Students read in a class. Image: Global Partenership for Education via Kelly Lynch
The recent bickering between the United Nations and the National Population Commission over Nigeria’s current population figure is quite unnecessary and embarrassing. And it depicts perhaps, only one thing: that some national institutions of governance do not properly understand their mandates. Nigeria’s National Population Commission is one of them and so some change should begin with the very important Commission.
Doubtless, national development planning is normally a major pre-occupation of leaders even in global context. Those in authorities put these strategic plans on priority list on assuming office so that they can determine what needs to be done to cater for the needs of his people. It is however impossible to provide for a people whose population figures are in the realm of speculation.
Sadly, what obtains in Nigeria is a near-total blindness to the importance of taking stock of how many people, for instance, have a claim to a fair share of the country’s resources. And so, instead of engaging itself in proactively keeping track of population and demographics, the National Population Commission (NPC) would rather wait, in the true fashion of Nigerian leadership, to contest the claims of global population agencies such as the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF) (formerly (UNFPA).
Disputes over the population numbers projected by different authorities are not new about Nigeria. For instance, in 2016, the World Bank estimated Nigeria’s population to be 186 million. Also, the United Nations in 2017 put Nigeria’s population at 180 million with a growth rate of 2.7 per cent.
Prior to that, in 2016, the Director-General of the National Population Commission (NPC), Ghali Bello, estimated Nigeria’s population to be 182 million with a growth rate of 3.5 per cent. If the base population from which the estimates are made were correct, why then are the figures different? Certainly, each of these figures is questionable and each estimate is based on a different base population.
It was, therefore, not surprising that the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), through its Statistician-General, Dr. Yemi Kale, in 2016 disputed the estimates, which put Nigeria’s population between 170 or 180 million as incorrect and one based on mere speculation. Kale’s contention then reinforced earlier doubts about Nigeria’s exact population figure. Even without that, the frequency with which figures are released from different sources about the same population, almost on yearly basis, continues to increase the doubts.
The last census was conducted in 2006, and even that one was too far from being a flawless exercise as many states, particularly Lagos, contested the figures credited to it by the NPC. Nothing can be more contentious than for the NPC to be dishing out bogus population figures that would be difficult to defend. This is part of what gives room for various estimates from both within and outside the country.
Nigerians do not know exactly how many they are. Consequently, it is a bit suspect for the NPC to just simply dispute the figures of other bodies or agencies that appear to be even more diligent with the country’s population affairs.
It is common knowledge that population is politicized in Nigeria because that is the basis for sharing the national revenue every month at the centre. The more populated a section of the country claims, the more resources are allocated to it.
That has also made accurate head-count almost impossible as figures are curiously doctored by people with vested interests. The result is that there is no reliable population figure on which to base development planning. This is unfortunate in the extreme.
Meanwhile, there is a curious twist to the controversy. The problem of Nigeria’s population is also historic and traceable to the colonial era. It is a fact of history that the pre-amalgamation census of 1912 was deliberately falsified by the British colonial masters in favour of a section of the country with a view to making it have a political advantage. The effects of this curious manipulation are still complicating the country’s fault lines.
A certain Harold Smith, a former colonial administrative officer, once reportedly admitted that, “the British were very scared of handing over to the enlightened incommodious south. Despite seeing vast land with no human but cattle, we still gave the north 32 million.” This is on record.
That act of dishonesty sowed the seed of discord and injustice in the country. It is possible for Nigeria to transcend this unwholesome British imposition. But this deliberate falsehood will be difficult to erase until a competent NPC is allowed to do the right thing or allowed to do things right.
The NPC should therefore not help to escalate the problem. It should be more interested in how to conduct a reliable census that would give accurate figures – instead of joining sundry bodies to dispute figures it lacks capacity to correct at the moment.
Keeping track of the country’s population is not an impossible task for the NPC at all. The Commission can harness what is on ground in terms of citizen identification and monitoring, such as the national ID card, drivers’ licences, voters’ cards and international passports. Mechanisms can be built somehow around these elements that will help in sustaining demographic awareness in the country.
All told, it is important to mention that censuses and population awareness are not an end in themselves, but are only supposed to guide a nation through the process of building human capital.
How is Nigeria developing her human capital? What plan is there for the education of the population? Can there be progress when millions of the youth are out of school and not in any productive ventures?
Countries that have large populations― such as China, India and the United States― are not bothered about the numbers because they engage in a consistent effort towards the development of the human capital.
Nigeria should follow the example of these countries and see the strength in its huge population by developing it into a most potent human capital resource.
And that is why authorities at all levels and tiers of government should not forget robust investment in quality education at this time too. Without concomitant quality in education, the huge population will only trigger an unsafe society where sundry bandits, insurgents, abductors and even cyber-criminals will lead to huge defence budgets and curious security votes at all times.