Nigeria faces census conundrum

More than a decade after its last headcount, Nigeria is preparing to conduct the country’s fifth census this year. However, religion and ethnicity—long the bane of national life—appear set to bedevil the process.

The National Council of State, a body that includes the president, the 36 state governors and former heads of state, decided last month that the form for the 2005 census will not include questions about the religion or ethnic group of persons surveyed.

This came after Ahmed Makarfi, Governor of Kaduna state in northern Nigeria, threatened to mount a boycott of the census if these issues were dealt with in the questionnaire.

During an exercise conducted late last year by the National Population Commission (NPC) to inform people about the census, Makarfi argued that the eventual publication of statistics on religion and ethnicity could deepen existing divisions along these lines—and even lead to social unrest.

NPC chairperson Samaila Makama appeared convinced by this argument, noting: “Since each religious and ethnic group would prefer numerical superiority over the other, it might be safer to ignore religion and ethnicity since there would be the temptation by each group to explore ways to have an edge over the other.”

Northern Nigeria is mostly Muslim, while the south has a concentration of Christians and animists.
It is estimated that Muslims make up about 50% of the country’s population, and Christians 40%. The remaining 10% of Nigerians follow other religions.

In 2000, several northern states were wracked by clashes between Muslims and Christians following the introduction of Islamic law—sharia—in these territories.

The country’s religious divide has been aggravated by tribal differences (Nigeria has about 250 ethnic groups).

One of the most bitter ethnic disputes saw members of the third-largest tribe in Nigeria, the Ibo, make an unsuccessful attempt in 1967 to secede. Now certain Ibos, who believe their tribe has been marginalised by the government, appear to view the census as a way of gathering statistics that will back their claim to a larger share of Nigeria’s resources.

Accordingly, governors from south-eastern states where many Ibos reside are demanding that ethnic and religious persuasions be covered by the census. And, they have threatened their own boycott of the headcount if it fails to deal with these matters.

Yet another threat of boycott has come from Kaduna-based officials of the Christian Association of Nigeria, who also want the census to take account of religion and ethnicity. The United Nations recommends that census forms include questions on these issues.

Nigeria’s last census, held in 1991, was also the subject of controversy, sparking more than 100 law suits from parties that contested the results.

The number of parliamentary representatives that a region can nominate, and the amount of money it receives from the central government, are largely determined by the population of that region. As a result, many communities are alleged to have inflated their census figures during previous headcounts, prompting legal challenges by groups that felt disadvantaged by census outcomes.

“The problem with Nigeria is that we have tended to place more premium on using census data for revenue allocation than on planning for sustainable development,” says Makama.

Those organising the 2005 census hope to break this trend by using the survey not only to count people, but also dwellings in Nigeria. In addition, the census will survey whether people have access to services such as piped water, electricity and telephone communication.

At present, census officials are dividing the country into what are termed “enumeration areas”, zones small enough to be traversed by census takers when the count is held in the final months of this year. It is estimated that the census will take three to four days to complete.

The exercise is expected to cost about $265-million.

Britain’s Department for International Development is providing satellite imaging to assist officials with deciding on the perimeters of the enumeration areas, at a cost of almost $60 000.

The European Union is supporting the headcount with funding of about $15-million, while the United Nations Population Fund and the United States Agency for International Development have also pledged assistance with the census.—IPS

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