A delegate from Edo State, Mr. Chris Agbonwanegbe on Wednesday, July 2, 2014 at the ongoing National Conference reopened the controversy over the unreliability of Nigeria’s census figures. Agbonwanegbe attributed the high population figures being credited to certain northern states to manipulation. He also condemned the lopsided creation of local governments areas which he saw as skewed in favour of some northern states. He made a specific reference to Kano State in which the military created 44 local government areas and contrasted it with Lagos State in which 20 local government areas were created in spite of the fact that the two states are at par in terms of the questionable official population figures.
It is unfortunate that population figures are not understood in Nigeria as a planning tool but as a source of advantage in the contest for political power and economic benefits. Every national population census has been a subject of controversy at the end of which the figures were either foisted on the people or cancelled. And every individual who has mustered the courage to draw attention to the national malaise has been target of verbal attack by those who have been benefiting from the patent irregularity that has been contributing in no small measure to Nigeria’s retrogression.
The immediate past chairman of the National Population Commission (NPC), Chief Festus Odimegwu, was hounded out of the exalted office last year for being blunt and forthright. He identified the problems responsible for the failure of past censuses and expressed the determination to bring about a change for the better. He pointedly said that all previous censuses were totally flawed and called for an amendment of the existing law to make the 2016 census a success. He was queried for saying what everybody knows to be the plain truth because the government did not have the guts to contend with the innovative approach of an independent-minded man. Although all those who launched into a tirade of abuse against him could not controvert his argument, they saw to his exit from office as NPC chairman.
To make a success of the 2016 population census, the government should cast a retrospective glance at the history of censuses in Nigeria and learn from the errors of the past. Nigeria should cease to be a country that plans with wrong figures. The first post-independence census in 1962 showed that Nigeria had a population of 45.26 million people with the south having 23.25 million and the north 22.01 million people. The distribution of population between the south and the north altered the existing record of the 1952/53 census (conducted by the British colonialists) which gave 54 per cent of the country’s population to the north. In spite of the fact that the 1962 figures were in conformity with the global pattern that population movement has always been from the arid to the forested regions of the world, the Prime Minister, Alhaji Abubakar-Tafawa Balewa, whose party was the senior partner in the federal coalition government, rejected the outcome. He went further to fire J.J. Warren, the British representative who was in charge of the census.
The recount that took place in 1963 came up with a figure of 60.5 million people. Even the census officials were said to have been alarmed by the result. A final figure of 56.66 million was arrived at after a lot of juggling. The population of the north was put at 29.8 million and that of the south at 25.6 million. In spite of the stiff opposition, the result was taken as the official population figure of the country. The next census after this was conducted in 1973 under the military administration of General Yakubu Gowon. It was another fiasco. The initial figure of 83 million initially presented to the Nigerian public was later scaled down to 79.8 million. The controversy was still raging when General Gowon was overthrown. His successor, General Murtala Muhammed, cancelled the result which also credited the north with a larger population than the south. The two subsequent censuses conducted in 1991 and 2006 simply replicated the previous ones. While nothing was done about the litany of complaints against the 1991 exercise, the 2006 result was so bad that the breakdown of figures could not be published.
Nigeria thus has a long history of mismanaged national population census which has been making nonsense of planning efforts. Political leaders should see population size as a measure of the extent of their responsibility and not as a bargaining power in the sharing of the national cake. The National Conference is expected to propose solutions to problems that have turned Nigeria into a giant with feet of clay. Agbonwanegbe’s agitation is for justice and fairness and should be countered only on rational grounds – with facts and figures – and not on the basis of sectional sentiments. The mindset that the larger the population, the bigger the share of national benefits is a product of Nigeria’s distorted federalism. It is one of the problems to which the conference should find an answer. The conference should come up with ideas on how to get Nigeria out of the woods. It should not perpetuate anomalies that have made progress impossible.