African governments need to fix their problematic relationship with data on their own countries

A Nigerian official conducts a census in Lagos in 2006.
A Nigerian official conducts a census in Lagos in 2006.
Image: REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The state of Nigeria’s lack of accurate data is such that even the president does not know the country’s population size.

Sure, there are estimates (180 million or 200 million, depending on who you ask) but the country’s last census happened in 2006 and plans for another have, so far, stalled due to lack of funding. The 2006 exercise arrived at a population count of 140 million but alleged malpractice suggest those results cannot be fully trusted. As such, Nigeria’s problematic relationship with data is best captured by its decades-long politicization of census numbers.

In the absence of reliable data from the government, global institutions including the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have been the most consistent suppliers of estimates and forecasts. Last week however, on the same day an Africa-focused World Bank report was published, Nigeria’s president Buhari claimed statistics “quoted about Nigeria” developed abroad by international bodies are often “wild estimates” which “bear little relation to the facts on the ground.” Buhari’s barely veiled criticism of international bodies also came with a promise to improve local data collection.

It’s unclear what those serious steps are, but there’s an obvious place to start: providing more funding to Nigeria’s statistics bureau (NBS), led by Yemi Kale since 2011. Despite a paucity of resources, NBS has improved efficiency and is publishing reports more consistently than ever before.

But problems remain despite the NBS’ best efforts. In addition to the obvious funding gaps (which Kale has often highlighted), the agency also lacks strong institutional support from government. After it published a landmark survey on corruption which showed police officers, prosecutors and judges were frequent receivers of bribes, the National Judicial Council called the report “untrue, baseless and unfounded” while the police force claimed the report was “misleading.”

Small solutions, big problem

The lack of a strong data culture is not solely a Nigerian problem. The latest African Governance Report by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation highlights “data challenges” across the continent: only one third of data sources on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) indicators on Africa are from direct country sources and, on average, fewer than 40% of the indicators for the SDGs have sufficient data to track progress accurately on the continent, it states.

In addition, nearly half of the targets for the African Union’s Agenda 2063 are not directly quantifiable. As the report states: “The ability to monitor progress towards development targets in Africa is compromised.”

There’s a fundamental obstacle at the root of the poor data collection and analysis culture across Africa, says Yannick Lefang, founder of Kasi Insight, a consumer data-focused research firm. “The problem with government statistics is that you need to have the breadth and depth. It takes time and resources and, as we know, statistics agencies in Africa have been underfunded over time,” he says. “What’s been happening is that because it’s so cumbersome and costly, basically we’ve done nothing.” A more cynical view is that the lack of availability of data locally enables a culture which lacks transparency and allows political leaders paint their preferred versions of reality. “Data helps uncover truth and, in Nigeria, it has been better for the people that run the country for data to not be available,” says Michael Famoroti, partner at Stears Data, a Lagos-based research firm.

Some of the effort to improve data transparency in government operations in Nigeria have come from data firms including Stears as well as civic society groups. Since its founding in 2011, social enterprise BudgIT has focused on ensuring information on government budgets and spending is more easily accessed by Nigerians through its published reports and infographics. It has also led advocacy campaigns to get budgets of Nigeria’s expensively maintained national assembly made public.

The combination of high costs and an aversion to transparency has resulted in stagnation of national statistics agencies across the continent. “Little average improvement in statistical capacity has been made” across the continent since 2008, the African Governance Report says.

As a workaround given the scale of the problem, Lefang recommends a “step by step approach” where governments reduce the scope of data collection by first focusing on cities “where a majority of economic activity is happening.” The upside, he argues, includes building expertise and capacity among local data agencies in a manner that’s less expensive before scaling the process to marginally include rural areas overtime. “This is where problem solving comes in,” Lefang says. “It comes down to being innovative to solve this.”

One signal of a changed approach will be African governments taking steps to resolve current inefficiencies which see different agencies collecting data from citizens without sharing.

“The biggest challenge we have in government [in Nigeria] is that there’s a lot of friction between agencies. Citizens keep registering the same information all over the place, meanwhile one data set could be used in all government agencies,” says Emeka Okoye, a data scientist and tech veteran. “The friction needs to be broken because all government agencies are just silos repeating the same thing. And because nobody cares about how citizens are receiving government services, the silos continue to grow.”

A new perspective

There’s one barrier to resolving these problems though: despite the gains of data-based policy-making, political leaders on the continent seemingly have little motivation to take on the hard work of deliberate governance. “Unfortunately, they may not see data as a tool for them to perform…but if you’re a policymaker or head of state, you can’t manage what you can’t measure,” Lefang says. “Wars are lost on information and it’s the same for our economies—having [reliable data] is equivalent to having your own army,” he adds. While national statistics agencies across Africa typically lack either funding or independence (in Rwanda, poverty statistics are being reportedly manipulated), even international organizations like World Bank and the IMF have also become targets of criticism from African governments when they publish unflattering reports.

“This backlash against data is part of a wider trend that we see with countries and leaders like ours that find it very easy to slip into that anti-West rhetoric that has some logic but ultimately is used as  a political tool rather than as a means to really engage,” says Famoroti. For instance, he adds, “Buhari did  not point out anything wrong with the [World Bank] data, he just said it was wrong, which isn’t much of an argument.”

As it turns out, there’s never been a more pertinent time for African countries to become more deliberate about data and policy-making. United Nations’ population projections show that more than half of the world’s population growth will be in Africa by 2050 with an additional 1.3 billion people on the continent.

While raising serious questions about African governments’ plans to cater to rapidly growing populations amid lingering problems like failing public infrastructure and poverty, the estimates also offer an important glimpse of what’s to come. “[Leaders] need to use it to make informed decisions and anticipate so we can prepare, rather than firefight as we usually do,” Lefang says.

Sign up to the Quartz Africa Weekly Brief here for news and analysis on African business, tech and innovation in your inbox