Journalism in the service of society

Waiting for Nigeria’s next census

FOR the purpose of national planning and development, a fairly accurate head count is one of the most indispensable tools to support sincere efforts of government. The urgency to get development planning, design and execution right in a country like Nigeria is quite understandable, particularly given its paradoxical reality of being so blessed in human and natural resources, yet poor in its human development index.

Implementing policies, plans and programmes of government without accurate knowledge of its population, especially the demographic stratification, compound efforts in strategic policy framework and effective programme implementation. Any attempt falls in the realm of guesswork or abstract projections which have little or no correlation with reality. At the end of the day, it ends up in spending huge resources that do not translate into the desired developmental outcomes.

It is on the basis of this background that all well-meaning stakeholders should welcome the proposal by the Nigerian government to conduct a national headcount next year next, which will be coming 17 years after the last one in 2006. Interestingly, the proposed census will be coming immediately after the 2023 general elections, suggesting that while the government of President Muhammadu Buhari would be preparing to exit the seat of power, it is putting in place the data framework, which would be required for the incoming administration to start on a data-enabled note.

Already Nigeria is buffeted by myriad challenges. The landscape has been terrorised by an assortment of criminal elements that have wreaked havoc on lives and property and put safety of citizens on a precarious precipice.

On the economic front, poverty stalks majority of the citizens. The high cost of living, combined with other harsh economic and human development realties, clearly signposts the urgent need for the country and its people to have a drastic reorientation towards strategic realignment of their development parameters.

Looking at the most vulnerable of all Nigerians, the task of robustly and sustainably addressing their conditions has over the years been made complicated by disputes over data. The government which is supposed to proffer solutions, hardly knows the numbers and categories of citizens it is working for. How many Nigerians are living with disabilities, how many are out of school, how many are living below the poverty line, and in which states are they located. If these posers cannot be addressed in a data-driven manner, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to proffer appropriate solutions.

There are claims by international development agencies that Nigeria has the highest number of out of school children in the world. While they try to draw attention to this situation, both the national and sub-national governments in the Nigeria do not seem to pay the desired attention towards redressing the situation. Any robust, effective or sustainable attempt to address the situation will have to begin with the collection of accurate data sets.

Development planners must be able to account accurately for the number of these vulnerable people in every state of the federation. Such will in turn trickle down to the 774 local government areas and the political wards. With data broken down to such smaller units, there will be a lot more clarity on the part of development planners as to the number of schools, teachers, educational materials and other inputs required to address the situation. In the absence of such clearly defined data sets for development planning before adopting policy options to address the challenge, the outcome is likely going to at best be patchy, while the problem remains unsolved.It would be money down the drain.

Therefore, the critical place of data collection for development planning, using the instrument of population census, cannot be discountenanced, even while examining other development challenges confronting Nigeria. These include issues like youth unemployment, maternal and child mortality, internal displacement, insecurity, basic infrastructure provision and many more. This is why we are in support of an urgent head count in the country.

However, as desirable as an accurate population census is today, the National Population Commission (NPC) must beware of the negative tendencies that have always undermined the development trajectory of the country. It must, therefore, be prepared for the challenges that would most definitely confront it in the build-up and actual execution of the exercise. The issues include, but not limited to, the now ingrained regional/ethnic and religious bigotry, the security challenges, the outpouring of petty sentiments, the destructive dispositions of anti-growth elements, the rabid critics of every initiative and proposal from public institutions and governments and saboteurs within the system.

These tendencies have been with us for a very long time and must no longer constitute reasons for failure to carry out a successful exercise. All necessary plans must be put in place to surmount them. It is our view that the NPC should begin with robust sensitisation and stakeholder outreach programmes to prepare the ground for the task ahead. The people must be carried along every step of the way to avoid the characteristic complain of lack of proper enlightenment.

It is also pertinent to add that conducting the census is not an end in itself. The three tiers of government must begin to strategise on how the result of the exercise would be deployed using demographic categorisations for development planning and implementation. In other words, the census must connect to direct governance outcomes, and should not become data sitting on the shelves to be deployed for abstract postulations.

Finally, given the economic status of the country and considering other development requirements, an outrageous budget package for the exercise will not be a welcome development. Government must ensure that the exercise is conducted with a minimum package, deploying modern technology to assist in the process. Nigerians will be watching and hoping that this proposed exercise, desirable as it is, does not become another drainpipe of the nation’s lean financial resources.

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