Nigeria has not had a census in well over a decade. So the news that Nigeria is preparing for a nationwide headcount this year sounds historically significant. Even more, it’s supposed to be Nigeria’s first “digital census.” However, Nigerians don’t seem excited about it. Social media is brimming with people either showing scepticism or even demanding the program’s cancellation. At the heart of the discontent is a lack of trust in the government’s ability to conduct a transparent and accurate census. With a proposed budget of $1.88 billion (N896 billion), it will be Africa’s most expensive headcount ever. Thus, many Nigerians are questioning its cost.

There’s a worthy cause for Nigerians to worry about the proposed cost of this census. The proposed budget is more than the combined cost of India ($470m), Brazil ($450m), Indonesia ($292m) and Pakistan’s ($130m) recent censuses. For context, all these countries have higher populations than Nigeria, and India has more than seven times its numbers.

The cost of this census is not the only thing they are worried about. But before we go into the other reasons, let’s see why this census matters.

In 2006, Nigeria conducted a census. The results put the country’s population at 140 million, with Kano being the most populous state, followed by Lagos. These results were controversial, with the South alleging that the figures had been inflated to favour the North. Many people believed this discrepancy was because of political interference.

This was history repeating itself, ascounting Nigerians has always been tricky. But that was 16 years ago, and a lot (should) have changed since then. The United Nations recommends holding a census at least every decade, yet it took Nigeria longer. The population figures in play since our last census have been estimates provided by Worldometer. So the current 200 million is an uncertain number.

In 2022, the National Population Commission announced its plans to conduct Nigeria’s first paperless census after the general elections. But since then, the proposed cost of the exercise has been rising. In September 2022, Nigeria’s Vice President Yemi Osinbajo announced that the census would cost N198 billion. By November, NPC chairman, Nasir Isa Kwarra, stood before a Senate Committee to defend a proposed N532.7 billion budget. Now, we’re looking at N869 billion.

The concerns about the census don’t exist in isolation. The just-concluded elections set a precedent for Nigerians to have little trust in the process. Even with a N305 billion budget, Nigeria’s attempt at innovative elections underdelivered. Instead, it proved that digital solutions cannot always curb human influence.

Aside from the elections, Nigeria has a track record of clumsy execution. In 2020, the government ordered all residents to get their National Identity Numbers (NIN) and link them to their phone numbers. The immediate consequence of not doing so was to have their lines disabled. The purpose was to collect data and assign identities to citizens in the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC). However, the government gave a two-week ultimatum, even though it was ill-prepared for mass registrations. The result, as expected, was nationwide panic. And even though it ended up stretching its deadline continuously for two years, it left people with little faith. So, when Nigerians heard of an alleged hack on the NIMC’s database, it was difficult to convince them that it wasn’t true.

Theoretically, innovations in census exercises, such as digital-first/only tools, should make them more effective. For instance, technology improved the productivity of field operations in the United States 2020 census. Using laptops and mobile phones sped up the enumeration beyond initial estimates.

Similarly, Nigeria’s census going digital could significantly eliminate the discrepancies that often arise with digitising data recorded on paper. However, the question of human capacity, as well as the availability and functionality of digital equipment, remains.

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