Headache of Africa's Biggest Head Count: Just How Big Is Nigeria's Population? Is It 100m or 150m or Somewhere in between? No One Is Sure Because Nigeria Has Never Really Had an Accurate, All-Inclusive Census and Demographic Numbers Are Politically and Economically Very Sensitive. Now the Country Awaits the Results of the First Census in 15 Years. Neil Ford Reports

By Ford, Neil | African Business, June 2006 | Go to article overview

Headache of Africa's Biggest Head Count: Just How Big Is Nigeria's Population? Is It 100m or 150m or Somewhere in between? No One Is Sure Because Nigeria Has Never Really Had an Accurate, All-Inclusive Census and Demographic Numbers Are Politically and Economically Very Sensitive. Now the Country Awaits the Results of the First Census in 15 Years. Neil Ford Reports


Ford, Neil, African Business


Nigeria's recent national census has both highlighted and tried to overcome major weaknesses in the fabric of the nation. Ever since the Biafran civil war, the country's political leaders have feared provoking another attempt at secession and have sought to underplay the religious, regional and ethnic divisions that are all too apparent and which threaten the very integrity of the nation.

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They therefore sought to avoid carrying out a population census but the lack of accurate demographic data has made governance difficult at all levels. It has been virtually impossible to make comprehensive national plans and this has prevented investors from gaining an accurate picture of the Nigerian market.

Since independence, Nigeria has experienced an uneasy balance between the broadly Muslim north on the one hand and the Christian and animist south on the other. Most sources claim that there are more Nigerian Muslims than Christians but no-one knows for sure. At the same time, although the country has a myriad of ethnic groups, there has been another careful balancing act between the three main groups--the Yoruba in the southwest, the Hausa in the north and the Igbo in the south-east.

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It was felt that producing a detailed breakdown of religious and ethnic population figures could stoke inter-communal rivalry and violence, which might destabilise the entire nation. By proving the numerical dominance of one group over another or demonstrating that one section of the population was growing more quickly than another, minority groups could easily become fearful over their futures.

In addition, apart from fuelling national disputes, the collation of demographic information could also trigger more local disputes, where two ethnic or religious groups are vying for dominance. For example, a great deal of the inter-communal violence of the past seven years has occurred where there are significant Christian minorities in historically Muslim northern Nigerian cities. Any changes in the demographic balance of power could be inflammatory in such a situation.

An additional element has been the dispute over the distribution of oil revenues that has raged almost since President Olusegun Obasanjo came to power in 1999. The governments of the oil-producing states have argued that they should be allowed to keep a larger proportion of national oil income because they view it as their oil and because they must bear the full environmental side effects of the industry. The northern, non-oil producing states insist that the money should be spread more evenly over the country, while the federal government wants to retain more of the oil revenues to finance its own spending plans. Each side fears that the collation of accurate demographic data would support the claim of its opponents.

Population data has proved sensitive in other politically troubled parts of the world, such as Israel, Northern Ireland and South Africa; but Nigeria's approach to the problem has largely been to sidestep it by not attempting a census. Several attempts at an accurate census had been made since independence but each has either failed to include the entire country or has produced suspect results. Particular groups have assumed that the ethnic or religious group with most representatives in the government would have boosted its own figures in any census.

Yet fear of producing clear data on the balance of religious, ethnic or regional power in Nigeria has made the work of local governments, utilities and the federal government very difficult. Water authorities need accurate information on the number of households and people in any particular area--and perhaps even more importantly, on how these figures are changing--in order to plan water and waste water services. Power companies are in a similar position, while governments need population data to plan road, rail and port infrastructure. …

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Headache of Africa's Biggest Head Count: Just How Big Is Nigeria's Population? Is It 100m or 150m or Somewhere in between? No One Is Sure Because Nigeria Has Never Really Had an Accurate, All-Inclusive Census and Demographic Numbers Are Politically and Economically Very Sensitive. Now the Country Awaits the Results of the First Census in 15 Years. Neil Ford Reports
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