowed access to men, such women are hardly counted or their numbered ascertained. Some who considered census exercise as means for taxation willingly evaded the process, leaving the country with the kind of data it has in its possession.

The importance of population census cannot be overemphasized, because it is the primary source of data for planning a nation’s economy and politics. They are used to determine the system of political representation, take informed business development and investment decision, as well as allocate government funds to where they are mostly needed.

So, the apparent bad planning and uneven distribution of resources and development may not be unconnected with the continuous use of unreliable population data, because the people may either be more than what is documented or by far less than that.

It was against this background that the Senate called on the President Muhammadu Buhari-led federal government to set machinery in motion to conduct housing and population census in 2018 after adopting a motion by Senator Suleiman Hunkuyi in 2016.

Though the Senate urged the government to make adequate provision of fund for the exercise, the government is yet to do so. Interestingly, this issue came up recently at a conference on Nigeria’s 20 years of democracy at the African Studies Centre, University of Oxford, United Kingdom, and a majority of the people reckoned the figures being brandished currently were totally unreliable.

A discussion led by Professor Akin Osuntokun, a former presidential aide, soon attracted the interest and curiosity of everyone at the conference, who took turns to tear down the current figures. One of the participants, who claimed to have taken part in the previous census, attested to how figures were manipulated for political reasons.

Therefore, it is best known to the current leadership why a correct and reliable census is not of importance to it, and yet continues to base its planning on conjectures that are largely not bankable. It however remains unassailable that Nigeria needs a reliable population census, going forward.