Thursday, April 7, 2011

National Census and the question of figures

Controversy have always surrounded Nigeria’s population figure.  This controversy, which questions the reliability of the figures posted by the National Population Commission after each census exercise, is by no means a recent development. In colonial era, when Britain held sway over what eventually became the Nigerian nation, the figures the census conducted by His Majesty’s government attributed to the Northern protectorate generated its own controversy, with many in the south contending that the livestock of the northerners were also counted as people – an allegation that persists to date, even if as usually stated jokingly.

The controversies over Nigeria’s census figure and the finger pointing and refutation that follow every exercise have a lot to do with the peculiarities that is the feature of the Nigerian situation. In Nigeria, the nature of the so-called unitary system of government adopted after the coup of 1966 makes population density one of the criteria for creation of wards and local governments. Since under this system, the numbers of local governments a state has determines not just the number of seats allocated to it in the federal legislature, but also the amount of revenue accruable to it from the federal account. 

It is on account of the above that people have continuously viewed the population figures emanating from the National Population Commission with scepticism. While one would not presume to know more than the experts, the aforementioned peculiarities that is inherent in the Nigerian nation makes these claims very plausible. There is, as they say in court, enough motives for people to inflate census figures, but before we argue – as many are wont these days – about the viability of a state like Kano having more people than a Metropolis such as Lagos state; we have to give ample consideration to the land mass of that state.

Lagos state is almost entirely built up, and many people who are just passing through fall into the fallacy of viewing the vast Sahel landscape of the northern states as being generally uninhabited. While the vastness of the place is not farfetched, the belief that it is uninhabited very much so. The population is only sparse when viewed with density in mind, but when the vast landmass is coupled with the fact that there are thousands of villages off the well-beaten track, an understanding of the figures posted would begin to appear.  

For those who would seek to disbelief this basic fact, a Friday excursion to any local government headquarter in any of the core northern states will serve as an eye-opener. Perhaps, by the time they spend hours, trying to negotiate through streets clogged with uncountable bicycles and motorbikes as Friday prayers wind up, the conviction will come from within. 

Igbo migration factor

Another factor, that many people fail to take into cognisance when arguing against the reality of the recent census figures, is the effect of Igbo migration. The Igbos are singularly unique in their penchant of moving away from their ancestral land in the southeast to abode in other parts of the country. It is because of this penchant of the Igbos that one can state without fear of contraction that, in every state in Nigeria, the Igbos are second only to the indigenes in terms of population figure and in some places, even surpass the indigenes.

Since the Igbos, being traders, are attracted to places where the viability of commerce is most assured, commercial cities such as Kano exerts a strong pull. This is not to say that Lagos is not as viable as Kano, but the latter triumphs based on association; the Igbo have had a much longer association with Kano than they have with Lagos – they even have their own section, the sabon gari.

In addition, Kano, despite having being a centre for commerce for centuries, is more friendly to the pocket that Lagos – and this is true of most northern towns –, and as such has a more established community business relationship, which is one of the things the migrating Igbo consider.

Contrary to what many believe, not many Igbo heeded the call to return home to be counted in the last census and this reflected in the census figures for the southeast. It is true that the southeast is more densely populated than both the southwest and the north, but again landmass plays a very visible role, as does the migration pattern mentioned earlier. Unlike what is obtainable in the north and to a lesser extent in the south west, it is not very possible to drive ten miles without passing a town in the southeast. However, where a house in the southwest and north might be fully occupied, it is very common to find that a ten room house in the southeast is either unoccupied or scantily occupied, this is however truer of the villages.

Lessons from the voter registration figures

The recent voter registration exercise, which many hoped would one and for all show avowed numerical strength of the south over the north, has come and went, and instead of easing the controversy appear to have granted it more impetus.

But this should not have been the case, anyone with a sense of history would, looking at the figure from both the north and south, clearly see a pattern that is in tandem with previous voters registration figures.

This figures, even if they are not to be taken to mean that the north is more populous, clearly proves another age-old maxim, that the north is more politically savvy than the south, and as such could muster more people to undertake the registration process.

The north central – where Kano, which according to the 2006 census has the highest population in the country, is located – posted the highest number of registered voters (19,803,689), followed by the south west (14,296,163), where second placed city Lagos is located. That these figures closely correlate with the percentage difference between the population figures for both areas is glaring and should serve as a justification for the census figures. That it does not satisfy many Nigerians should not read that the census is flawed, but that Nigerians have ample reasons to distrust each other.

While one cannot in fairness admit to the viability of the census figures, one can with all sense of clarity admit that the chances that the north will continue posting higher population figures, even when all the right data is captured, than the south is very high. In addition, the south east, except a reverse orientation is achieved, will continue posting lesser figures each census.

However, one is not prophetic enough to predict an end to the squabbles over population figures, as they are bound to continue, until perhaps we have a foolproof system of recording death and births in this country, but then, we may not need a national head count anymore.