The first Nigerian population census I experienced was in 1996. I was still a child, so I had no idea what was going on. But I do remember that afternoon in Gbongan, a town in Osun State, where my family lived at the time. The census officials came to our compound, asked some questions and gave my parents forms to fill. Afterwards, they painted our thumbs with GV (gentian violet). All the children in the compound gathered around afterwards to compare their thumbs and make a fuss about whose GV stain was biggest. Ten years later, in secondary school, I experienced the census again. I was in a boarding school and I remember spending what seemed like a thousand years in the assembly hall, awaiting my turn. All the while, I had no idea what the point of a census was.

The next census was supposed to happen in 2016 but it didn’t because of poor budgetary allocation, according to the Nigerian Population Commission (NPC). At the time (2015), chairman of the NPC, Eze Duruiheoma (SAN), urged Nigerians to demand that the census hold just like they did the general elections. The 2015 general elections were in danger of not holding, the polling date was moved forward at least once. There was a lot of uncertainty at the time. But the people would not have that. They were tired of the administration at the time and went ahead to prove it in the polling booths on the new election date. Mr Duruiheoma needed us to exercise that same level of vigour in demanding for a census. But you cannot ask a human being to exert themselves for something they really do not understand or see any value in. Ultimately, his message did not resonate the way he wanted.

Fast forward two years later to 2018 and the census is finally scheduled to hold. However, even that is uncertain as the NPC is unsure if the 272 billion Naira allocated for the census in the 2018 budget will materialise. Right now, everything hangs in the balance. And with the 2019 elections around the corner, given Nigeria’s history of massive misappropriation of funds during periods like this, the balance will likely tip to the side of zero. The census might not happen this year also and for that reason, we will continue to peddle false figures of Nigeria’s population. 170, 180, or 200 million – no one is quite sure and no one will be as long as a credible census does not hold.

Nevertheless, even if the census were to hold, what’s the point? What does it add to us as a nation? And what are its implications?

Why the population census is important

According to Statistics South Africa, “Census is important because this process helps compile a numerical profile of [a country]. This, in turn, informs decision-making at all levels both in government and the private sector.”

In the United States, for example, according to the US Census Bureau, census information affects the number of seats a state can occupy in the House of Representatives. It also determines how much of the $400 billion of federal funding can be allocated to spending on infrastructure and services like hospitals, schools, public work projects and job training centres per state.

For the private sector, census data aids companies’ understanding of market size and demographics. Their knowledge of demographic data then plays a critical role in their marketing strategy and spending allocations. Demographic data also helps companies know their market size and calculate potential market share.

In the public sector, the population size of a state largely determines how much the federal government apportions to it from the national budget. Narrow this down to Nigeria and it gets more interesting. In a country where current population data cannot be trusted, you can imagine that some states inflate their population figures to influence federal government budget allocation. This is made worse by the fact that very few states have remotely impressive IGR (Internally Generated Revenue) figures. Most of the states in Nigeria depend largely on the federal government for funds.

The latest report on Internally Generated Revenue from the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics indicates that five out of 36 states will suffer without federal government allocation. The quintet of Lagos, Rivers, Ogun, Delta, and Kano states accrued two-thirds of the 931.23 billion Naira generated by Nigerian states in 2017. This is despite the over 100 billion Naira increase from 2016. Moreover, at 333.96 billion Naira, the IGR of Lagos State is more than that of 28 other states combined and 244.48 billion more than Rivers State in second position (89.48 billion Naira).

A credible census campaign is a major way Nigerians can hold the government accountable. It means that states are unable to falsify figures for budgets and the government can adequately allocate funds for infrastructure and service spending based on accurate estimations of human capital. It is also a major win for the private sector. Through the census, we can finally find out what percentage of Nigerians are actually educated and able to interact properly with technology, two elements that are important to the future of the country. This way, businesses stop running on smoke and start functioning with actual fire.

The question then is: how do we ensure a credible census?

Myanmar’s Ministry of Immigration and Population (with support from the United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA), produced a document highlighting 15 steps that helped ensure a credible 2014 census. Of the 15 steps, the one that most likely can be supervised by every interested citizen is household counting. To make this happen, Nigerians must demand that census officials work with local authorities in their communities — their ward councillors, traditional rulers, and local government chairmen. Because it is through this process that the population commission will design their population maps containing Enumeration Areas (EA). This process can also be supervised through social media, just as it was during the 2015 elections where people took pictures of polling centres and constantly posted information about the voting process as they got it. If there were any case of tampering at these stations, people immediately shared on social media. The same can be done for the census, knowing how critical it is to the state of the country.

Ensuring a credible census, just like ensuring credible elections, in a country like Nigeria is a mountain of work. But then, nothing this important gets done easily in Nigeria. There has to be commitment from the very people it will affect most — you.

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