Sunday, 27 November 2016

Again, Nigeria’s curious population figures

Written by the Editorial Board of The Guardian Newspaper

The incredible population figure that Nigeria’s colonial masters fed the world with more than five decades ago came into sharp focus again recently when the Director-General of the National Population Commission (NPC), Ghali Bello, announced that Nigeria’s population now is 182 million.

Bello who disclosed the figure in Abuja, said the latest estimate was based on the population of 140 million recorded in the last census a decade ago, using a yearly growth rate of 3.5 per cent and weighed against other variables such as rising life expectancy and declining infant mortality rate.

It is unfortunate that most Nigerians from different parts of the complex federation still find it difficult to believe the figures despite a cloud of witnesses we have had in mobile telecommunications technologies and other identity management agencies that should corroborate the NPC’s claims.

Nigeria’s population figures have always been suspicious and disbelieved for political reasons because they form the basis for sharing resources in the federation every month.

The NPC should have been more organised in releasing such sensitive data. In this age of the big data, the NPC operatives should have used some analytics and other software that helps in explaining data to even the uninformed. The reasons are not too far to seek: It may be a national security issue to parade incredible population figures obtained from wrong premise and misleading statistics. This is to avoid creating tension in the volatile polity. Population is, in any case, a sensitive issue in this country.

The claim by the NPC’s boss that Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, had been witnessing a growing youth bulge, with those under 14 years accounting for more than 40 per cent of its citizens should also have been driven home with some data that can be verified by independent sources. That is now to create trust, the building block of credibility in this age when agencies and audit firms are known to be lying with statistics to get by. This is why it is difficult to match the claim about youth bulge growth with a rider that “this growth is happening at a time the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) is shrinking amid biting recession.”

Lest we forget, the 140 million recorded in the last census remains contentious. Lagos State, for example, strongly disputed the figures assigned to it by the NPC, which indicated that it was below Kano State. This occurred after the state (Lagos) obtained a higher figure of about 18 million from a simultaneous census it carried out along with the NPC. Besides, the Lagos independent survey result was close to the United Nations estimate for the State.

Even, the 3.5 per cent growth rate the NPC used is suspicious. Nigeria’s population growth in 2013 according to the World Bank was 2.8 per cent. And the 2016 estimate according to Index Mundi is 2.44 per cent. The use of contraceptives and other developments have reduced the growth rate. The NPC must have relied on outdated growth rate data.

Prior to 2006, no census conducted in Nigeria had been acceptable. Recently, the former Statistician General of the Federation, Dr. Yemi Kale, said that estimates, which put Nigeria’s population between 170 or 180 million, were accurate. The technocrat who helped in rebasing the Nigerian economy in 2013/14 fiscal year in a credible manner, had noted that census figures might have been inflated in some quarters in the past, giving the impression that more population of humans reside in certain areas.

Also, a former Chairman of the National Population Commission (NPC), Dr. Festus Odimegwu, had raised doubts about the country’s population. He, in fact, stirred the hornet’s nest when he declared that Nigeria had not had any credible census since 1816. Unfortunately, the steam of the message was taken out, no thanks to political correctness context and the messenger was prematurely removed by powerful forces in the country.

Nevertheless, the stance of the two top government officials has reinforced a groundswell of opinions in the country that the Nigeria’s population census should be conducted in a credible manner that will engender trust in a figure that can be used for development planning.

There are modern methods of gathering accurate population figures, which the NPC should seek out and adopt. And there should be no political undertone while carrying out the exercise. It will be recalled that before the 2006 exercise, there was a report that a section of the country mounted pressure on the then President Olusegun Obasanjo to remove religion from the questionnaire data forms. This was said to have been done to prevent the citizens from knowing the data of the difference between the Christian and Muslim population in the country. And sadly, the lobbyists then succeeded as religion was removed from the data forms. Today, there is no record of members of faith-based organizations in the country.

Meanwhile, the more worrisome element about conducting a national population census here is the purported cost of carrying out the exercise. The other day, the NPC boss stated that the proposed 2018 census would cost a whopping N222 billion. That is also incredibly outrageous. That money should not be wasted. That bill of quantity is dubious and incredible. This is part of the trouble with any public sector procurement and survey issue. Any project to be carried out is seen by a typical public officer as a way of making it. That is why despite years of executing critical infrastructure development projects, there is no evidence of progress.

There are indeed databases of relevant agencies that can be useful, in the circumstances instead of the NPC going the whole hog of embarking on another wasteful exercise that will end up in yet another controversy. Specifically, the NPC should work on the quantum of barometric database that has been built by banks, licensing offices, immigration, customs, JAMB, WAEC, and, of course other the identity management agencies in the country including school enrolments, birth and death registrations, voter’s cards, ID cards, and others. All these vital statistics should be aggregated and used to extrapolate the country’s population. That would give more credible indicators about the population.

Above all, the country should stop using population as basis for revenue sharing. As we proclaim so often here, restructuring of the federation is the solution. If powers and responsibilities are devolved in a federation, different federating units will be free to determine the true population they should plan for and develop.

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