March 9, 2023

Can we afford this census?

BARELY a month from now, Nigeria is expected to conduct a population and housing enumeration exercise. It will be the sixth in our history as a united entity, and the fifth since Nigeria gained independence from our British colonial masters.

Even before the colonies that became Nigeria were amalgamated in 1914, the British imperialists had adopted the decennial (ten yearly) system of enumeration in 1866, 1871, 1881, 1891 and 1901. With it, they had a good idea of the population figures, projected tax revenues and planned for development.

The system was disrupted by the two World Wars, but in 1952/53, Nigeria’s first census as one political entity took place. From then on, censuses held in 1962, 1962/63, 1973, 1991 and 2006 followed an irregular rhythm. Next month’s planned census will be the first in 17 years.

Censuses in Nigeria have always been horribly politicised because population is a major metric for Federal allocation of funds to federating units such as Regions, States and Local Government Areas. The more populated a sub-national unit is, the more revenue is allocated to it. Because of this, every federating unit makes efforts to artificially inflate its figures. Politics was at play when the 2006 census claimed that Kano State was more populated than Lagos State, the nation’s former capital and economic nerve-centre.

This tendency of politicising censuses and failure to use them to plan have almost rendered them irrelevant. Censuses have now become tools to enrich the political elite who grow rich overnight by being involved in politics. The census of 2006 put the population at 140 million but the current rough estimate puts it between 211 and 215 million, making Nigeria the seventh most populous country. Because of the emphasis on political aggrandisement, it is difficult to justify this claim.

The huge bill of N869 billion required to conduct the 2023 census is something we doubt the nation can afford right now. According to the Minister of State for Budget, Clement Agba, government has already spent N291 billion and is shopping for over N500 billion between now and next months for the exercise.

Every government and even individual must have a scale of preferences and choose which item to prioritise and allocate scarce funds to at any given time. Until we sit down and recalibrate our population census and management to prevent politics-driven inflation of figures, we will be wasting scarce resources on irrelevant enumeration exercises. Our census must be for economic planning, not consumption.

At this juncture when the Muhammadu Buhari regime is preparing to hand over to its successor, it is not ideal for a census that will drain so much from our lean purse. Let’s shelve and rejig it for a more effective relaunch when the economy improves. All huge spending must be stopped.