The national population and housing census, so central to planning in modern societies, is one of the most politically volatile aspects of the Nigerian nationhood. I can safely predict that no matter the outcome of the next census — formerly scheduled for May 3-5 but now postponed indefinitely — it will be hotly disputed. Although we have excluded basic demographic markers such as religion and ethnicity to minimise controversy, there will still be allegations of manipulation of figures in favour of one state, one geo-political zone, one region or the other. There is no escaping it. The outcome will be attacked based on legitimate as well as ridiculous sentiments. You can take this to the bank.
Why do we always dispute census figures in Nigeria? One, there is a fundamental trigger since the data is partly used in sharing federally collected revenues. It is thought that a state with more population will get a bigger share of the federation allocation. In fact, some of us are still stuck in the past, so we do not stop at the population figure of a state alone but also add the states in a region together to analyse what the northern or southern region gets — as if we were still running regionalism. It made sense when we had regions and allocations went into same pot. But in 2023, what Oyo gets does not go to Ogun, or to the six south-western states, or to the 17 southern states.
Two, population figure is used to delineate certain legislative constituencies, namely the house of representatives and state houses of assembly. The senate is composed on the basis of the equality of states — thus, every state has three senators. The house of reps is based on population. While Lagos and Kano, as the most populous states, have 24 reps each, Bayelsa and Nasarawa states have only five each. Also, based on population distribution, Lagos and Kano each has 40 members of the state houses of assembly — the highest in the federation — while most states have 24 members each. That is why population census is not just about counting for planning. It is also for politics.
Maybe there is also the bragging rights aspect that we should list as the third reason for the sensitivity of census. “My state is bigger than yours” is a very common shoulder-raiser in Nigeria. We often think quantity matters and this is also reflected in our universal boasting of being the “largest black nation in the world”. We know that a state could be smaller in population but bigger in economic well-being. Nigeria, for instance, is Africa’s No 1 in population but the continent’s No 35 in the World Economics Global Wealth rankings — but never mind. As I often say, I would rather my state was less populous and more economically productive, but that is such an impolitic thing to say.
Population census outcomes are bitterly disputed because they always favour “the north”. When it was conducted by colonial governments, the results were rejected by southerners because the north turned out bigger numbers. When it was conducted in a military regime, southerners disputed the results — for the same reason. When it was conducted by a civilian government, the results were also disputed — for the same reason. When a president of southern extraction conducted the census, it was disputed — for the same reason. When a president of northern extraction did it, the figures were savaged as well — for the same reason. Inevitably, the next census will be disputed too.
All censuses have put the north ahead of the south in numbers and they have always been disputed by southerners who often say cows were counted as human beings over there. This would qualify as hate speech these days. The basis of their argument is that globally, coastal areas are always more populous than non-coastal areas. Hence, the south should invariably be more populated. It doesn’t matter if every southern state is not coastal or that the states vary in size. As long as a state is classified as south, it should have more population than any northern state. By this logic, Ekiti state in the south should automatically be more populous than Kogi state in the north. That is their point.
The distance between Ogbomoso, Oyo state, and Ilorin, Kwara state, is about 30 minutes by bus. From Okuku, Osun state, to Erin Ile, Kwara, is about 10 kilometres. You can literally trek from Ekiti LGA in Kwara to Ekiti state. However, because Kwara is north, it is “non-coastal” and should be less populated than any of the “coastal” Osun, Ekiti and Oyo states. Ironically, only eight of the 17 southern states are truly “coastal”, yet the population of the nine non-coastal southern states should be more than that of the 19 non-coastal northern states. This logic ignores the discretionary/artificial marking of boundaries, which is less of physical geography and more of sociology and politics.
In addition to battling with not knowing our history, we are also obviously mixing up our geography. There are 37 entities in Nigeria, out of which 20 are geographically classified as north. But most northern states are far from being arid, even if they are not coastal. The easiest example that some people will accept is Benue state, which is classified as “north” but celebrated as the food basket of the nation. It cannot be classified as arid. Sambisa in the north-east hosts one of the largest forests in Africa. That is not the meaning of arid. I have met southerners who expressed shock when they saw the vegetation in some parts of the north. That is not what they have been told all their lives.
Even on the issue of revenue allocation, as I have pointed out in the past, the role of population is often exaggerated. The “horizontal” sharing of 26.72 percent of the federation account among the 36 states is always the sore point here. The 26.72 percent is shared based on five principles: (1) equality of states, 40 percent (2) population, 30 percent (3) landmass/terrain, 10 percent (4) internal revenue effort, 10 percent (5) social development effort, 10 percent. This is aside the 13 percent derivation which is not part of the 26.72 percent in the federation pot. It is also different from VAT revenue from which the states take 50 percent, councils 35 percent and the federal government 15 percent.
The first horizontal principle treats all states as equal, so they equally share 40 percent of the 26.72 percent. If this comes to N100, for instance, states will share N40 equally: N1.11 per state, no matter the size. The 30 percent “population principle” means N30 of the N100 will be shared by the states using the population of each of them. In fact, 70 percent of federation allocation is not shared on the basis of population, contrary to the popular imagination. But since the north is more populous according to census data, the population principle is often criticised by southerners who think that the 19 northern states get disproportionate more than the 17 southern states, just by having babies.
In real life, though, Nigeria’s population is not as lopsided as portrayed in the media. It is often because we don’t pay attention to details: we listen to the agenda setters too much. If we take the 10 most populous states using the official census figures, six are from the north and four from the south. If we pick the top 20, we will see 10 are from the north and 10 from the south. If we take the bottom 10, five are from the north and five from the south. If we take the bottom 16, eight are from the north and eight from the south. With the current population ratio of 53:47, northern states will take N16 and southern states N14 of the N30 shared on the population principle. Is this a disaster?
It is a lost cause trying to persuade some people to accept that our census figures are not as central to our nationhood as we think. It has also become pointless arguing that it shouldn’t matter what state has the most population — what should really matter is the economic productivity of the federating units. The way we debate in Nigeria, everything revolves around federation allocation. We are overly obsessed with who should get more and who should get less. There is little or no attention to the need for each state to develop its own potential so that what is shared in Abuja every month amounts to peanuts compared to the proceeds of internal productivity. This is none of our business.
We are so divided over this census thing that we cannot even ask questions of ethnicity and religion. I was counted in 1991. I was asked my ethnicity but not my religion. We were still reeling from the religious tensions that gripped the country in the wake of the OIC controversy of 1986. If the data said there were more Muslims than Christians, or vice-versa, all hell would be let loose. We are just a unique breed of human beings! So, the Ibrahim Babangida administration removed religion from the questionnaire. We are left with saying the populations of Muslims and Christians are at par so that nobody would be unhappy. Regardless, southerners still disputed the 1991 figures. You know why.
I wasn’t counted in 2006 (I was studying abroad) but I was told ethnicity had disappeared from the questionnaire. So, not only couldn’t we know the religious composition of our population, we also wouldn’t know the ethnic configuration. Therefore, we will keep saying Nigeria is built on a tripod of ethnic groups with equal populations, even when we know it is impossible for all ethnic groups to be numerically equal. I agree that excluding the politically explosive ethnicity and religion bits from the questionnaire can help avoid some controversies especially as they may have no bearing on the actual goal of the census, but it just shows the level of distrust in the country. We need to grow up.
I would have argued that the census is not worth the $1.8 billion to be spent on it and should not be priority for now, more so because of the predictable controversies that will result from the outcome, but I would not be doing justice to the science behind headcounts. The data generated will be useful for planning purposes — and this is not just for the government but for the private sector as well. We cannot continue to rely on population estimates. More so, a lot has changed since we did the last one in 2006. For instance, we have always assumed Nigeria’s population is concentrated in rural areas but trends appear to show a reversal. Getting the actual data can be very useful for all.
It appears we do not take census seriously in Nigeria. The UN recommends that it should be carried out every 10 years. The last one we did was 17 years ago. Before then, there was also a gap of 15 years. Going forward, we need to take census more seriously and plan for it properly. It is not just about today but also about tomorrow. The postponement of the 2023 census, as announced yesterday by the federal government, was coming all along. There was clear evidence that the National Population Commission (NPC) was not ready. There were issues around funding and logistics. It looked like it was going to be a mess. Whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing well.
And four other things…
To detox the system, the incoming Bola Tinubu administration needs a large dose of sagacity to keep the different ethnic and religious tendencies onside in the sharing of political offices. President Goodluck Jonathan never recovered from being accused of violating power rotation in 2011. President Muhammadu Buhari was eternally framed as a religious fundamentalist and accused of using the sentiments to chase Jonathan out in 2015. Tinubu’s victory is being questioned by the opposition parties. There is a way these things shape narratives and attitudes and define tenures. Tinubu must use wisdom to calm frayed nerves in order to have some stability and focus. Critical.
Surprise! The federal government is dilly-dallying on the deregulation of petrol pricing. It was not as if all of us believed it when it was announced in December 2022 that the multi-trillion naira subsidy would be abolished by mid-year 2023. It was all politics. The irony, though, is that if you ask Nigerians to choose between buying petrol at N300/litre and spending the N6 trillion subsidy on improving education, healthcare and road infrastructure, most would choose the subsidy. There is also this belief that Nigeria is rich enough to pay for the subsidy and still fund education, healthcare and roads. This argument plays into the hands of those benefiting from the subsidy scam. Doomed.
One shock that greeted Nigerians who emigrated to the UK was the cost of watching football on TV. A complete sports package (Sky and BT) costs £50, roughly N47,000, a month. Basic subscriptions, without sports, cost about £30 monthly. Pay per view is usually £20 for a single event lasting for a few hours. Pay as you go doesn’t exist. Yet, MultiChoice Nigeria always comes under attack for adjusting its rates, like other businesses, to address rising operational costs. Its most expensive package under the new tariff is N24,500 monthly, covering all channels. But Nigerians have turned cable TV into a fundamental human right. Students are threatening hell over a pure luxury. Absurd.
Happy birthday to Mrs Obiageli Ezekwesili (“Oby” to most of us) who clocked 60 on Friday. Tributes poured in from everywhere for the chartered accountant who made her mark as the no-nonsense pioneer head of the Due Process Office, officially known as the Budget Monitoring and Price Intelligence Unit — the precursor to the Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP). She was one of the shining stars of the Obasanjo administration from 1999 to 2007. As minister of solid minerals and later education, she stood out as a woman of vision and passion, even if her ideas got suffocated by the pushback associated with reforms. She is also a champion of good governance. Felicitations.