What will Nigeria’s digital census find?

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*Chairman, National Population Commission, Mr. Nasir Isa Kwarra

Abimbola Adelakun

Now that Nigeria’s next census date has been officially confirmed, I am curious if the exercise will provide a different picture of our population distribution or merely validate the status quo. Anyone who has been a Nigerian for long enough already knows that the national population is a continuation of the politics of power by another means. Virtually every census in modern Nigeria has been vigorously challenged for its statistical accuracy and, of course, its ideological agenda.

Far more than serving the purposes of efficient national planning—the officially touted reasons for holding them—censuses in underdeveloped societies like ours use purported scientific means to entrench power and allocation of resources. They are susceptible to weaponisation by those who will use their supposedly empirical means to justify undue allocation of resources (and, therefore, cannot but be contentious).

Given that national legislative seats were historically apportioned—and political offices are still handed out—based on perceived demographic distribution, a credible census in these parts is a unicorn sighting. Our political leaders are over-invested in maintaining the official population distribution figures in all their skewed ingloriousness. Like our periodic elections where those whom the odds already favour still rig to pre-empt their opponents’ rigging, census figures are swelled up in anticipation of others cooking them too. By the time everyone steals in order not to be stolen from, we end up with a process that undermines us in every way.

For the May 3 to 5 census though, we have been promised a far more credible process because the counting process will be digital. On its website, the Nigerian Population Commission boasted that the impending digital census “will change how the census is being conducted in Nigeria before now.” Again, if you are a Nigerian, that boast must be familiar. We have seen how far over-valorised digital techniques get us.

As efficient as they can be, technological tools are not magic wands that can be waved over the myriad of Nigeria’s other sociological problems. A mere tool in the hands of humans, technology’s effects are not independent of users’ technical capabilities and ethical judgment. No matter how many dazzling toys of digital technology the NPC has acquired, what will matter at the end of the day is the integrity of the agency.

The poet, Amiri Baraka, once noted that “machines have the morality of their inventors.” Indeed, technology is never neutral, even if it appears to have no mind of its own. Algorithms and their effects are never exclusive of the passions of the humans that wrote their codes. For nations like Nigeria that do not invent technology but mostly use what others have built, what the tools reproduce is the ethic of the incompetence of our society. It is why the digitised processes that work seamlessly elsewhere—from transitioning to a cashless society, digitising public records, and even basic bureaucratic processes—have been as hard in Nigeria as pulling a tree trunk.

The recent elections are examples. Despite how much the Independent National Electoral Commission trumpeted the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System as a revolutionary device, its game-changing capacity ultimately bowed before the legendary Nigerian incompetence. It was a costly election but lacked credibility. As it turns out, machines cannot redeem an amoral society.

The NPC can boast that their digital tools are a game changer, but it will take institutional integrity to not merely reproduce the same lopsided figures that Nigeria has brandished for decades. As I noted recently, if there is something the serial paltry voter turnout at our elections has shown, it is the deceptiveness of the figures that have been touted as the Nigerian population. It is a myth that has become the official narrative. On several population clocks, Nigeria is listed as having over 200 million people. This misattribution is partly a problem of official dishonesty and partly an issue of our society’s numeric illiteracy.

Here is an example of both instances compounded: recently, Communications and Digital Economy Minister (and alleged professor of cybersecurity) Isa Pantami, said they recorded 12, 988 978 million cyber-attacks on cyber facilities during the election. For an election where 25 million people supposedly voted, Pantami’s figures are strange. He also claimed that on February 25 alone, they recorded about 6, 997 277 threats (please note how the stated numbers try so hard to be precise rather than round figures). On average, for every two votes cast during that presidential election, there was at least one cyber threat.

One would have thought that Pantami produced those figures in a state of delirium, except that he claimed they were findings of an inaugurated committee. But how are such figures plausible? Not even the Pentagon can withstand 12 million threats in four days, and that is an agency with about the most sophisticated software in the world! No reasonable organisation will stand by, recording relentless threats to its systems without launching a counter-offensive. Was there any point they traced and arrested those behind that many attacks? For an ICT minister to make that kind of claim publicly—and even list it in official records—Pantami is being deceptive.

Instructively, that kind of official deception combined with the inability to quantitatively comprehend the significance of numbers explains our failures to count –and account—for ourselves as a society. Will the NPC do any better, or would we have merely used the tools of digitality to entrench lies?

The February presidential election that saw people leaving their houses early to get ahead in the queues did not produce more than a voter turnout of a paltry 25 million (before adjusting for reported instances of electoral malpractices). Besides the electoral turnout figures, only 95 million—up till January—have registered for the NIN (and that is a figure that captures all age ranges). When you study the graph of NIN registration, you can see that the numbers have peaked. There are no other 95 million or more people still awaiting registration. Those who insist that some 120 million people are not captured in the national database should consider the number of active phone lines in the country. The most recent figures show that active phone lines are around 222 million. In a country where most people have a minimum of two phone lines, it is not hard to see from these figures that no large section of undocumented Nigerians are waiting to come out of the rural areas. We are not that many, simple. What we see is what exists.

Finally, more than a one-time exercise, I hope to see the Nigerian state put the findings to judicious use. That means the processes will need sustaining, especially if the findings do not corroborate official narratives. Without constantly updating the NPC database to reflect birth and death rates, the whole exercise might as well be pointless. Equally, a credible census can also help infuse credibility into adjunct social and processes. If the NPC database is synced with other collated ones, such as INEC’s voter register (and the NIN and the BVN), they can be a better audit of the national population. We can get as far as eliminating the corruption endemic in electoral processes like underage voting and multiple voting. We can also produce more efficient surveillance systems. Overall, there are potential gains to be made if the NPC can pull off a credible census. They have acquired the machines, but do they have the integrity to make them work efficiently? What will Nigeria’s digital census find?

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