THE President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), bowed to reality by postponing the 2023 Population and Housing Census, earlier scheduled for May 3-7 2023, rightly leaving the task to his successor. The move, following a meeting on Friday he held with some ministers and the Chairman of the National Population Commission, Nasir Isa-Kwarra, may have averted another major national crisis as the conditions on the ground pointed to another debacle in the making. For the President-elect, Bola Tinubu, the NPC, the states and all Nigerians, all hands should be on deck to arrange a thorough and acceptable head count.
As the NPC alone among all other stakeholders kept on hyping its determination to undertake the massive national exercise, it was obvious that neither the agency, and the states and local governments, nor the estimated 216 million people were ready. Buhari took the right step and avoided adding fuel to the country’s combustible mood.
Although he came short of acknowledging the pitfalls, Buhari said while the country sorely needed a new census 17 years after the last one in 2006 to facilitate development planning, the NPC should “continue to sustain the gains already recorded and provide the basis for the incoming administration to consolidate these achievements.”
That was diplomatic talk. In reality, the country was simply unprepared; awareness and publicity were abysmally low, while anger and dissatisfaction pervaded the land, the fallout of the fiercely contested 2023 general elections of February and March that stoked all the country’s divisive tendencies; ethnic, religious and regional. Also, poverty stalks the land as well as insecurity and general hardship.
Short of admitting the obvious unpreparedness, Buhari nodded to NPC’s claims to have made “appreciable progress in the preparation for an implementation census,” and commended the methodology it put in place “to conduct accurate and reliable census.“ He cited the completion of the Enumeration Area Demarcation of the country, conduct of first and second pre-tests, the recruitment, the training of ad hoc workers, and procurement of Personal Digital Assistants and ICT infrastructure.
But most stakeholders faulted the May date and called for its postponement. The timing was bad from the outset. In an election year, given the huge tasks of conducting nationwide elections and the contentious nature of both elections and censuses in the country, their conduct and outcomes, it was exceptionally poor judgement to have fixed both for the same year.
Moreover, many wondered at the seeming fixation of the Buhari regime with undertaking the exercise rather than leaving it for the next administration.
The Methodist Archbishop of Calabar, Chimezuo Nwankpa, articulated popular apprehension by drawing attention to widespread insecurity across the country and the occupation of some communities by terrorists, bandits and other criminals who would hinder enumerators from accessing such areas. In the North-Central states of Plateau, Benue, Nasarawa, Niger, bandits, terrorists and Fulani herdsmen have sacked indigenous inhabitants. In December 2021, the Southern and Middle Belt Alliance claimed that 102 communities in the state had been violently occupied by Fulani herdsmen. Governor Samuel Ortom alleged that 18 of Benue’s 23 LGs were under siege from Fulani militants, who had also killed over 6,000 residents in recent years and displaced over two million others.
Similar ethnic cleansing is ongoing in Southern Kaduna in the North-West, and in Taraba in the North-East. There is no convincing plan to enumerate the estimated 330,000 Nigerians said by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to have taken refuge in Chad, Cameroon and Niger Republic.
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The terrorists going under the tag of “unknown gunmen” in the South-East region and declaring and violently enforcing curfews have not been tamed.
The National Security Adviser, Babagana Monguno, had in February admitted that the census would be taking place at high risk to the enumerators, and other stakeholders due to the pervading security threats.
While the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre stated that 4.4 million people were displaced between 2008 and 2021 in Nigeria, environmental disasters also displaced 6.1 million persons between 2008 and 2021. The International Organisation for Migration estimated two million IDPs in six states in the North-East as of June 2022; the UNHCR put the figure at three million nationwide.
The NPC should return to the drawing board. Conducting a credible census requires total buy-in by all segments of the country, accompanied by massive publicity and awareness campaigns from the grassroots upwards. It must be a collaborative national assignment with the federal and the 36 states, and the 774 LGs being fully and enthusiastically involved.
Funding and logistics problems have to be surmounted; with only 60,000 kilometres of the country’s 195,000 km road network paved, coupled with flooding, dilapidation and drought, reaching all parts of the country in real time as the election officials have found out, is a major hurdle requiring painstaking planning.
Barely a week to the commencement of the postponed count, the NPC was yet to conclude training for the supervisors and other key operators, while only 500,000 tablet computers out of the 80,000 meant for enumerating 43 million households (per 2020 NBS), had been delivered. This also requires fixing.
Funding must be sorted out: the government’s plan to create a basket fund housed with the United Nations Population Fund has tottered. Of the N869 billion budgeted, only N291.5 billion was disbursed, while another N327.2 billion approved remains unremitted to the NPC.
Historically, census in Nigeria has been explosively contentious. The last in 2006 also drew complaints of under-counting in southern states and over-counting in some northern states. Comparatively, the 1991 census remains the most credible after botched ones in 1963, and 1973, and some in the colonial era. Nigeria needs an accurate headcount: Egypt has undertaken seven since 1960, the last in 2017; since attaining majority rule in 1994, South Africa has conducted three; since its first in 1872, India has conducted reliable headcounts every 10 years.
Buhari’s postponement was the right call; it behoves Tinubu to fix a new date, do a better job and arrange a technology-driven, accurate and credible headcount acceptable to all Nigerians. ,
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