The recent call by the Speaker of the House of Representatives Yakubu Dogara for the postponement of the planned 2018 national census received mixed reaction from Nigerians. In a statement through his spokesman Turaki Hassan, the Speaker reportedly said:
“I won’t advise anyone to conduct national census in 2018. I said it before that if we are not going to achieve it in 2017, then we should just forget it until after 2019.
“If you conduct census at the niche of elections, there will be so much pressure, crisis and the lure for people to manipulate the figures for political reasons, such that the agency cannot even cope with.
“So, it is better for a fresh administration to conduct this exercise from the beginning of that administration, when we do not have any pressure of elections in sight. Then we may have something that resembles reality, but I can bet you if the census is conducted in 2018, the outcome will be doubtable.”
The Director General of the National Population Commission, Ghaji Bello indicated earlier that his Commission was prepared to conduct a census in 2018 “if necessary logistics are provided.” Mr. Bello said the proposed 2018 census exercise would cost an estimated N272 billion.
While the Speaker found support in some quarters, some individuals and groups begged to differ. For instance the Muslim Media Watch Group of Nigeria (MMWGN) frowned at the call for the postponement of the 2018 National Census by Speaker Dogara. In a statement signed by its National Co-ordinator, Ibrahim Abdullahi, the group said it was opposed to any postponement because the exercise had been postponed too many times and that the funds for it are already captured in the 2017 budget. The National Population Commission reportedly said it was going ahead with preparations for the exercise in 2018 because it had not received any contrary instruction from the government.
There are several points to be noted here:
One, Speaker Dogara was right that conducting a census on the eve of an important national election year could exacerbate tensions. But he gave the wrong impression that if a new government conducted the exercise at the beginning of its tenure, it would make the exercise to be more acceptable or less contentious. This is not borne out by history. In fact the history of census exercises in the country, especially from the 1952-53 census, shows that each has always been contentious irrespective of the time it was held. For instance, the 1952/53 census, which gave the North a 54 percent of the population, was challenged by some politicians from the southern part of the country. And since the population was the basis for the allocation of seats in the Federal House of Representatives and also one of the indices for allocating federally controlled revenues to the regions, it remained a sore point among the different regional factions of the elites. In other words, contrary to what the Speaker implied, it is not the election that will make the census exercise contentious as the figures are unlikely to be used in any delimitation of constituencies or to alter the current representations in the House of Representatives for the 2019 election. If the exercise takes place in 2018 and becomes contentious as expected, it could in a worst case scenario make the 2019 election more anarchic – which it is bound to be any way, with or without the census. Elections are generally anarchic in the country not just because state power is the major means of material accumulation but also because of the pervasive fear that whichever ethnic/regional faction of the elite captures power will use it to privilege its in-group and disadvantage the others. Therefore while Dogara was right that it could generate tensions which could add to the ‘natural’ tensions that go with elections in the country, it will be wrong to argue that the census will be marred because of the elections. In fact it could also be the other way round. It could for instance be argued that the ethnic factions of the elites would be so preoccupied with the elections that they will pay little attention to the census, believing that whoever wins the elections will have the power to affirm or annul the result. Following from this, it will be wrong to conclude that the exercise will become more controversial because of the elections.
Two, there have been suggestions that if ‘ethnicity’ and ‘religion’ were removed as factors during the enumeration, it will make the exercise less contentious. For instance former military President Ibrahim Babangida reportedly advised the National Population Commission not to include ‘religion’ and ethnic’ affiliations in the exercise because they are issues that make the exercise more contentious “because the Christians wanted to say they are more and the Muslims wanted to say they are more.” He wanted it to be a simple exercise to generate data for planning purposes. The trouble here is that the 1973 exercise was the last time census included questions about one’s ethnic and religious affiliations. And yet each subsequent exercise was no less contentious than the previous ones. In fact cynics would ask what difference the census exercises have made in planning. The outcome of any census is unlikely to be universally accepted precisely for the same reasons that every election in the country is contentious. For many Nigerians the importance of census is less as a planning tool than for its relevance in shaping inter-ethnic and inter-regional relations and in providing tentative answers to the politics of who gets what.
Three, rather than postpone the census till after the 2019 election as proposed by Speaker Dogara, it would perhaps make more meaning to postpone the exercise indefinitely and channel the money budgeted for it to other areas. Yes, we need accurate figures for planning purposes but it can be argued that we have been trudging along with our contentious figures and estimates since the 1952/53 exercise. A census exercise will add to the current polarization in the country. With a deepening distrust and ‘de-Nigerianization’, it will be foolhardy to exacerbate the situation at a time people are concerned on how to calm nerves, rebuild trust and re-start the nation-building process. I believe that with time, Nigeria will get a leader who will command legitimacy from across the fault lines. It will be easier for such a leader to conduct the exercise. Until such a leader emerges, or the current polarizations and mistrusts are attenuated, a census at this point will be an exercise in futility.
Four, given the structure of the Nigerian federation, with the North having a preponderance of the land mass and population (from previous censuses), we may first need to have conversation on the call for restructuring of the country (mostly from the South to address perceived Northern domination) and the resistance to such calls (mostly from the North). At the heart of such a conversation will be the issue of the relative meaning of ‘fairness’ to the various regions and ethnic groups. If you are from the North and you are dominant in geography and population, will you consider it ‘fair’ to have equal share of power at the Centre with the South, which you believe has an economic and educational advantage over you? And if you are from the South, will you consider it ‘fair’ that you feel there is a ‘majority tyranny’ from the North? I believe those were the tricky questions the advocates of ‘zoning’ and ‘power rotation’ principles were trying to answer. And in many ways, that conversation has not been concluded and is at the heart of the contentious nature of censuses. In fact, contentions around censuses have become so ideological that even if you remove population as basis for the allocation of revenues and seats in the House of Representatives, they will still remain contentious.
Five, the bicameral nature of our National Assembly (divided into Senate and House of Representatives) is one of the ways our founding fathers sought to address the question of the relative meaning of ‘fairness’ to those who have huge populations and those who have less. While at the House of Representatives seats are allocated based on population (satisfying the demand for ‘fairness’ to those who have huge populations), the Senate mirrors equality of States, with each state given three seats irrespective of its size (to satisfy the demand for ‘fairness’ to those who have less population). Remarkably many Nigerians who call for turning the National Assembly into a one-chambered body (ostensibly to save money) lose sight of this. In fact the bicameral nature of our National Assembly has helped us to paper over some of the unresolved issues in our past enumeration exercises and should ideally also help in providing a meeting ground between those agitating for the restructuring of the country and those opposed to it.