Beat the gong, Mr President By Dan Agbese




The National Population Commission held a retreat at the very impressive Ibom Hotel and Golf Resort, Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, February 17-21. The theme of the retreat was a mouthful: Harnessing Demographic Data for Effective National Planning and Development.

            I was privileged to attend the morning session on the third day. I was impressed by the glittering assemblage of NPC commissioners, scholars as well as men and women, some of whom have attained the rare height as repositories of valuable experience in our efforts as a country to conduct controversy-free national population census since 1962 and did not quite rise above a man having difficulties with eating yam pottage. 

As you would expect at such gatherings with participants drawn from the various professions and the academia, there was quite a bit of scholarly knowledge twisted around grammar by resource persons who presented papers on the various topics, including to my surprise, a paper on “Relationship of trade unions and management: ensuring industrial harmony.” They offered professional advice and they suggested ways the commission could break through the jinx of a national headcount poisoned by political interests and thus held hostage each time by the struggle by each state to return higher numbers than it is naturally entitled to. 

            I had a sneaking feeling that the retreat was primarily intended by the commission to nudge the sleeping nation to wake up to the urgent need to count its own citizens and thus arm itself with such demographic and other valuable information yielded up only during a national population census to make some sense of its own plans and planning for our present and the future of our children. We last counted ourselves in 2006. The tradition among serious nations is to conduct a national population at ten-year intervals. If we had followed this civilised tradition among nations that are serious about proper planning based, not on hunches and whims but on reliable information, 2016 would have been the year. 

            It is a shame, really, that Nigeria, the giant of Africa reputed to be the most populous black nation in the world, does not know the accurate number of its citizens. In 2006, we were 140.3 million people. We reached that milestone trailed by the open or suppressed controversy that has attended every headcount since 1962. Demographic and other experts in this rather intricate matter of counting human beings, to my father’s chagrin, have done their maths and come up with various estimated population figures based on our annual rate of growth of 2.6 to 3.0 per cent. But they too are playing safe with the estimated population figures. Their estimated figures keep changing and confusing a confused situation. They put our population at various times at 178 million, 180 million, 200 million and now 210 million. These impressive figures speak well of our giant status. But none of them is a dependable fact of our current national population. Estimated populations may be useful in the absence of the facts but I know of no nation that relies on its estimated national population to plan for itself. If ours is the only country that relies on such estimates, it could be an honour but still a dubious one.

To know our national population, we have only one option and one option only: we must get the NPC to get back to the fields and conduct a new national population census. There is no excuse for not getting on with it. At the retreat I had the distinct impression that the commissioners and the other officials of the commission were rearing to go. They are anxious, as indeed they should be, to start the rather tortuous preparations for it. The retreat was a refresher course for them. It opened them to new ideas and processes that could make an accurate headcount a success. But that knowledge must not be allowed to gather dust between the files for lack of action on the of the federal government.

The commission is held back by one thing: the president has not issued the proclamation. In the tradition of national population censuses, the leader of a country by whatever title he is known, must issue a formal proclamation before the agency responsible for the census can move. If Buhari is not giving this some serious thoughts, he should be advised to do so – and urgently too. He can, of course, offer the excuse, valid on the face of it, that given the security challenges in the country, it would be inappropriate to talk of conducting a population census at this time. That argument would be invalidated by the fact that preparations for the census is laborious and takes a long time before the commission can really convince itself that it is fully ready. In other words, if the president issues the proclamation today you are not likely to find census enumerators knocking at your door tomorrow.

In my column, How many are we in Nigeria? (May 16, 2019), I wrote: “Between 1911 and 2006, we have had seven national headcounts. In the short period of 108 years, our population rose steadily from 16.05 million in 1911 to 140.3 million in 2006. We have left many nations behind at the starting point. But there is a downside to our ambition to fill the earth. We are imposing an infinite number on finite resources, human and natural. How to manage a growing population is a challenge of monumental proportions. We cannot be prepared for this challenge without knowing where we are and how many we are. 

“We should know if our country is home to a larger ageing population or a larger youthful population. We should know where the population is concentrated – states, urban and rural. Only an accurate and reliable national headcount can give us these important facts. A large ageing population or a larger youthful population presents us, each with its own challenges. A nation with a larger ageing population faces the serious problems of dependency.

“On the other hand, a larger youthful population means that our future as a nation is secure, all things being equal. But just as a nation must plan for its ageing population, so must it plan for its youthful population. The managers of our national economy whose job it is to plan for our national development, can do nothing without accurate and reliable national population census. Yes, number matters. Yes, its distribution matters. And yes, national planning stands on numbers.”

No president need be persuaded about this. National development is not about waving the magic wand. It is about planning. Planning requires reliable information. Fewer things could be worse for a nation such as ours to continue to do the impossible by trying to plan our future with out-dated national population figures and demographics. The commission chose the theme of its retreat wisely. It would be difficult to effectively undertake national planning and development without demographic. You can only get accurate demographic data through a national headcount. It would be in our national interest to move from motion to movement on this front now. The first, vital step is for the president to sound the gong by issuing the proclamation and challenge the National Population Commission to do what it was set up by law to do – count us and tell us how many we are. The national assembly is about to embark on its favourite pastime – a constitutional review for the nth time. It would be nice if they would be persuaded to make the ten-year interval between headcounts a constitutional imperative so that the proclamation by a president at the appropriate time becomes constitutionally obligatory for him and thus remove from him his assumed right to do so at his discretion. Time to beat the gong, Mr President.

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