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2023 census: Early headache for new government

In a matter of just three weeks, the 2023 census exercise is billed to commence having been scheduled to hold between May 3 – 5…

In a matter of just three weeks, the 2023 census exercise is billed to commence having been scheduled to hold between May 3 – 5 2023, across the 36 states of the federation. Historically, this will be the second national headcount since the return of democracy in 1999, as an earlier one was conducted in 2006, under the administration of former President Olusegun Obasanjo and which gave Nigeria a population figure of  140,431,790 with males at 71,345,488, and females at 69,086,302.  Hence the forthcoming one follows its 2006 predecessor with a lag of 17 years, which is almost a generation away. Little wonder that not an insignificant number of youth in the country today, are actually ignorant of  what the census exercise is all about. But that is a story for another day.

The Constitution provides that a population count should be conducted periodically by the National Population Commission (NPC) either through census, or sample surveys or otherwise. In that regard has there been the enterprise of several public and private agencies – particular the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) who work in collaboration with the NPC on periodic basis to produce sample surveys on the country’s demography, which provide data bases with which national planning activities had been conducted in all these years that there were no census exercises. Hence, while the forthcoming exercise falls properly into the scope of the NPC’s functions, it should qualify as just one option of ascertaining measurements on the country’s population. The outcome should therefore not attract the deleterious scope of bad blood as the 2023 electoral exercise has pushed the country into.

Given the lessons of hindsight with respect to population census exercises in Nigeria, there is the need to call for caution as the country undertakes this 2023 census exercise. If nothing else the lessons from past census exercises and the insights from the recent polls dictate the need for extreme discretion from all and sundry, comprising both the enumeration officials and the entire citizenry. This is just as the need for discretion remains most acutely on the incoming president for whom the forthcoming census should be of utmost concern. With Bola Tinubu presently in the saddle as the President-elect, it remains most interesting how he will handle the results of the census, given the drama that played out in 2006 when as then governor of Lagos State he controverted the 9,113,605  million recorded for his state by the NPC,  and went ahead to claim 18 million by his annointed unofficial enumerator.

Jst as well are the results of the census also of significant interest to the generality of Nigerians, who look forward to see what differences such will feature to change the narrative of census exercises in the country since antiquity. For as far as recorded memory is concerned, hardly has any census exercise in the country produced results that were not controverted. And it has been so for several reasons – the chief of which has been mutual distrust among the various constituent ethnic nationalities that make up the country.

This in itself is a symptom of leadership failure of the successive generations of the country’s political class. Hence the question which the npc needs to answer is whether the 2023 headcount will be different from the previous exercises.

For its part, the NPC has been striving to offer the country a complement of assurances, to allay any fears that the forthcoming exercise may be end up being compromised. Hence it has loudly been campaigning on how it has engaged a complement of procedures comprising advanced technology that will complement the human enterprise in a bid to ensure a successful exercise that wil meet the country’s aspiration for a reliable demographic data base.

Yet, the truth remains that just in case the census runs into hitches, the fault may not lie in the NPC alone. Rather, the failure factors that compromised past census exercises lie in the proverbial Nigerian factor – a moniker for the playout of incontinences and aversion to rectitude. It is the cumulative effect of such hydra-headed Nigerian factor that will determine the ultimate success or otherwise of the head count.

Nationally, given the elaboration in preparations by the NPC for this exercise, it should be the best organized census in the country’s history. Yet, as the experiences with the Independent National Electoral Commissiion (INEC), in respect of the 2023 polls has shown, success of nationwide landmark exercises in Nigeria are often not dictated only by elaborate technical preparations. Infact, often it is the human factor that should enjoy prominence as it usually takes the lead in determining outcomes. That is why the NPC should demonstrate extreme discretion in the conduct of the forthcoming head count, especially with respect to sensitisation of the general public. So for, much of all what the general public is hearing is confined to the employment of enumerators. Yet what they are to enumerate and how remain more significant.

The need for extreme discretion by the NPC is also informed by the fact that on a comparative basis, census results may often be more impactful that vote counts, as the latter should only facilitate the ascendancy of elected persons into positions of public office, while the former constitute the criteria for economic planning and even political considerations in ranking of population clusters. Their impact therefore is expected to be more profound.

However as a broadside to that argument runs  an argument that the reason for the diminished  publicity on the census exercise, relative  to the elections, is that in Nigeria demographic data hardly counts for development planning, as it is the potentate in power that exercises the prerogative to dictate who gets what, not who deserves such. And since it is the vote count that provides the leeway for ascendancy to public office, the census figures easily take a back seat.

The onus lies on the country’s leadership to prove that the forthcoming 2023 census will make a difference with a paradigm shift, not only in its conduct, but even in its ultility.

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