Before another census
The origin of headcounts or census in Nigeria can be traced to 1866 in the then colony of Lagos. After the 1914 amalgamation, the first nationwide one was held in 1921. It was largely perceived as a routine colonial affair with the people not giving much of a hoot as to the eventual outcome.
The importance of the census didn’t become known until 1951 when the British conducted one for the purposes of distributing parliamentary seats as independence was around the corner. The North had 55.4% of the population while the South had 44.6%. The 1953 Kano riots can be surreptitiously traced to the North’s use of its arguable population advantage to thwart the independence agenda of the Southern nationalists. The population bargaining chip was so real that the Great Zik of Africa found himself in a rather awkward position of agreeing to postpone the initial 1957 date which was revealed in an interview granted by the late Biafran warlord, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu.
Censuses have subsequently been enmeshed in a lot of controversy. The first one conducted after independence in 1963 was roundly rejected by the then Premier of the Eastern Region, Dr. Michael Okpara. He described them as worse than useless and was so incensed that he went to court. Tragically, the court dismissed his suit on grounds of a lack of jurisdiction and the figures were official at the time. A decade after, The Gowon led administration conducted another one and the outcome was hotly disputed by the Chairman of the Census Board who was the first indigenous Chief Justice of the Federation, Sir Adetokunbo Ademola who alongside, Obafemi Awolowo urged Gowon to cancel it. The other ones that have been held in 1983, 1991 and 2006 have never been generally accepted by the stakeholders. We recall that the resignation of Festus Odimegwu as Chairman of the National Population Commission was over his comments that no credible census had ever been held in the country.
The Senate on October 18, 2016 called on the Federal Government to set aside the year 2018 for the conduct of a fresh census. Senators from Ike Ekweramadu to Emmanuel Bwacha, John Eno and Suleiman Hunkuyi made a request for funds to be kept for that purpose in line with a United Nations recommendation that the conduct of a census should be done every ten years.
While it is useful for national planning to conduct censuses, it has become something of both a national drain and political witch hunting in the ‘Giant of Africa.’ Former Kano State Governor, Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso publicly called for Odimegwu’s head because the latter’s statement was a subtle allusion to the fact that the lopsided balance of power in the country had its roots in defective censuses. Censuses are mere tools to grab more power for its mere sake without any recourse to using the figures to do anything productive for the nation’s growth and development. If censuses had been effective, we won’t be in this current embarrassing situation where we have a dearth of accurate data. Statisticians, Demographers and Economists have to resort to guess work when carrying out their duties.
What is the essence of pumping in billions of naira into an exercise which results have no bearing on the lives of the hoi polloi as the figures are merely used to share the spoils of office? Beyond the rhetoric of Vision 2000, 2010 and 2020, is there any sturdy plan to get the nation out of the woods which would give lots of reasons to have a credible census? The overtly attractive centre makes it necessary for figures to be tampered with so as to bring home the bacon. In a faulty federal structure like ours, it is a do or die affair to inflate the figures so as to provide justification for more allocations from Abuja.
The 2018 date is also suspect as its barely a year to the next general elections with a lot of high stakes in the current winner takes all set up. The polity is overheated and tension soaked with loud secession calls. A census from antecedents may greatly stoke up the flames and precipitate a protracted crisis. The imbroglio in the Niger Delta and the strident calls for the reality of Biafra may see more bloodshed if the planned census is another politically motivated hogwash. The resentment of the Nigerian State is already so deep-rooted with no need for the continued forced marriage. The census may just be another time-bomb as deep meanings would be read into it.
If the census holds, it would be an acid test of how well the Buhari-led government can run an administration of national unity. There is already subtle anger brewing all over the land in the Northernisation agenda and the lack of government presence in the agony of the masses. The collective amnesia of Nigerians would not forget Aisha Buhari’s BBC interview in a hurry. The Second term agenda may fly on the back of this census. It may be a carefully engineered plan since Sai Baba has obviously lost control of the ship of state.
It is high time policy makers took a clean break from the awry past and use this data collation to make better plans for generations yet unborn. What is on ground to deal with the speculated population explosion? How equipped are the youths to deal with the challenges of living in a VUCA world which has been flattened with their competitors not necessarily the man next door but in faraway India or China? The oil doom is here to stay and there is the sinister talk of disposing of our national assets. What will this government do with the figures to make the majority of the youth driven population plug into the digital economy? How can these figures prepare the youths to export ideas using the power of technology? The issues of development should drive the next census rather than mere politics that will set us a century aback.
India leveraged on the back of her large population to establish Bangalore that is now the world’s largest IT outsourced centre. China’s population has seen them spread their tentacles all over the globe such that when they migrate, they do so to exploit economic opportunities rather than constitute a nuisance or burden on their host countries. Nigeria is still plagued with the tragedy of youths doing all they can to escape repression by being vagabonds in foreign climes because of their emotionally bruised and battered mindsets. How will the next census use the figures to set the stage for genuine youth focused development to give genuine meaning to the change mantra which brought this administration to power last year? The change begins with me will make a whole lot of sense if a nexus can be seen in the census exercise and its usage to draw up a sturdy blueprint that can see an avalanche of pro people policies. Anything short of this will be nothing more than another merry go round designed to perpetuate the ‘Born to Rule’ theory.