The story of how Nigeria’s census figures became weaponized

Taking stock during Nigeria’s 2006’s census
Taking stock during Nigeria’s 2006’s census
Image: AP Photo/George Osodi
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The story of Nigeria’s 1962 census never gets old. Southern politicians seeking to end the north’s dominance of Nigerian politics decided that the only way to do it was through the census. Population figures at the time determined not only parliamentary representation but also revenue allocation and employee distribution in the civil service. In May 1962, the first census under an independent Nigerian government began. There had been a frenzy of mobilization by politicians in the south of the country using pamphlets, radio, schools, churches and mosques.

Although the final results were not made public, the preliminary results were quite clear as to what had happened: the north’s population had gone up from 16.5 million in the last census in 1952 to 22.5 million, an increase of 30%. But in some parts of the east, the population had increased by up to 200% and more than 70% in general. The west also reported an increase of 70%. What the preliminary results showed was that the north had lost its majority share of the country’s population.

The northern leaders were not about to take that lying down. A new census was held in 1963 and this time, an additional 8.5 million people were discovered in the north bringing the total to 31 million for the north—a figure higher than the population of every other country in Africa at the time—and 56 million for Nigeria as a whole. The power balance had been restored and Nigeria’s census had been duly weaponized at a cost of $6.2 million (about $50 million today). Another census was conducted a decade later in 1973 but was so hotly disputed and produced incredible figures that the government simply nullified the result.

In 1991, the military government of General Ibrahim Babangida had another try at a population count. This time, after some delay, the figures were officially announced in March 1992—there were just under 89 million people in the country. Fifteen years later, in 2006, another census was conducted and the population was announced to have grown by more than 50% to 140 million. It is these two censuses, when compared, that tell a most interesting story about Nigeria.

Some years ago, I was trying to work out the exact relationship between population figures and revenue allocation (between the federal, state and local government arms of government) numbers in Nigeria. This is a fiendishly difficult thing to do as the exact formula has never been publicly disclosed. Moreover, there are a number of other things aside from population that go into the formula. I downloaded the 1991 and 2006 numbers, which were broken down by state. After staring at them for days I was unable to make any headway with what I had set out to find. But then a chance conversation with a friend produced a eureka moment: “every census in Nigeria follows the formula of the 1963 one” he said. I then went back to the numbers and there it was in plain sight.

First, there was a slight wrinkle in the data that made it tricky to directly compare the 1991 and 2006 numbers. In 1991, Nigeria had 30 states but in 1996, Nigeria’s maximum ruler, General Sani Abacha, created an additional 6 states bringing the total to 36. Since the new states had been carved out of existing states, making the numbers directly comparable meant adding the 2006 numbers for the 5 new states back into the states they had been carved out of. So Nasarawa’s numbers went back into Plateau,Gombe went back into Bauchi, Bayelsa went back into Rivers, Ekiti went into Ondo, Ebonyi went back into Enugu (this was a bit tricky as a small part of Ebonyi was created from Abia state but it’s not statistically relevant to affect the comparison here) and finally Zamfara went back into Sokoto. Now I had 30 states in 1991 to compare with 30 states in 2006.

Implausibly, each state had managed to maintain its exact share of the population across two censuses, 15 years apart. A nearly successful military coup in April 1990 badly rattled the military high command and hastened the relocation of the federal capital from Lagos to Abuja, a process that was completed in December 1991, right after the census had been completed. Given the large bureaucracy and patronage networks that followed the government in the move to Abuja, it would have been impossible not to reflect this in the numbers somehow. Thus, Abuja rose from 0% of the total in 1991 to 1% in 2006. The difference was made up by pushing down Abia to 2% of the total in 2006 from 3% in 1991. Every other state remained unchanged.

In 2000, the Nigerian government began a new revenue sharing formula that returned 13% of all onshore oil revenues to the oil producing states. In practical terms, whatever link remained between population and revenue allocation was effectively broken by this new 13% derivation principle. In other words, there was no financial reason to manipulate the distribution of the census figures in 2006 in line with the 1991 numbers.

This is best illustrated with the monthly Federation Account Allocation Committee (FAAC) where the federal government and states gather to share oil revenues. The most recent report available on the statistics bureau website is for January 2018. According to the census figures, the most populous state in 2006 was Kano with 9.4 million people. In January it received a total of 6.6 billion naira ($18.4 million) after all deductions. Akwa Ibom state, a major oil producing state but with less than half the population of Kano at 3.9 million, received a total of 16.5 billion naira ($46 million). Of this amount, 12 billion naira was its share of the 13% derivation principle.

More than expected
More than expected
Image: AP Photo/Lekan Oyekanmi

While just eight of Nigeria’s 36 states receive this derivation payment, it nonetheless accounts for roughly a quarter of the total revenues shared by states monthly. In the same month, tiny Taraba state with less than a quarter of Kano’s 2006 population received 3.8 billion naira as its share of revenues. If a link remains between population numbers and revenue sharing in Nigeria’s resource based economic model, it is at best tenuous.

What part of Nigeria’s official census figures can be believed? I’ve generally assumed the total figure of 140 million was perhaps correct and the falsification only happened in the way it was distributed across the states by formula. But there’s reason to doubt even that. In 2010, Donald Duke, the former two-term governor of Cross River state, committed  a remarkable act of political class suicide by penning an article detailing how he and his fellow governors rigged elections in Nigeria. Buried in the middle of the piece was this line:

When we conducted the census in 2006 or so, the raw figures said we were over two hundred million; when they went and processed the figures it came down to 140 million.

He was a governor at the time so his claim is at least plausible. The question is who or what did the “processing” and what did such an exercise entail? It’s hard to tell.

Nigeria has been due another census since 2016 but lack of funds—the Nigerian government can only fund 51% of the costs and is relying on donors to fund the remaining 49%—mean it is now scheduled to hold this year at a cost of 272 billion naira ($759 million) “if necessary logistics are provided”, according to the director general of the National Population Commission (NPC).

In 2013, the former chairman of the NPC, Festus Odimegwu, managed to talk himself out of a job with a series of controversial comments. 24 out of the NPC’s 35 commissioners asked the president to fire him from his job as they had lost all confidence in him. Before then he had been queried by the presidency for giving newspaper interviews where he said there had never been a credible census in Nigeria, including the one in 2006, and that the 2016 one which he had been charged with conducting was doomed to fail.  All of this was intolerable candor and president Jonathan eventually tired of his antics and fired him in October 2013.

Nigeria does not seem like a country planning to hold a census this year. The country’s finances remain in poor shape and the leadership is currently consumed by politicking in advance of the 2019 general elections. But it will have to hold a census at some point and the question of whether people can lay down their weapons and allow a credible count to take place remains a pertinent one. There is no longer any financial reason for any state to lie about its numbers so the country has a unique opportunity to hold its first credible census in its history as an independent nation. The reasons for having credible population numbers are too obvious to restate: Nigeria has essentially been making policy blind since its independence.

The shenanigans around the census in Nigeria cuts through to the heart of much that continues to ail the country. What began in 1962 as jostling for advantage by politicians in a newly independent country became reinforced when resource rents upped the stakes. As with such things, even when it starts with falsifying census figures, it never ends there. Recently, the head of the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC) – the body tasked with deciding Nigeria’s revenue sharing formula—complained that states and local governments were concocting figures to boost their share of revenues. It is hard to tell what other data is being manipulated.

Nigerians do not trust official figures and neither do officials trust their own figures. The agriculture ministry recently put out a tweet where it quoted a data aggregation website, Index Mundi, as proof rice production had gone up in Nigeria. The irony of the country’s agriculture ministry being unable to produce its own data on a supposed achievement and having to rely on data from a foreign website was not lost on many people. Each time there is a terror attack or kidnapping in Nigeria, one guaranteed outcome is that the figures for the number of casualties or victims  will vary from newspaper to newspaper and official government sources.

It helps to explain an ironic phenomenon—everyone in Nigeria—including the government, appeals to outside authority for authentic data about the country.

And that is the saddest part of it all.