History of Population Censuses in Nigeria (A Must Read)

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Following the insistence of the National Population Census (NPC) to go ahead with preparations towards the 2018, MOSES ALAO takes a look at the history of head counts in Nigeria dating back to pre-independence days.

AS preparations for the 2018 national population census continue, with the recent insistence of the chairman of the National Population Census (NPC), Chief Eze Duruiheoma, that the preliminary plans for the exercise would continue since the Federal Government has not spoken of any shift in the exercise, questions and doubts have, again, begun to be raised regarding the exercise.

The questions, which largely arise as a result of the past experiences of Nigerians with similar population counts in the past, have been centred largely on what would be the outcome of 2018 population census and whether it can accurately capture the population of the country, which many people argue have remained in the realm of speculations for decades. Another cogent question that observers of events in the country have begun to raise about the planned head count is whether the result will be acceptable to a majority of the country, if not all, unlike previous exercises, which had always ended up either being rejected by sections of the country or even the government itself.

From historical records, the country’s population census journey began in 1866, when the colonialists organised a headcount in what was then known as the Lagos Colony. A similar exercise was said to have been repeated in 1871, 1881 and 1901.

In 1911, another headcount, which captured the Lagos colony and the Southern Protectorate, which comprised all states in present day South-East, South-South and South-West Nigeria, was carried out, while a separate census was said to have been carried out in the Northern Protectorate comprising all states in what is today known as Northern Nigeria. With the amalgamation of the Southern and Northern Protectorates in 1914, the colonial government was said to have passed the Census Ordinance of 1917, which paved way for the country’s first nationwide census in 1921.

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Following the first nationwide headcount, population census was said to have become a 10-yearly affair under the colonial government, with the process going on fairly well until the first census after the country’s independence was held in 1962, the outcome of which reportedly started off what has now become a perennial controversy about the population distribution of the country. The census, which put the figure of Nigeria at 45.26 million, was distributed into 23.25 million for Southern Nigeria while the North’s population figure was put at 22.01 million. But in a move that appeared to have set the tone for subsequent rejections of census figures by sections of the country, the then Prime Minister, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, had rejected the census result reportedly on the ground that the southerners could not have been more than the northerners, with the 1952 census having given the North a higher figure than the South.

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The government had immediately ordered a fresh census, which result showed that the Northerners were reportedly undercounted by 8.5 million people. Though the political leaders in the South kicked and called for the nullification of the exercise, it was accepted by the Federal Government, setting the ground for several controversies that would eventually contribute to the fall of the first Republic.

Ten years after, in 1973, under the military government of General Yakubu Gowon, the country had another round of population census but it also ended up in controversy, with the chairman of the census commission and the first Premier of Western Region, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, both calling for the cancellation of the results. The result of that census was never to be published as Gowon was removed from office while the new head of state, the late General Murtala Mohammed, was said to have cancelled the census result outright. The successive governments of Alhaji Shehu Shagari and General Muhammadu Buhari never got around to conducting another census until 1991 under the leadership of General Ibrahim Babangida. But like the two censuses before it, the 1991 exercise was also fraught with controversies, with leading figures in the South rejecting the result on the basis that it followed the 1963 census, which reportedly rigged the census result in favour of the North. Some other leaders of Southern extraction such as retired Justice Ademola, Professor Sam Aluko and Professor Wole Soyinka, however, praised the conduct of the 1991 census.

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The last census in the country was held in 2006 during the reign of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, over 15 years after the last one was held. But like the ones before it; it met with criticisms from different quarters, leaving the international community with questions about when the country would get its census right.

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In what would appear to be a punchy verdict on all the past censuses in the country, a former chairman of the NPC, Chief Festus Odimegwu, had maintained that “no census has been credible in Nigeria since 1863. Even the one conducted in 2006 is not credible. I have the records and evidence produced by scholars and professors of repute. This is not my report. If the current laws are not amended, the planned 2016 census will not succeed.” Though that position appeared to have led to his exit as NPC boss in 2013, political observers have maintained that his view still rankles and that the self-same question on when the country will get things right with census must begin to agitate the minds of well-meaning Nigerians as the country prepared for a fresh census.

A lecturer at the University of Ibadan and expert in Population Geography and Migration Studies, Dr Godwin Ikwuyatum, believes that the country can, indeed, get things right regarding its population census if there could be less of political intrusion in the process.

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For a country which population data remained largely inaccurate, with different figures being bandied as the population of the country, there is, indeed, the need for a thorough census that will not only put to rest the controversies regarding the country’s population but also avail the different government agencies the much-need development data for planning, as the whole essence of census, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF), is critical for development. According to the agency, which collaborates with countries on census, “the information generated by a population and housing census – numbers of people, their distribution, their living conditions and other key data – is critical for development. Without accurate data, policymakers do not know where to invest in schools, hospitals and roads. Those most in need remain invisible. Yet too many countries have outdated or inaccurate information about their populations.”

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As the NPC goes ahead with the pre-census processes such as the development and testing of questionnaires and enumeration area demarcation, among others, the questions are how much of history will be repeated in 2018 or anytime the country holds the next census? Will it be more of the same or the country will take a concrete step in the right direction in terms of accuracy of its population figure or continue to plan with estimates and speculative figures? Will the results be devoid of politicisation this time round or will the fears of Hon. Yakubu Dogara that politicians might hijack the process be confirmed?


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