April 2, 2023

Census 2023: Nigerians expect more than assurances

2023 national census: No question will be asked on religion – NPC

By Tonnie Iredia

The lofty gains which experts say a nation can reap by premising its development on population figures probably leaves some people, especially foreigners, wondering why Nigeria has remained in existence from its origin without an acceptable census figure. Many Nigerian citizens and groups who permanently dispute their country’s figures are neither mad nor foolish; they know that each figure that the population commission has ever declared for Nigeria has always been fictitious. The people also know as of fact that whether a census exercise is credible or not, it would hardly be taken into consideration when national policies on development are being formulated for execution. What then makes the coming census scheduled to hold in Nigeria from May 3-5, 2023 important? Put differently, if demography and feasibility studies are irrelevant to policy makers, why should anyone bother about the 2023 National Population and Housing Census?

Both the government and the public body mandated to conduct a census have always told the people the opposite of how the exercise would be done. If they say they are set to organize a most credible event, it is likely to end with several hitches and manipulations. If the National Population Commission (NPC) affirms that she has all it needs to do a good job, what she actually means is that she has been assured that all the required resources would come-in before D-Day. This time around, she has said the census would be digital, but people may in reality expect failures and deliberate seizures, the way many now feel about the recent general elections in the country. What this suggests is that there is a natural trust deficit in Nigeria’s polity which cannot be filled by mere assurances. In fact, if the feeble assurances of the NPC fail at last, the body would not be as despised as INEC, whose cast-iron assurances are now perceived as self-destroyed.

As the NPC gears forward to May 3rd, it must beware of anything hazy around the time we are in. The government that directed her to conduct the census has 3 weeks remaining of its 8-year tenure. The political environment is charged with bitter laden- election petitions in which some candidates are accusing the electoral body of frustrating their petitions by refusing to grant them access to examine election materials. There is ample doubt if this period can serve as an auspicious time for another national exercise. In 2016, when census was due, it was shelved because as the NPC testified at the time, “the new regime of President Muhammadu Buhari needed to settle down in office before embarking on a huge project such as a national census.” 

Another critical matter is the readiness of the NPC in terms of the human and material resources available to her. The NPC has not received as much support as she needs from government. Unlike INEC which got all it asked for, the NPC has only 46% of what it requires for a successful census in a large territory such as Nigeria. Clem Agba, Nigeria’s Minister of State for Budget and National Planning, revealed this while speaking at a high-level partners’ engagement in Abuja less than one month to the exercise. This is why the assurances of NPC’s central planning committee that it is set to conduct a successful exercise can only be a political statement which no one is obliged to believe. It is in essence a timid assurance which can further place Nigerians far from the NPC. 

In addition, the scope of the assignment is quite large. Indeed, if the NPC believes that counting people in refugee camps is tedious, it may turn out to be far more complicated than the commission may have imagined. Only a few days ago, the federal government released the sum of N15 billion for the repatriation of Internally Displaced Nigerians from three neighbouring countries of Chad, Niger and Cameroun. The displaced persons were those who reportedly fled to neighbouring countries at the height of Boko Haram and other terrorists’ activities in the North-east. Speaking to newsmen in Abuja last Friday, Governor Babagana Zulum of Borno state said the repatriation takes immediate effect.  The implication of this is that the NPC may midway into the census process get to learn of new refugees.   

As we hear, the Commission requires well over 800, 000 officials to take part in the exercise. Have they all been recruited? If so when and what evidence is there that they will not “jump ship” before the start of the exercise? Would the NPC which has less than 50% of its required funding be able to settle the allowances of the recruits or are we likely to see protesters asking for payment midway through the process? These questions are relevant because assurances notwithstanding, failures always occur during elections and even during the recent registration for the National Identity Card, nationwide where what the operating body said and what their personnel and the general public witnessed were different. Even where those recruited are mobilized, there is no guarantee that they would be trained or be capable of assimilating the relevant processes. 

Another assurance which may have been well-intentioned but which many are not likely to believe is the introduction of technology. The NPC has proudly revealed that the 2023 census would be the first digital attempt at compiling population data in the country. It is true that the use of technology for exercises such as census is in line with global reality and best practices, but as we have found from other events, the human dimension in digital events can render the entire exercise fruitless. It is therefore not enough for the NPC to suggest that the census will be hitch-free simply because it was designed to be technically handled. Unlike INEC again, not much is known by the public on what is to be done as well where when and how. The only salutary statement made so far by the NPC in the area of public enlightenment is that she has secured the support of the National Orientation Agency (NOA).

Of course NOA has the required structure to mobilize Nigerians to embrace any public policy because the Agency has offices and operatives in all the 774 local government areas of the country. In truth however, NOA is virtually moribund with no resources for operations. What keeps the Agency alive is that staff salaries are paid monthly as is done in all federal parastatals. NOA has no vehicles for effective movement from one place to another. Ordinarily, the Agency is exceedingly useful especially in grassroots mobilization which it accomplishes by using its capacity to address citizens in the local languages. This separates her from other organs of mass communication which inform but do not educate and which have no feedback mechanism to bridge the gap between government and the people. Can the NPC which has less than it needs raise up NOA from her involuntary slumber? 

There is also the changing political disposition in some states, the best example being Lagos state where the matrilineal principle has suddenly become the most potent tool for categorizing citizens. During the last elections, certain forces successfully and violently silenced a candidate on the basis of the place of origin of his mother. With nothing done to those who perpetuated the abominable act, the NPC may not be able to stop some citizens from travelling away from their places of residence to their places of origin so as to be counted in a safe abode. Although the NPC has given assurances that prescriptive criteria such as religion and ethnicity are not part of the coming census, it will take more than assurances to get some people to buy into the idealistic sermon

In the past, a high level of mutual suspicion and distrust featured prominently in our census exercises. In 2006, for example, some states rejected the census exercise of that year which they claimed was manipulated against them. Lagos in particular said the exercise failed a credibility test and ran a parallel census. Considering that past exercises had been so bedevilled, the NPC, the government and all Nigerians cannot be simplistic about the 2023 census. It requires plenty of resources and time as well as little assurances cannot be vouched for. 

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