2023 Census: What Manner of National Priority?

With few weeks to the end of the May 29 handing over to a new administration, the President Muhammadu Buhari-led federal government has planned to embark on a national population and housing census, which will potentially generate controversies and unnecessary distractions for the incoming administration, Louis Achi writes

Seventeen years after the last national census was held in 2006, Nigeria is set to conduct a fresh national head count. But the hugely complex enumeration exercise scheduled to hold between March 29 and April 2, 2023 across 774 local government areas of the country and expected to cost a princely N869 billion, was last week shifted to May 2023.

According to Nigeria’s Minister of State for Budget and National Planning, Prince Clem Agba, out of the total of N869 billion ($1.88 billion) required for the census, the government has only committed about a quarter of the sum.

Speaking at a high-level partners’ engagement in Abuja recently, Agba said the census would be conducted in partnership with various development partners, including the United Nations Population Agency (UNFPA) and (EU), among others. According to him, UNFPA would provide significant technical and financial support and also manage a basket fund established for the redemption of pledges.

The Minister of Information and Culture, Mr. Lai Mohammed, had told Nigerians that the 2023 population and housing census earlier scheduled for  March 29 had been shifted to May. He spoke while briefing State House correspondents at the end of a recent weekly meeting of the Federal Executive Council (FEC) presided over by President Buhari in Abuja.

  “I believe because of the rescheduling of the elections, they cannot commence the census as scheduled. There was a memo presented by the National Population Commission, seeking some software to allow them to conduct the census in May this year. They sought council’s approval for a contract to procure software for the census at the sum of N2.8 billion,” Mohammed had explained.

 Nigeria’s population is estimated at about 216 million, according to UNFPA. According to statistical projections, if the country continues in its current trajectory, there will be a 100 per cent increase in its population by 2050, reaching up to 400 million people.

Curiously, Nigerians do not trust official figures and neither do officials trust their own figures. This quirky scenario likely explains why most Nigerians – including the government – appeal to outside authority for authentic data about the country.

This apparently feeds some niggling doubts about the real intent of the outgoing administration’s hurry to conduct the massive undertaking of a national population and housing census few weeks to the end of its tenure.

Perhaps, this unflattering backdrop prodded the National Population Commission, to speak up and claim that, “the 2023 Census will be Nigeria’s first digital census and will change how the census is being conducted in Nigeria before now.

“This approach started with the demarcation of enumeration areas covering the entire territorial space of Nigeria using mobile handheld device and geographic information systems, GIS, and satellite imageries to create the digital census maps,” NPC explained.

 “A Population and Housing Census is of great relevance to the economic, political and socio-cultural planning of a country. Reliable and detailed data on the size, structure, distribution and socio-economic and demographic characteristics of a country’s population is required for policy intervention and monitoring of development goals.”

Against the background of impressive rhetoric from key government institutions vested with critical mandates who made straight faced pledges but failed, many Nigerians are leery of hurriedly executed national projects which impact socio-economic and broader human development trajectories.

Many point to the controversies generated by the recent presidential and National Assembly elections which were preceded with cast-iron assurances from the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) but fell short of citizens’ great expectations.

On the funding front, the federal government is apparently not ready but hopes on foreign assistance. Prince Agba, the Minister of State for Budget and National Planning, had already given a sense of the national head-count’s daunting funding scope. He noted that a total of N869 billion ($1.88 billion) will be required for the exercise, including post-census activities; N626 billion ($1.36 billion) for the census at $6 per capita and N243 billion ($527 million) for post-census activities up to 2025.

Then the beggarly dimension to a critical national project is the invitation of various development partners including network providers to support the government with funding.

Further according to Prince Agba, 885,000 persons would be trained to conduct the dual-purpose census; population and housing. The training of these persons, the minister said, would be held just before the census but did not give an exact date.

He said 773 local governments have been demarcated with the exception of Abadam Local Government Area in Borno State where he noted that residents were not very receptive to the personnel.

According to him, government has however, adopted a hybrid enumeration strategy, stating that other areas with similar challenges include Birnin Gwari in Kaduna State and other localities in Zamfara State. However, on their part, the census planning committee assured that its security and logistics committee has all it takes to handle the situation.

In effect, funding, security and manpower are critical and pivotal inputs that would define or undermine the success of a viable national population census. The general feedback from various stakeholders indicate that rushing to hold such a project may not be in the best interest of the country at this political transition period. Some suggest it would have been best left for an incoming administration to deal with.

Little wonder the House of Representatives had suggested putting off the population enumeration. In May 2021, the Lower House had asked NPC to suspend the planned population census, until the country stabilises. They resolved to invite the NPC Chairman Nasir Kwarra to brief the lawmakers on the possibility of organising a census in the face of growing insecurity.

The resolution was sequel to a motion moved by Shehu Beji (APC, Niger). Beji held that thousands of Nigerians have been displaced by the general insecurity across the country, adding that many people have been displaced to neighbouring countries as refugees such as Niger Republic, Cameroon and Benin Republic.

He also insisted that “posting enumerators or ad-hoc staff to volatile areas of the nation in the name of conducting a census is irrational, as it would be like giving them out to criminals.”

According to him, “conducting population and housing census in the current economic recession will only waste the hard-earned resources of this country as the outcome will be inconsequential.”

The 2023 general election was also cited as a reason to postpone the election. Shehu said the next general election is envisaged to commence and end within the first quarter of the year 2023. As such, the whole of the preceding year (2022) would mostly be about campaigns, which has no room for census activities, he said.

His words: “The overlapping effect of active political activities and the national headcount shall be prone to political manipulation by over-ambitious politicians,” he said. When the motion was put to vote by the Presiding Officer, Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila, the “ayes” had it.

President Buhari’s jarring mantra of leaving a worthy legacy may be ultimately tested if a hurried national census morphs into a needless valedictory controversy.

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