BY CLIFFORD NDUJIHE Dep Political Editor
AS Nigeria marks 53 years of independence next week, one question that has defied answer is what the actually number of Nigerians is. This question, as simple as it appears, has been difficult to answer in the last 150 years.
Few weeks to the country’s 53rd independence anniversary, five months to100 years of the amalgamation of the southern and northern protectorates to create Nigeria and three years to the 2016 scheduled population census, the issue of how many we are was flung to the front burner of raging issues, recently.
National Chairman of the National Population Commission (NPC), Chief Festus Odimegwu stirred the hornet’s nest when he said, in an interview with journalists in Abuja late August that the country had not had any credible census since 1816.
Blaming the irregularity on distortion and falsification of figures for selfish and political reasons by politicians, he said: “No census has been credible in Nigeria since 1863. Even the one conducted in 2006 is not credible. I have the records and evidence produced by scholars and professors of repute. This is not my report. If the current laws are not amended, the planned 2016 census will not succeed.”
Odimegwu’s comments raised a quantum of dust in the polity with the presidency firing him a query. He also received an avalanche of attacks from many northerners especially, Kano State Governor, Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso, who during a visit to President Goodluck Jonathan at the Presidential Villa, Abuja, called for Odimegwu’s sack over his denigration of the 2006 Nigeria census.
150 years of controversial headcounts
The question of how many Nigerians are there has been popping up long before the people evolved into a nation through amalgamation in 1914.
The first recorded headcount was at the Colony of Lagos in 1863. Another one was held at the then colony in 1871. It was, thereafter, conducted every 10 years.
The first national census was in 1911. Of the 16.054 million persons counted, the Northern Protectorate had 8.12 million, about 50.1 per cent of the total population.
After the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorates in 1914, another exercise was held in 1921. The population was put at 18.7 million with the South having 48 per cent of it.
Other exercises were conducted in 1931, 1953, 1962/63, 1973, 1991 and 2006. Except in the 1962 exercise, the North has always maintained an edge over the South, thus affirming the 1911 projections.
The 1952-53 exercises put the nation’s population figure at 31.6 million. This census was considered an undercount for a number of reasons: apprehension that the headcount was related to tax collection; political tension at the time in eastern Nigeria; inability to reach many remote areas; and inadequate training of enumerators in some areas. The undercounting was estimated at 10 percent or less.
The 1962 and 1973 censuses were most controversial and were subsequently cancelled by the governments in power. The mid-1962 exercise was canceled after much controversy and allegations of over-counting in many areas. Of the 45 million Nigerians counted in 1962, the South had 24 million, thereby “overtaking” the North, which was allegedly favoured in past exercises.
A second attempt in 1963, which was officially accepted, was also encumbered with charges of inaccuracy and manipulation for regional and local political purposes. Indeed, the official 1963 figure of 55.6 million was inconsistent with the census of a decade earlier because it implied a virtually impossible annual growth rate of 5.8 percent.
The equally controversial 1991 census posted a figure of 88.9 million people with a projected growth rate of 2.9 per cent
Before the 2006 headcount, intense bickering arose regarding the proposal to include ethnicity and religion in the questionnaires to generate the statistics of the various ethnic and religious groups in the country given claims and counter-claims regarding their relative strengths. The North threatened to mobilize its people to work against the exercise should these two indices appear in the questionnaire. There was equally a counter threat from the South-east to boycott the exercise if they were not included. In the long run, the North had the upper hand and religion and ethnic group was excluded to the chagrin of Southeasterners.
Consequently, population figures had always been a subject of mudslinging between Southern and Northern politicians. For Southerners, the belief is that the population of the North had been “over-counted”.
They argue that going by simple demographic distribution pattern across the globe, population increases as one move from the hinterland (desert or Savannah regions) to the coast. They wondered why in the case of Nigeria, the North which lies in the arid zone, is more populous than the coastal South.
For Northerners, their extensive landmass and population must not be taken for granted, facts that several head counts had confirmed. And the controversy continues.
Odumegwu’s comments belie Nigeria’s topsy-turvy experience with population census. Acclaimed as the most populous nation in Africa, the true number of Nigerians has always remained a matter of estimates. Currently, Nigeria’s population is between 160 – 167 million based on projections from the 2006 census that put the nation’s population at 140 million with the North accounting for 73.6 million and the South having 64.9 million.
One state that strongly disputed the 2006 census was Lagos, which promptly filed a petition at the Census Tribunal and got a favourable judgment. At the 1991 headcount, Lagos had 5.686 million inhabitants while Kano had 5.632. However, in 2006, Lagos recorded 9.014 million people compared to Kano’s 9.384 million.
The state government, whose parallel headcount recorded 17,553,924 people, described the NPC’s figure as too low. It prayed the tribunal to order a repeat headcount in 14 Local Councils, namely, Alimosho, Ojo, Ajeromi-Ifelodun, Apapa, Lagos-Island, Lagos Mainland, Ikeja, Ikorodu, Kosofe, Mushin, Badagry, Oshodi-Isolo, Shomolu and Surulere and the prayer was answered.
The Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, Ade Ipaye, said: “In the final analysis, the official national census results for the 14 old Local Government Councils (now 40 LGAs and LCDAs) in LagosState have been nullified. This vindicates the resolve of the government to base its physical and economic plans on a projected population of 17,553,924 in 2006 and over 21,000,000 currently. We now expect that the National Population Commission will urgently announce plans for a recount as ordered by the tribunal,” he said.
However, Lagos may not have a repeat headcount in the affected areas until 2016 when another nationwide census would be carried out. Feelers from the NPC indicate that the commission lacked the basic benchmark and requirements to conduct a census now.
Paucity of funds has always hindered scheduled censuses. That was one of the major reasons it took 15 years to hold the 2006 census after the 1991 exercise.
N600 billion budget
Last year, President Goodluck Jonathan approved a budget of N600 billion to the NPC for the 2016 census exercise. The amount is to take care of the activities of the commission for the period of five years at the rate of N120 billion per year.
Population is a major asset; as resource for development, and is also the prime beneficiary of development in society. It constitutes the bulk of the producers and consumers of goods and services. Having a fair estimate of the population of a country enables the government to plan effectively for the betterment of the citizenry. Otherwise, economy planners will be groping in the dark.
In Nigeria, population has been a rather sensitive and controversial issue because of its implications for shaping geopolitical regions, state and ethnic relations and balance of power. It is the attitude towards the population question, in terms of its absolute size, as it concerns election, the states and the sub-regions that constitute the background to census controversies.
Given the controversies stoked by Odimegwu’s comments, his assurances and the hefty budget approved by the government, it is to be seen if the 2016 census will live to expectation.