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How many are we in Nigeria?

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Nigerians crowd population. PHOTO: LUCY LADIDI ELUKPO

How many are we in Nigeria? 178 million? 198 million? 201 million?
We do not know for sure. The above figures are estimates by the experts on what our population should be at this point in time, given our progressively impressive showing in the labour wards. We do not know because we have ignored the advice of the population experts that every country should count its citizens every ten years. Just to bring you up to speed here, the technical name for it is census.

The last time we did the head count was in 2006. We are now behind by some three years because we should have re-counted our population in 2016. I cannot yet hear the federal government bestirring itself to commit to this simple but critical act of counting the number of Nigerian citizens distributed among the states and local government areas. I have not seen it in the NextLevel programme of the Buhari administration.

Someone should remind the president to put it there and move the country to the next level with accurate and reliable census figures. It is important for us to know our actual number for much better reasons than the total number alone. No nation relies on its estimated population because such estimates ignore the demographics unearthed by census which are needed for national planning purposes. A national population, in addition to determining the actual number of the people, also gives us important data on the distribution of the population by age, sex, location and economic strata, among others.

This detailed information is critical to national planning and development. No national government needs to be told that it must know how many people it is ruling. How can it plan to provide for their basic needs such as light, water, schools, housing, health facilities and education if it does not know or assumes it knows?

The 2006 national population census put our population at 140.3 million. But the keen watchers of the labour rooms now tell us that we have moved right up on the scale among the fecund. The estimated figures of 198 million and 201 million being thrown at us are scary. In matters of human beings competing with the rabbit, the more is not the merrier. The more is the greater hardship for everyone unless a country knows and plans for the unanticipated new arrivals at the estimated rate of three per cent per annum. Estimated populations are unhelpful because they are plucked from the wind and dressed up as solid facts. These estimates are rather outlandish but to be fair, Nigerians produce at a rate that befuddles the minds of the experts.

We should know a lot more about our population than the absolute number, factual or estimated. We should know if our country is home to a large ageing population or a larger youthful population. We should know where the population is concentrated – states and local government areas. Only an accurate and reliable national head count can give us these demographics. A large ageing population or a larger youthful population presents us, each with its own challenges. A nation with a large ageing population faces the serious problems of dependency. A nation must prepare for this because it would take much more than throwing good money, as we like to do, at bad problems.

On the other hand, a greater youthful population means that our future is secure because we are blessed with young men and women to whom the torch of national development could be passed by men and women who have accumulated high numbers as their age and have up to give up on the race of life. The more young people you have, the more the production factories would keep humming, moving the country up in production and productivity. And our country will catch up with the Joneses of the developed world.

But just as a nation must plan for its ageing population, so must it plan for its youthful population. The managers of our national economy whose job it is to plan for our national development can do nothing without accurate and reliable national population census. Yes, number matters. Yes, its spread matters. And yes, national planning stands on numbers.

Between 1911 and 2006, we have had seven national head counts. In the short period of 108 years, our population rose steadily from 16.05 million in 1911 to 140.3 million in 2006. We have left many nations behind at the starting point. But there is a downside to our ambition to fill the earth. We are imposing an infinite number on finite resources, human and natural. How to manage a growing population is a challenge of monumental proportions. We cannot be prepared for this challenge without knowing where we are, population wise. When India came to that tipping point it imposed a compulsory birth control to save women the frequent trips to the labour wards. It was able to do it because it had an accurate head count and the distribution of the population in states, towns and the rural areas. And from these, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was able to convince her people that the stark choice before them was either a country with a manageable population in which the scarce resources took care of the majority of the people or a country with a huge population that was a problem unto itself.

Perhaps, we have not reached that tipping point but who is to tell? The complication for us is that our national head count is not about the demographic statistics; it is more about the sharing of the national cake. Perhaps this is why every Nigerian government trembles when its mind wanders off to the thought of a head count. Our national cake, also known as revenue allocation formula, is shared according to the number each state and local government returns during the census enumeration. The state that has the largest population takes home the largest chunk of the national cake. So, every state wants to return a large number to improve its chances of getting a larger slice of the national cake.

This has always hobbled our efforts to do what other nations do without rancour and controversy. Just to show you how long we have been in the game of stoking the fires of controversy over our national population, I take you back to 1962 when we conducted our first post independence national population. The Eastern Region suddenly discovered a new and hitherto unknown village in its territory. The discovery was well-intentioned. The regional government had to be creative about improving the population of the region.

But I think we have gone past that creative stage. The 1991 and the 2006 head count did not set us back to 1962 and 1973. Buhari need not fear of stepping into the cauldron. He should go ahead and let the National Population Commission conduct the census next year. Better late than never. Foot dragging would compound the current complicated problem of planning with either an outdated population figures or some outlandish estimated national population. The managers of our national economy need reliable data thrown up by our national head count to do a good job of planning our future and our national development. To impose out-dated facts and figures on them is to authorise them to do a shoddy job.

A national population census is expensive. But we are in luck as a developing country. Donor countries and institutions are so interested in our accurate national head count that they are usually willing to absorb 60 per cent of the expenses with all the necessary logistics. We do not need anyone to persuade us to take advantage of this because it is to our advantage. We could meet the 40 per cent counterpart fund by taking a few million dollars from the Abacha loot.

I presume that the National Population Commission has not been idling away its time. It must have been doing the needful waiting for the presidential green light to formally kick start preparations for national census 2020. Let it receive that green light now, Mr President.


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