There are two major challenges, among many, that have exposed Nigeria’s inability to manage itself. The first is the failure to determine the accurate number of people who reside within the country. With open and unprotected borders that allow free but unauthorised entry for people of questionable character from other countries, Nigeria has become a central meeting ground for criminals on the run, ex-convicts looking to relocate to another country, dissidents in search of an easy place to destabilise or stir up trouble, traffickers of illegal substances, as well as merchants of fake and contaminated drugs who constitute direct channels through which adulterated drugs are supplied to pharmacies, itinerant market women and teenagers who hawk fake drugs along the streets.
If you ever wonder about the sources of fake, illegal, and dangerous goods that circulate in local markets, you must look to Nigeria’s porous borders. I will return shortly to explain why failure to conduct an accurate head count has diminished all official efforts to boost national socioeconomic development.
The second and persistent problem that has blown open Nigeria’s fragile political foundation is the inability to conduct free, fair, credible, and peaceful elections. Voters’ experiences during the 2019 elections show that we are still far from a democratic country. The ability to hold free, peaceful, and genuinely transparent elections constitutes one of the symbols of a true democracy. Countries that have regularly failed to conduct credible elections (such as Nigeria) lose the right to be regarded as egalitarian.
In a previous article titled “Is Nigeria a democracy?” published on May 28, 2019, I defined a democracy as a country that possesses the following characteristics: “A democracy is a country that respects the human rights of citizens, a country in which the voices of ordinary people are heard, and a country in which people’s fundamental rights and freedoms are recognised and appreciated. It is a country in which everyone enjoys equal opportunities, and a country in which people have the power to scrutinise national leaders. A democracy is a country that holds regular free, fair, and credible elections. Above all, a democracy is a country in which there exist strong political parties and an effective media system.”
Nearly 59 years after independence, Nigeria has continued to search unproductively for the right mix of strategies to facilitate the conduct of fair and trouble-free elections, in spite of the stupendous amount of money that has been invested to make every election successful and credible. Unfortunately, all that money looks like gemstones dropped in the middle of the ocean – a waste of valuable financial resources.
I return now to that important exercise that has eluded Nigeria for a long time, that is, the national population census. So far, no one, not even the National Population Commission (NPC), an agency of government responsible for producing accurate population data, has precise knowledge of Nigeria’s population. The NPC prefers to estimate Nigeria’s population rather than undertake a correct census exercise.
At a press conference to celebrate the 2019 World Population Day, the acting national chairperson of the NPC, Yusuf Anka, said Nigeria’s population is estimated to be 198 million people. To make that dodgy figure appear authentic, he said: “The commission arrived at the figure through application of appropriate census tools”. What can be more “appropriate census tools” than a systematic head count? It is strange the way we do things haphazardly in Nigeria. Other countries see national population census as a serious assignment that should be approached in a clinical and methodical manner.
The exact population of Nigeria has always been an explosive subject especially given the fractured nature of the society. It is as sensitive as national elections that are contested in a do-or-die manner.
It is tragic that nobody, not even senior government officials, is concerned that the last official census conducted in Nigeria took place in 2006, exactly 13 years ago. At the end of that disputed census, the NPC said unbelievably that there were 140,431,790 people in the country. The figure was challenged immediately. The national outrage was palpable. There were diverse views about the accuracy of the census figures.
In a country challenged by imprecise population data, the current estimate provided by the NPC boss is not only farcical but also far-fetched. How do you present an authoritative population figure in the absence of any head count in the past 13 years? NPC officials must be expert magicians long experienced in the art of producing imaginary population data. The irritating trend of speculating about Nigeria’s population has persisted for years. Everyone talks about our population estimate, not about accurate population figure.
In an environment in which ambiguity rules government’s activities, the lack of demonstrable population data is not surprising. A government that has little regard for accurate population statistics also has no respect for or interest in sustained national economic development. A country that does not plan on the back of precise population figures is like an aircraft pilot that operates with eyes blindfolded.
The importance of valid population census data cannot be overstated. Babatunde Fashola, former Governor of Lagos State, once warned that, “If the work of government is to provide services to people, its efficiency will be determined by its knowledge of how many people need service. And, therefore, without accurate census figures, it may seem that we are not determined to go on the path of development.”
That is an incontrovertible statement.
Government at any level cannot provide valuable services to people if it has no insights into the number of people for whom the services are intended. Precise population data are essential for national planning.
A national population head count was scheduled for 2016, 10 years after the last exercise in 2006. There has been no movement on that front. The current government has persisted in doing business as usual. Nothing can be achieved when government operates with vague or incorrect population data. In that milieu, accurate planning, budgeting, and forecasting will remain unachievable. The existing situation has to be addressed forcefully. Nigeria should be moving forward with factual data rather than operating on the basis of ill-informed, statistically incorrect data about its population size.
A reader’s reaction
2019 elections: INEC blames social media
I thank you for your analysis on the above claim by the INEC chairman. I am impressed that someone would debunk his claims and make his excuses fall flat. But have you observed a recurring trend about all mediocre people who fail in their responsibilities, especially in this government? They always blame it on someone else and think they have absolved themselves from blame. For instance, Buhari has told us that his inability to perform is because of PDP. Buratai has informed the nation that Boko Haram is difficult to defeat because some soldiers are not committed to the cause. And now Mahmood Yakubu is blaming his poor performance on social media and poor journalists. You can deceive some of the people some of the time but not all the people all the time!
•Steve E. Odo
Abakaliki, Ebonyi State