Feyi Fawehinmi: The damning lies of Nigeria’s census figures

by Feyi Fawehinmi

The Economist published one of their explainers on Why nobody knows how many Nigerians there are. As you might guess, it’s about Nigeria’s census figures. Here’s one bit

Even by other methods, Nigeria’s population has proven tricky to pin down. Africapolis, a French-funded research project, used satellite mapping to estimate the population of towns and cities in 2010. It found several cities, mostly in the north, had hundreds of thousands fewer people than the 2006 census counted. But even those data are not entirely trustworthy: it later transpired that the researchers had underestimated urbanisation in the densely populated Niger delta

Census figures are political dynamite in Nigeria partly because of the time when population numbers were the biggest driver of the revenue sharing formula. However, as I’ve been saying, this is no longer the case. If you check the FAAC numbers from anytime in the last 5 to 10 years, it is clearly that the 13% Derivation Formula for oil producing states is now the ‘koko’. All the other non-oil producing states are just sharing poverty. There is no longer any advantage to lying about your census figures.

In theory this should mean that the next census figures should be more accurate given the reduced incentive to lie. But don’t hold your breath — we are not talking about a normal country here

Anyway, I wrote the piece below about 7 years ago but for some reason I just never published it on this blog. It was published on the back page of Guardian Newspapers about 4 years ago though. So I’m putting it up here now.


A couple of years ago, I was trying to look for a link between population figures in Nigeria and the monthly allocations from the federation account to states and local governments in Nigeria. At the time I had just discovered the Federal Ministry of Finance’s website which published the monthly breakdowns in fairly reasonable detail albeit a few months late.

The National Population Commission also had the 2006 census figures on its website broken down to local government level as well as the 1991 census figures broken down to state level. I thought I would find something of a correlation between the sharing of money and population figures fairly easily but I quickly abandoned this task as it was a nightmare to understand the formula behind the allocations. There are too many different components to the sharing and the only one that is fairly easy to understand is the 13% derivation formula; all of the rest like population, education and even ecology were all over the place. So I moved on.

But the trouble was it had taken me 3 solid days to extract the census data from the NPC website because the information was in downloadable PDFs that were also ‘security locked’ i.e. I couldn’t copy the data to an excel spreadsheet to make it easier to manipulate. The internet came to my rescue as I found software to unlock the PDFs and get the data onto a spreadsheet.

Yet again, the data didn’t tell me anything particularly useful. To be clear, there is a link between population and revenue allocation in Nigeria (which explains why census figures are so contentious in Nigeria) but without some help from people who know, it is hard to work it out. After a few days of staring at the data in frustration, I was speaking to a friend in church and discussing Nigeria in general when I managed to steer the conversation to census figures. I told him how I had managed to extract the information and how I couldn’t find what I was looking for. He then laughed and said ‘every census in Nigeria follows the formula of the one in 1963. The total figure might be correct o but the allocation of numbers follows that formula’. He said it with that Nigerian air of ‘knowingness’ where people are convinced of what they are saying even though they haven’t looked at the data.

So I went back home and tried to test his conspiracy theory. The slight wrinkle in the data was that in 1991, Nigeria had 31 states and by 2006 an additional 5 states (Nasarawa, Bayelsa, Ekiti, Ebonyi, Zamfara) had been created. To solve this problem and make sure I was comparing like with like, I simply added the numbers of the 5 new states to the states from where they had been carved out of. So Nasarawa’s numbers went back into Plateau, Bayelsa went back into Rivers, Ekiti went into Ondo, Ebonyi went back into Enugu (this was a bit tricky as a small part of Ebonyi was created from Abia state but it’s not statistically relevant to affect the comparison here) and finally Zamfara went back into Sokoto.

What I found caused me to rub my eyes in disbelief. My friend was right; the figures followed a formula. There wasn’t even an attempt to hide the formula — it looks as if someone just put a formula in an excel spreadsheet and came up with the numbers.

In 1991, Lagos had a population of 5,725,116 out of a total of 88,992,220 for a percentage share of 6%. By 2006, Lagos had 9,113,605 out of a total of 140,431,790, again for a percentage of 6%. Kano in 1991 had a population of 5,810,470 representing 7% of the total. By 2006 there were 9,401,288 people in Kano, again representing 7% of the total. Every single state followed this pattern.

How about the combined states? In 1991 Ondo had a population of 3,785,338 representing 4% of the total. By 2006 Ondo had 3,460,877 people while Ekiti (carved out in 1996) had 2,398,957 people. Adding these two states together gives a total of 5,859,834 which again comes back to 4% of the total. This is the same for Rivers — 5% in 1991 and Bayelsa + Rivers also 5% in 2006.

Pick a random state and the results are the same. Benue had a population of 2,753,077 in 1991 representing 3% of the total and then 4,253,641 in 2006, also 3% of the total. Akwa Ibom was 2,409,613 in 1991; 3% of the total and 3,902,051 in 2006, again 3% of the total. You are getting bored by now so I will stop. I am sure you get the gist. Again I stress — these percentages are exactly the same from 1991 to 2006. The only difference is the FCT Abuja which obviously did not exist in 1991 but had a population of 1,406,239 in 2006 for exactly 1% of the share of the total. This is effectively a rounding error in the total and so it does not affect the ‘formula’.

The census figures are now 6 years old and I did shout myself hoarse at the time about what is a truly scandalous set of figures. I do not know how it is possible to have census figures that grow exactly the same over 15 years. How does Lagos for instance continue to maintain its share of the population when the place is a magnet for people migrating from other parts of the country? We can also conclude that, for the numbers to have been so shamelessly and crudely fudged in this manner, there must be a lot riding on them when it comes to the allocation of scarce resources.

I spoke to some people about this afterwards and they said it is very likely the overall figure of 140,431,790 for 2006 was a very good estimate of the real population of Nigeria given that the EU was heavily involved in the counting and collating process and there was a lot of international help given to Nigeria to conduct the census. But it does seem as if, as soon as the foreigners left, we simply went back to our old ways and allocated the numbers as we have always done.

How do you build a nation on a lie such as this? What exactly is true about Nigeria? Because people who will lie about census figures in this manner will probably lie about unemployment figures and budget spending.

It is never too late to revisit this matter because in a few short years, Nigeria will once again embark on another census exercise. The least we can do is ensure that such a scandal like this is not repeated. This does not mean the 2006 figures should not be subject to a full inquiry; we are a democracy (at least in theory) so whether or not the numbers are 6 years old, they remain in play for serious debate.
For once we should try to tell the truth to ourselves as a nation.

All the numbers I have used were obtained from the website of the National Population Commission which existed in 2010. The website has since been spruced up and is at www.population.gov.ng . However the 1991 census figures seem to have disappeared from the site. Thankfully I kept a copy from 2010. My Google spreadsheet workings is here.

In my recent podcast with Dele Olojede, he talked about how Next once broke a major story about Nigeria’s oil minister and the story just landed like a stone — nobody cared. I can relate. When this was published in the papers, nobody gave a toss. I expected people to say OMG! Wawu! and stuff like that. Nope. In any other country this would be a major scandal but not in Nigeria.

So I’m not republishing this again because I expect something new to happen. It’s merely for your education. Or perhaps, since this is Nigeria, for your entertainment.

Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija

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