There is no best time to conduct a censusNigeria needs to get it done right now.

The problem Nigerian has with population counts is an undue focus on their political, rather than their economic benefits. My brother, Dr Amanze Obi, recently focused on the political over the economic in his recent intervention entitled “2023 Census is ill-timed.” But I must salute him for resurrecting this important topic and casting his habitually clear editorial gaze beyond the frenzy of today’s electioneering.

We should be having a concurrent conversation on Census 2023. I gladly join this conversation to extend it beyond the political to the economic. The primary benefits of population and housing census are in the economic.

Four issues that are worthy of attention stand out in Amanze’s argument and I fully appreciate three of them. The first is that he feels conducting a “controversial” census soon after an “earth-shaking” general election may be pushing our luck too far. What about if something goes wrong and its disruptive effects spill into the enumeration period? The Second is that it’s not fair to immediately pass on a new headcount and potential issues arising therefrom to a new administration. The third is that enumeration is shrouded in politics of number which leads to issues of acceptance of their results. The fourth is a very controversial claim in my view. He suggests that a southerner would manage the census exercise more pragmatically. The southern manager will also possibly lay to rest the enduring argument over whether northern Nigeria is more populous than the south or less.

These concerns are common and legitimate. They are common because many of our citizens hold these opinions in a country where we tend to fear and distrust policies and programmes that issue from public authorities. They are legitimate because we have seen executives in all tiers of government abuse their public trust. But I consider that they focus only on what are the temporal political gains of a population and housing census.

Here is why. We, all of us, have our pet assumptions on the matter of counting how many we are, how we live and where we live in Nigeria. The assumptions we make and conclusions we draw from them are often peculiarly Nigerian – and political. Shorn of its rhetoric, population count is essentially about how we share the national cake in Abuja. We all suspect or fear that it is easy to weaponize population numbers in our group battles for both political power and sharing of resources of the commonwealth. And for legitimate reasons.

Population numbers can be manipulated during elections in the hands of unscrupulous politicians. After the elections, they could also easily become a prime tool for periodic revenue allocation among the three tiers of government.
However, in focusing on its political benefits, we steadfastly ignore the elephant in the room: the impact of population numbers on planning and resource allocation. We forget that the benefit of proper enumeration count is not in using these to access political power or share commonwealth and donor funds. The benefit is in using the data to apply funds received to development.

It is not in receiving but in giving that population numbers have their impact. In other words, the real impact of census data is in its economic rather than political uses. Census is after all only a statistical exercise that aims to generate data for planning purposes. It is not a weapon of war for political victories.

For the sake of argument, have we stopped to consider that population and other factors in revenue sharing will gradually become meaningless? Inevitably, we shall return to using population for the role it primarily serves. Peering into a political crystal ball, one can project that the political benefits of population count will abate in a matter of years.

The national cake shared in Abuja as monthly revenue today come from two sources – crude oil sales and Value Added Tax (VAT). Both have come under severe challenges, one from alternative energy and the other from subnational legal challenges spearheaded by the Governor of Rivers State. This means that, in the long term, it is possible that bloated population figures will no longer be of benefit to states whose chief executives depend solely on periodic Abuja handouts.

The future is uncertain for the nation on revenue collection. Smart state chief executives therefore need to pay closer attention to and support the job that the National Population Commission (NPC) is getting set to do. If I were a governor, I will not be interested in getting overloaded population numbers. My interest would be in getting the most complete and accurate population and housing count for my state. A person that governs without reliable population data is like a man that fathered uncountable number of children from many wives and side-chicks, and goes about boasting of his virility and ability to take care of his own.

A governor that does not have an accurate population data cannot effectively provide for citizens in his care. How will such a governor determine the education and skills available for the state to harness in order to boost productivity and create wealth? Where will he get information about children that are in school and those that are not, for the purpose of organizing the training and development of skills of the future generation? What will advise him on the number of families in the state, where they live and how they live, in order to accurately plan for their health, sanitation and housing? Because most governors do not know much about their citizens, are we surprised that many end up squandering the funds?

Beyonda government and political benefits, it is a fact that lack of accurate census data negatively impacts business planning and social science research. A properly conducted census provides rich data that business owners, marketers, consultants, and entrepreneurs need to understand society’s needs and create values that meet the identified needs. They also provide rich data that social scientist mine to study the population and produce reports that everyone uses to understand how to navigate different aspects of life and existence.

Best time to conduct a census

It is for these reasons that we find it unhelpful to focus only on the political ends to which census data can be deployed or has hitherto been deployed in Nigeria. I daresay there are benefits of holding elections and census close to each other. We should be looking at the positive ends to which a close scheduling of census and the elections can be put. For example, can we find synergy between them that reduces costs? Each of the two programmes is costing Nigeria hundreds of billions of Naira to prosecute. Isn’t there a mechanism for integrating the two so that resources of one can be seamlessly integrated and deployed to reduce costs for the other?

To answer the question: When is the best time to hold a census? if we factor in the security situation in virtually all parts of Nigeria, we cannot be thinking of holding an election or a census exercise any time soon or close to each other. Experience shows that in our country, there is also no perfect time to carry out projects that overly excite or divide citizens. Therefore, anytime is the best time to carry out national duties imposed by law or convention.

Elections are important but population data is the greatest asset in the development process. Leaving our people uncounted for 17 years is not a good testimony to our commitment to planned and sustainable development. We also observe that Nigerians should have been counted seven years ago as President Goodluck Jonathan prepared to leave office, with a Southerner as Chair of the NPC!

I thank my brother Amanze for his trenchant intervention. His should provoke a national conversation. But beyond the political interrogation, every one of us should assist in making sure we get a headcount that enables us plan to properly and effectively develop our nation. For people in conflict-prone areas, including the southeast, this is the time to ensure that miscreants disrupting the process are called to order. We need to get this right so that economically-challenged states in Nigeria today will have the data they need to grow internal revenue – and depend less on the periodic revenue handouts from Abuja and development partners.

I plead that we deemphasize the politics of the exercise.

When is best time to conduct a census