Why must the forthcoming headcount be conducted now? Monday Philips Ekpe asks
The Federal Government is very serious. Or so it hopes to be perceived. There are decisions and steps it has taken recently which indicate that it might be keen on leaving behind lasting legacies, after all. The upcoming population census is one of them. If the National Population Commission (NPC) puts its acts together and generates credible figures, not even the most vicious critics of the President Muhammadu Buhari administration would deny it the right to claim a truly momentous achievement. That is, if the NPC does. But, will it? The odds against a successful prosecution of this critical assignment at this time certainly outweigh whatever ardent optimists and believers in the ability of our public institutions to deliver trustworthy results think.
Let’s interrogate one aspect of the timing a bit. The last census was held in 2006 towards the end of former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s second term in office. Designed to hold every ten years, 2016 waited for its ownturn but it was not to be. Buhari was then trying to form the government and settle into his first term. The mounting insecurity he had inherited from former President Goodluck Jonathan just couldn’t go away, a burden he has borne for the larger part of his closing tenure. Government revenues took a sharp slide. In vexatious ways, these reasons have persisted and do not show signs of abating soon. The headcount dates have been changed several times; the last one occasioned by the postponement of the governorship and houses of assembly polls last month.
It’s now too late to even suggest another shift, perhaps. Next Monday, by NPC’s timetable, the numbering of buildings and listing of households will commence throughout the federation. From April 25 to 30, the census enumerators and supervisors will be trained to face the delicate tasks ahead. Actual enumeration is billed for the first week of May. Thisofficial schedule may well be howfar the commission can go in attempting to portray itself as an agencyon a crucial, committed mission. Not that it hasn’t done appreciable things, though. Some 885, 000 persons are said to have been positioned through trainings to handle the various stages of the programme. One of its strongest points is the involvement of digital technology. Very smart, it appears,and touted to secure the trust of Nigerians, showcase NPC as a pragmatic institution and the devices as capable of yielding verifiable, accurate results. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and satellite images have also beenmobilised to achieve digital mapping – another edge over previous attempts.
Ordinarily, any country as large as Nigeria ought to be used to lavishly employing relevant technical applications that track and cover its entire geographical space to drastically reduce errors in timelines and data collection. Apart from enhancing the deployment of resources, they couldequally engender confidence in the process. Ultimately, the outcomes canbecome easily acceptable. Satisfied by majority of the citizens, many of whom have lived with population-related anger, prejudices and questions over the years without compelling answers. Respectable to the numerous governments and organisations within and outside Nigeria that need reliable related data for planning and projection purposes. And, of course, they stand a chance of being endorsed by the United Nations which had counselled that, beginning from 2020, countries should embrace, atthe level of policy, the digitalisation of their censuses.If there’s any time the nation needs dependable statistics about its people and houses, it is now. One estimate by the United Nations Population Agency, UNFPA, shows 216 million people in Nigeria. But for how long shall we depend on figuresfrom foreign or multinational bodies for something as basic as the number of those who live within our own borders? So, the rationale for the exerciseis not in doubt, hopefully.
However, unless NPC moves fast in the direction of winning the people’s confidence and convincing the other key stakeholders about its readiness to stage a census that can defeat the formidable odds against it, it should immediately arrange sellable excuses for its likely, eventual failures.A year ago, precisely on April 21, 2022, my piece on this page titled, “Wrong Timing for National Census”, was based on what I saw as government’s insensitivity in fixing the dates for the census between the general election and May 29, 2023 when the current administration would hand over power to the in-coming one. Itreads in part: “As cogent and urgent as the grounds for the exercise are, the present socio-political climate in the country poses a credible threat to its success, unless we are bent on embarking on our trademark wasteful programmes. Much has been presented and argued at numerous fora about the unprecedented heights of distrust, anxiety, agitations, divisions and insecurity that exist at the moment. Regional, ethnic and religious lines that have existed in Nigeria for long are becoming increasingly wider.
“Incidentally, these are the same elements that endanger the elections. Unless a miracle occurs, which is very unlikely, we will continue to grapple with these well-entrenched features pre, during and post 2023 general election. It, therefore, does not make sense for both of them to be run close to each other. The two projects are potentially combustible in the nation today, sadly. Just like mixing petrol with gas. In the face of the unfortunate realities of contemporary Nigeria, this is not alarmist. Our security institutions are clearly under-staffed, ill-motivated, poorly equipped and over-burdened. And they are expected to play strategic roles in the conduct of these prime assignments.” With all modesty, many of those words have come true. Yes, physical security hasn’t been significantly breached in a broad sense. But it can’t be denied that the February 25 federal elections and the March 18 state version have left the nation in a somewhat sombre state.
Some of the winners have had to celebrate with restraint, not out of magnanimity but because of the uncertainty that comes with the likelihood of having their victories upturned at the tribunals and courts. The present subdued mood in the country, unprecedented in pre-handover periods, is framed largely by the outcome of the presidential election. While the two top contenders, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) and Labour Party (LP), are legally challenging the result, their members and sympathisers have built trenches in the media and elsewhere and are digging in daily, helping to further foul an already toxic atmosphere.Divisions among Nigerians along primordial lines have now been deepened, unfortunately. The elections have also produced more mistrust and an ebbing sense of nationalism in our land. Surely, this prevailing context isn’t the kind that can midwife a census that we can all trust.
The disenchantment of a large portion of the citizenry with the establishment is not exactly surprising. In recent times, Nigerians have been serially disappointed by ill-conceived government policies and officials who fail to exhibittruthfulness, competence and genuine empathy with the suffering masses. The presidential poll, in particular, which was tall on technology-based promises but very lean and short on delivery, stands out in the assembly of sore spots for many people. And coming only shortly before the census doesn’t help. If the interest, motivation and attitude of the people are important variables in the 2023 Housing and Population Census, no real success should be expected.
If so, why the rush? We’ve been told that the government only bears one quarter of the whopping budget of N869billion for the operation. What manner of good news is that? And the fact that there’s partnership with UNFPA and European Union won’t even assuage the apprehension of Nigerians who’rewaiting helplessly to witness yet another underperforming and annoying venture.
Dr Ekpe is a member of THISDAY Editorial Board