Three years on since Nigeria planned to conduct a national population census in 2016, the government has remained silent and has shifted attention to political and other mundane matters. Government officials are not talking about the need to conduct a population census because the exercise does not rank high in the list of government’s priority projects. Apparently, no one cares to know the number of people residing in the country.
If you want to know how ignorant senior government officials and ordinary citizens are about the country’s population, ask them to mention the population of Nigeria, not the approximation. You will be stunned by the degree of ignorance. This is not surprising. In a country in which everyone is consumed by the desire to acquire wealth by fair or crooked means, any topic that does not relate to this consuming passion is perceived as irrelevant and quickly disregarded.
For many years, the official population of Nigeria has been an irritating subject of guesswork. People talk about population estimate, not about accurate population figure. This is what you get in a country challenged by lack of reliable population data. Let us spit out the fact. The Federal Government does not regard accurate statistics as key to sustained national socioeconomic development. A country that does not plan does not make progress. Central to effective national planning is availability of reliable data. If you do not know how many people live in the country, you cannot have an accurate plan that caters for the needs of the population.
Surprisingly, officials who ought to be better informed talk imprecisely about the population of Nigeria. You hear estimates of the national population placed anywhere between 150 million and 180 million people. Some other people say the population has exceeded 200 million. These are useless figures. They do not help in national planning or close the knowledge gap that exists.
The last official census conducted in Nigeria took place 13 years ago in 2006. At the end of the exercise, the National Population Commission (NPC) said imposingly that there were 140,431,790 people in the country. That figure triggered national outrage. Some people said the figure was an awful misrepresentation of the country’s population. Not only was the national population figure seriously disputed, the figures for the states drew even greater indignation.
After 2006, the next official census was due to hold in 2016. Unfortunately, nothing has happened since then and Nigeria has continued to do business as usual. Doing business as usual has undesirable consequences. When government operates with incorrect population census data, accurate planning and forecasts are hard to achieve. Businesses are marred by ambiguities, unreachable economic targets, inadequate planning, and distorted future outlook. To put it bluntly, national economic planning without accurate population figure is like driving blind or, more appropriately, juggling knives in the dark. It is a dangerous exercise.
We have a population commission that is responsible for conducting national census. We have a minister of national planning. How can a minister plan effectively in an environment in which government does not know the population of citizens?
If Nigeria wants to join countries that have made speedy economic progress, it must deal promptly with the challenge posed by lack of reliable population census figure. The public and private sectors need accurate and reliable census data to undertake efficient economic planning.
One of the difficulties of conducting a population census in Nigeria is the general suspicion that census figures are always doctored, much like the manipulated election results. There is a general perception that population figures are regularly altered to serve the interests of people in certain geographic regions of the country. It is this same mindset that informs the widespread and criminal encouragement of under-age voters in some parts of the north during elections. This behaviour continues to fester with every census and every election.
Like the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) whose integrity has been sullied because of the iniquitous conduct of its officials during elections, the National Population Commission is also weighed down by the activities of enumerators with a tattered record of ethical principles. It is strange that in the conduct of elections and in the organisation of national population census, Nigeria has shown that it lacks principled men and women with the capacity and commitment to undertake national assignment with honour.
Former Governor of Lagos State Babatunde Fashola outlined in mid-August 2015 practical reasons why Nigeria needed accurate census data. He said categorically that lack of accurate population census figures meant the country would continue to be deluded in its attempt to attain swift national economic development. Fashola said at the time 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.” Fashola was right.
Lack of accurate population census data will impact negatively on a variety of government services, programmes, policies, and plans, such as the economy, taxation, healthcare, education, infrastructure development and maintenance, agricultural production, development of small and medium-scale businesses, employment opportunities, budget planning, and a whole lot of other areas.
As a reflection of the high level of criminality that blemishes a national population census, Fashola recalled an experience during the 2006 census in which the population of Lagos was under-reported. He said: “… we worked with the National Population Commission (NPC). When they returned a number of over nine million, it was clear that it has become, Fela’s words, ‘government magic’… I recalled very clearly that… the population commission told us that they were going to enumerate households and the definition of a household is one family of husband, wife and children. At the end of the exercise, we enumerated 4.5 million households in Lagos. Yet, they returned with only nine million as Lagos population. It meant that all households ‘in Lagos have only husband and wife, and no children”. That was a hilarious but true narrative.
Many people assume wrongly that the purpose of a national population census is to facilitate the creation of new states and local governments or to allocate federal resources to states with more population. It is these bizarre ideas that drove some politicians and public officials to falsify previous census figures. These beliefs represent baseless understandings of the reasons why population census is conducted regularly.
In the past, people have asked the question: How can we deal with the challenges of poor agricultural production? The answer is not too difficult to find. Nigeria has not been able to make positive impact on agricultural production because it lacks knowledge of the population of its citizens. If the government knows the population of the country, it can plan more efficiently. It can boost agriculture through provision of loans to small and medium-scale farmers (e.g., micro credit facilities). It can offer loans to unemployed youth who have pragmatic business plans. Government can do more but it cannot do so with little or no knowledge of the population.