How to Overcome Nigeria’s Obnoxious Population Enumeration Challenge

Moses Ekpo

Moses Ekpo, Deputy Governor of Akwa Ibom State, narrates Nigeria’s ugly national population enumeration history triggered by southern politicians seeking to end the north’s dominance of Nigerian politics through the census

I am always excited to contribute to any discourse on national development – particularly, one that has to do with the search for a fool-proof census data-bank for our country as it happened recently in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, when the National Population Commission held its 2020 Executive Retreat.

I was opportune a few years ago to make similar contributions more directly as the Commissioner representing Akwa Ibom in the National Population Commission, and I think that earlier involvement with the NPC informed my nomination for that presentation.

The retreat sought to remind and re-educate members of the National Population Commission of their roles and duties. It is timely now that the challenge to develop our country is strongest due to the increasing need to take our place in the comity of nations and be a model for the rest of Africa.

The National Population Act 23 of 1989 amongst other things, mandates the Commission to: (a) undertake the enumeration of the population of Nigeria periodically, through censuses, sample surveys; (b) establish and maintain a machinery for continuous and universal registration of
births and deaths throughout the country; (c) prepare and maintain a national framework, including locality list and house-numbering, for delineation exercise for census and sample survey in each local government area; (d) collect, collate and publish data on migration
statistics; (e) research and monitor the national population policy, and set up a national population data-bank; (f) arrange for the appointment and training of staff of the Commission; and (g) provide information and data on population for purposes of facilitating national planning and economic development.

The decision to establish the National Population Commission to execute the above brief, is a clear indication that the Federal Government strongly believes that the availability of an accurate and dependable census data-bank is a sine qua non to genuine national development.

There is in fact a global consensus about the need for a coordinated, systematic and responsible data-base on population if government must make informed decisions for policy and planning; if it is to assess the impact of these decisions and to operate its programmes effectively. Scholars in demographic studies are also united in the belief that data on population is a critical function of an emerging modern society.

But the constitutional requirement that every state of the federation, and the Federal Capital Territory should be represented on the Commission is a hint on our turbulent national census history, and the need for nation-wide popular vigilance on this very important area of
our national life.

Our ugly national population enumeration history is captured in the “The Story of How Nigeria Census Figures Became Weaponized,” by Feyi Fawehinmi, published online by Quartz Africa on the 6th of March, 2018: “The story of Nigeria’s 1962 census never gets old. Southern politicians seeking to end the North’s dominance of Nigerian politics decided that the only way to do it was through the census. Population figures at the time determined not only parliamentary representation, but also revenue and employee distribution in the civil service.”

This is still the position today. But it is only a small picture of the situation; and, of course, presents the matter rather simplistically. The real malady puts a critical edge on the roles and
duties of the commissioners as they came on board in 1989. The commissioners are required to combine their brief as government census ombudsmen with that of being the eyes and ears of their respective states. This is obviously a tight rope to walk because it amounts to holding forte and holding one’s own at the same time.

But the National Population Commissioners can walk this tight rope with positive results if they are patriotic, if there is the political will across board to do the right thing abinitio. As it is said in
Akwa Ibom, when the passion is right, other things fall into place. The Federal Government which is the mandating authority in census matters must itself adopt an uncompromising stand on this very critical subject. A return to the basics in vision and attitude of implementation on the part of the Federal Government will influence its body language accordingly, and the appropriate signals would have been sent to those assigned with the duty of enumeration.

It should be stressed that even the states represented by the commissioners stand to gain from the availability of accurate and dependable census data. As rightly indicated by Abraham Okolo in The Nigerian Census: Problems and Prospects, published in the American Statistician Journal, “… the need for information available from a census extends beyond the Federal Government to states and local governments and private services providers.

Each one needs reliable, timely and comparable data and analysis which describe the ethnic composition, literacy levels, number of children ever born, number of children living, occupation, sex, age, disability, etc. The lack of such statistics severely limits government’s capacity to plan, manage, and evaluate investments in its economic and social programmes”.

It is within the context of these critical imperative for a dependable census data base, that the role and duties of Commissioners of the National Population Commission can be wholistically evaluated – and of course, against the background of the Commission’s statutory mandate.

More efforts and resources should be expended in staff training and public enlightenment. When every staff of the Commission buys into the vision of a fool-proof head-count, he or she approaches his or her work with a sense of personal stake with minimum supervision. Also a sufficiently enlightened public is likely to on its own, mount the necessary vigilance against various forms of sabotage that had frustrated past enumeration exercises in our country.