Fashola, census and the way forward
Coming from someone who has been saddled with the responsibility of providing critical infrastructure for improved welfare of the Nigerian people, the frustration and palpable anger expressed by Babatunde Raji Fashola, minister of Works, Housing and Power over the dearth of reliable census data for planning purpose is understandable.
Speaking at the Rutam House, the head office of The Guardian recently, Fashola decried the poor quality of previous censuses which has left Nigeria with less than credible data for effective socio- economic planning. It is a painful reminder of how, as a nation, we have unconsciously divorced the concrete needs and popular aspirations from the development process.
Development is about people. The people are both the agents and beneficiaries of the processes and outcomes of development. For development to be sustainable, it must be based on the people’s conditions and needs, which cannot be determined without accurate and reliable demographic data. The last census was conducted in 2006 with a population of 140 million, 10 years after, the population is estimated at between 180-200 million. With a growth rate of 2.83 per cent, this is a substantial change not only in size but more importantly in the distribution and characteristics of the population, which have more far reaching implications for development. Population change affects not only the construction and rehabilitation of roads, provision of houses and electricity which fall within the purview of Fashola but other critical sectors such as education, health, water supply, agriculture and indeed all facets of development.
The fundamental question that confronts the nation is how to address the demographic gaps in the present effort to place Nigeria on the path of sustainable development. No doubt conducting a census in an environment of dwindling public revenue may not be attractive but managing the country without a current census data is a costly short cut that will amount to being penny wise and pound foolish. National reluctance and indifference to conduct a new census has been hinged on coverage errors of past censuses which tended to undermine their credibility. Fashola said as much when he decried the poor quality of the 2006 Census.
Going forward, the country must strive to get the next census right as the consequences of a failed census will be too grave for the nation. This should be done through a careful review of the shortcomings of previous censuses with a view to coming up with error proof strategies for the conduct of the next census. The present National Population Commission, since inception in June 2012 has painstakingly gone through the review process and come up with strategies that are re-assuring enough to deliver a successful census.
The bane of previous censuses had been coverage. There had been conflicting claims of multiple or ghost enumeration of persons as well as non-enumeration of certain places. The coverage issues, real or imaginary, distorted the outcomes of past censuses and undermined its general acceptability. It is therefore a welcome relief that the present Commission is planning to conduct a biometric based census in which the fingerprints and facial impression of respondents will be captured through the use of Electronic Data Capture Devices (EDCs). The Commission proposes to adopt a de facto method of enumeration in which only persons physically seen by the enumerators will be counted. The biometric approach to census will nip in the bud any tendency towards multiple enumerations of persons and make the outcome of census verifiable and auditable.
In combating the coverage issue of certain places being omitted during the census, the Commission is adopting a meticulous and scientific approach towards the Enumeration Area Demarcation (EAD) which will involve the division of the country into small unit areas called Enumeration Areas that can be covered by a pair of enumerators. The Commission is using satellite imagery in order to ensure that the whole land area of the country is captured and demarcated ahead of the census exercise. With the acquisition of satellite imagery covering the whole country, the whole land size of Nigeria including settlements can be seen and which would have to be accounted for after the EAD. In other words, areas not carved into EAs can be easily identified for correction.
The task of conducting the next census and ensuring that the nation derives benefits from the exercise is not a task for the Commission alone. Policy makers, the political class and government officials have a role to play in ensuring that the process and outcomes of the next census are worthwhile and complement our march towards economic growth and sustainable development. Without sounding defensive of previous censuses, it should be stated that perception of the accuracy or otherwise of these censuses have often been tainted by considerations of the usefulness of census for revenue allocation and political representation.
The political class must develop the orientation to see the usefulness of census beyond revenue allocation and political representation and discover the rare value of census figures particularly its distribution and characteristics can add to policy formulation and implementation. For too long, we have played politics with census and there is the need for a fundamental change of attitudes. That Nigeria still grapples with the question of how many we are is a collective national guilt on the part of policy makers who have seen census more in terms of revenue allocation and political representation and pays little attention to its usefulness for national planning. Moving the nation out of the census fiasco is a collective responsibility of the present Commission and policy makers and there is no better time to embark on this journey than now when the nation needs to exploit its vast human resources for sustainable development.
Dr. Yahaya is the acting director of Public Affairs, National Population Commission, Abuja.