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Just how many Nigerians are there?
Rose Umoren
Published: 01-JUN-06

Population has always been political, so governments across tiers and time engage in gymnastics to inflate or deflate figures, as suits the purpose. Nigeria’s third census in its 45 years bore the hallmark, often in extreme.

This $78bn economy with some 70 percent living on less than $1/day was grounded on Tuesday March 21 – Monday March 27 as the federal and state governments jostled for control of the exercise.

Lead commercial axis Lagos kicked it off when it ordered residents indoors for the first three days. President Olusegun Obasanjo responded that only Abuja could issue a stay-at-home order for a sovereign exercise. He then declared Friday March 24 and Saturday March 25, originally the exercise’s last two days, work-free while restricting `mass movement’ for all five days.

Lagos, to other states’ nods, insisted on its three days. In the event, the grounding lasted seven days. Because, for all the grandstanding, the first three days were consumed by confusion nationwide, forcing a two-day extension.

In a poetic turn, however, the stay-at-home order engendered massive tribal movements nationwide. The Igbo headed east; Hausa, north; Yoruba, southwest; and ethnic minorities, as relevant. Many of these ironically had lived in such places as Lagos, Kano, Abuja and Port Harcourt all their lives but were returning to their tribe-states for enumeration for two reasons. The immediate one was the unusual absence of tribe and religion among census parameters.

The other, longstanding, is that however long one has lived, worked and paid income tax in Lagos and other commercial parts of what is, in principle, a federation, such state governments exercise a dichotomy between `indigenes’ and `non-indigenes’ in key accesses, which is raising worries about Nigeria’s future.

Nigeria’s last census, the most orderly thus far, was in 1991. It returned a population of roughly 90 million, with men outnumbering women. These findings were heretical as many policymakers were convinced that `the giant of Africa’ had at least a hundred million people. Worse, Nigeria’s highly polygamous men were scandalised that they could outnumber women. The population thus remained an estimate these past 15 years.

Estimates have been as varied as their institutional authors, including agencies of the United Nations, the World Bank and the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). They have recently ranged 129 million and 140 million.

With such uncertainty vis-à-vis the importance of population numbers in planning, a census was, ordinarily, long due. These, however, are no ordinary times in Nigeria. Even in the best of climes, a census eleven months to across-board elections is bound to be burdened. Unhelpfully, the country is polarised by Obasanjo’s quest to prolong his presidency beyond the current constitution’s eight-year limit. Additionally, many parts of the country are restive, some violently.

In several such parts, census enumerators were violently chased out. In parts of the Hausa northeast, citizens demanded payment as their share of the oil revenue, which was flowing into governments’ coffers, despite the general shutdown. Oil production and sales are usually exempted from shutdowns.

In parts of Igboland, residents claimed they were `Biafrans’ – citizens of the still-born Biafra republic which declaration prompted the 1967-70 civil war—and refused enumeration. In the oil-bearing, but embattled Niger Delta, it is debatable whether the census got much attention as militants and federal troops squared off over the most protracted and daring hostage-taking in Nigeria.

Underscoring these was the census handling countrywide. By Day 3, most parts had not received the requisite materials. Eventually, the National Population Commission (NPC) was photocopying enumeration forms for an exercise hinged on computerised decoding of data. At least one state government, Lagos, claimed to have made photocopies too for enumerators. Even the enumerators were improvised, largely because training was hurriedly done three weeks to the exercise and many of those trained refused to work for non-payment of allowances.

Those who worked bore all the risks: they trekked long distances to assembly points and then about their assigned areas, in the tropical sun and heavy rains, as there were no transport provisions. It was sloppy and chaotic. Amidst this chaos, Liberian warlord Charles Taylor escaped from Calabar after making a media show of being enumerated with his family.

Taylor was captured, but the census was lost.

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