(April 2006) Census taking seems a quiet affair to most people in the United States, where the head count runs relatively smoothly and is reliably decennial. But in Nigeria, last month's national census was met with protests, boycotts, charges of fraud, and at least 15 deaths.1 Thousands of other enumerators walked off the job because they hadn't been paid, and many people in large swaths of the country say they still haven't been counted.2

Passion and conflict are nothing new for Nigerian censuses. Their results decide the division of federal money and the balance of political power in a nation split almost evenly between a largely Muslim population in the North (which has traditionally controlled the government) and the coastal, more-urbanized, and largely Christian South, which regularly accuses northerners of rigging the census for political gain (see Table 1).


Table 1
Religious Demography of Nigeria, 2003

Region
Percentage
Women
Men
Catholic
13.1
14.3
Protestant
15.2
14.7
Other Christian
19.6
19.5
Total Christians
47.9
48.5
Muslim
50.7
50.2
Other
1.4
1.3

Note: Women surveyed were ages 15-49; men surveyed were ages 15-59.
Source: Nigeria National Population Commission and ORC Macro, Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey 2003 (2004).


Small wonder, then, that the country hasn't conducted a census since 1991—which some analysts think undercounted Nigeria's population (officially put at 89 million) by perhaps 20 million people. (Estimates put the current total population at between 120 million and 150 million people.)3

But Nigeria isn't alone: 15 countries worldwide have not taken a census since 1990—most because of ongoing conflict, but some because of a simple lack of resources.4 Perhaps more remarkable, many of the poorest developing countries (such as the Central African Republic, Niger, and Yemen) have been able to hold censuses since 2000.5 "Census taking doesn't just provide an update of many national parameters such as total population, fertility, age, and sex," says Carl Haub, senior demographer at the Population Reference Bureau. "In the case of developing countries, it provides an up-to-date sampling frame for badly needed demographic surveys."


Table 2
Percentage of Nigeria's Population by Major Geopolitical Zone, 2003

Region
Percentage
Women
Men
North Central
14.7
14.9
North East
17.9
17.9
North West
27.5
25.7
Total North
60.1
58.5
South East
9.7
8.8
South South
17.6
19.0
South West
12.6
13.7
Total South
39.9
41.5

Note: Women surveyed were ages 15-49; men surveyed were ages 15-59.
Nigeria National Population Commission and ORC Macro, Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey 2003 (2004).


The final results of the Nigerian 2006 Census—which marshaled almost 1 million enumerators and cost $266 million, more than one-half of which was paid for by the European Union and other international donors—are scheduled to be announced in mid-2006.6 And the Nigerian government has said it will use the results to guide political redistricting before the country's 2007 general elections.7 But if past is prologue, that deadline might be missed: The 2006 Census was originally supposed to be held in 2001.

DHS Results for Nigeria's Religious and Geographic Demography

Ethnic and religious violence has killed at least 14,000 people in the past seven years in Nigeria, a country containing at least 250 different ethnicities and at least as many languages.8 Splits between Nigerian Muslims and Christians and among the country's ethnic groups are so incendiary that census officials decided to not ask citizens this year about their religious affiliation or ethnicity. That decision inflamed Christians, who have refused to accept past census results that they are in a slight minority compared with Muslims.9

The controversy isn't just about religious pride. Census numbers in Nigeria guide political redistricting, the distribution of oil revenues, and even civil service hiring. (Nigeria's constitution dictates that the relative population percentages of every ethnic and religious group must be used to determine the mix of those groups in all federal appointments—including the armed forces.10) The 2006 Census does ask people where they live, which can serve as a crude index of ethnic or religious affiliation because these groups are often highly geographically concentrated.

While the 2006 Census will be silent on religion or ethnic identity, a 2003 Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) taken in Nigeria gives a reliable portrait of how the country's population breaks down along these lines. The sampling frame for the 2003 Nigeria DHS used the list of enumeration areas developed for the country's 1991 Census. Muslims made up just over 50 percent of the country's population, while Christians were about 48 percent (see Table 1).

The split between Nigeria's northern and southern regions has further complicated both Nigerian politics and census taking. The North's political strength arose initially from the results of the 1952-3 Census, which showed 54 percent of the country's population resided in that area.11


Table 3
Total Fertility Rates (TFR) in Nigeria's Six Major Geopolitical Zones, 2003

Region
TFR
% of women who are pregnant*
North Central
5.7
9.4
North East
7.0
14.2
North West
6.7
16.2
South East
4.1
6.8
South South
4.6
9.0
South West
4.1
6.0

*Ages 15-49.
Source: Nigeria National Population Commission and ORC Macro, Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey 2003 (2004).


While the last five censuses were all held under military strongmen from the North, Nigeria's current president, Olusengun Obasanjo, hails from the South, making him the first elected president from that region. Some analysts have accused Obasanjo, who is trying to amend Nigeria's constitution to allow him a third term in office, of using the 2006 Census to divert public attention away from his political troubles.12

In 2003, around 60 percent of Nigeria's population lived in the country's northern region (see Table 2), ratifying that area's longstanding claim of containing the majority of Nigerians. And Nigeria's regional total fertility rates (TFR, the average number of children a woman will have during her lifetime) suggest that this northern predominance in population will continue. As Table 3 shows, northern Nigeria's three geopolitical zones all have higher TFRs than those found in the country's southern zones.

According to data from PRB's 2005 World Population Data Sheet, if Nigeria's North East zone were a separate country, its TFR of 7.0 would be tied for the fourth-highest in the world—behind only Niger (8.0), Guinea-Bissau (7.1), and Mali (7.1).13 Nearly one in every six women ages 15-49 in that zone were pregnant in 2003.

The Difficulty of Taking a Census in Some Countries

Nigeria's difficulties at census taking have even been the butt of international jokes. In April 2005, for instance, Uganda's environment minister, Kahinda Otafiire, called the opposition party in Uganda unfit to govern and compared them to "Nigerians who don't know how to count themselves."14

The jibe was quickly protested by Nigerian officials. But taking a census is no laughing matter in many countries torn by strife or short on resources for such a nationwide effort (see Table 4).


Table 4
Countries That Have Not Taken a Census Since 1990

Year of Last Census
Afghanistan
1979
Angola
1970
Bhutan
1969
Burundi
1990
Congo, Dem. Rep. of
1984
Djibouti
1960
Eritrea
1984
Haiti
1984
Lebanon
1970
Liberia
1984
Myanmar
1983
Somalia
1987
Togo
1981
Uzbekistan
1989
W. Sahara
1970

Source: United Nations, Population and Vital Statistics Report (2005).


"Census taking in many developing countries is a particularly difficult process," says Haub, "given shortages in educated staff to act as enumerators and the funds to train them, poor road and transportation networks, general suspicion of governments, ethnic rivalries, and outright armed conflict in some cases."

And some observers dispute that the 2006 Nigerian Census was comprehensive. Indeed, a day before the five-day headcount was scheduled to end, Nigeria's national population chairman, Samu'ila Danko Makama, admitted that only 70 percent of the country had been canvassed.15 (The census was ultimately extended two extra days.)

Census forms and materials were also reported in short supply, especially during the first two days of the count, when people were ordered to stay home from work to ensure accurate enumeration. And many people claim to have been missed by census workers entirely. More than 45,000 herders in northeastern Yobe state, for instance, were left uncounted by the end of the census—simply because they had not been included in the official census map.16


Robert Lalasz is senior editor at the Population Reference Bureau.


References

  1. Bashir Adigun, "Nigeria's Census Ends With Many Still Uncounted," Chicago Sun-Times (March 28, 2006), accessed online at www.suntimes.com, on April 5, 2006.
  2. "Criticisms Shroud Nigeria's First Headcount in 15 Years," Monday Morning (April 3, 2006), accessed online at www.mmorning.com, on April 5, 2006.
  3. Adigun, "Nigeria's Census Ends With Many Still Uncounted."
  4. United Nations Statistics Division, Population and Housing Censuses (Oct. 5, 2005), accessed online at http://unstats.un.org/unsd/demographic/sources/census/censusdates.htm, on April 5, 2006.
  5. United Nations Statistics Division, Population and Housing Censuses.
  6. Christian Allen Purefoy, "Census Stirs Old Rivalries Between Nigeria's Tribes," The Independent (March 20, 2006).
  7. Reuters, "Nigeria Excludes Explosive Issues From Census" (Sept. 7, 2005), accessed online at www.msnbc.com/id/9244147/from/RL.1/, on April 5, 2006.
  8. Associated Press, "Suspicion, Taboos, Fear Confront Nigerian Census Takers," Mainichi Daily News (March 25, 2006), accessed online at http://mdn.mainichi-msn.co.jp, on April 5, 2006.
  9. Associated Press, "Suspicion, Taboos, Fears Confront Nigerian Census Takers"; and Solo Odunfa, "Nigeria's Counting Controversy," BBC News (March 21, 2006), accessed online at http://news.bbc.co.uk, on April 7, 2006.
  10. Odunfa, "Nigeria's Counting Controversy."
  11. Library of Congress Country Studies, Nigeria: The Census Controversy, accessed online at http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/ngtoc.html, on April 11, 2006.
  12. Alli Hakeem, "Problems Continue to Dog Nigerian Census," Mail & Guardian Online (March 23, 2006), accessed online at www.mg.co.za, on March 23, 2006.
  13. Carl Haub, 2005 World Population Data Sheet (Washington, DC: Population Reference Bureau, 2005).
  14. "Nigerians Bristle at Census Jibe," BBC News Online (April 19, 2005), accessed online at http://news.bbc.co.uk, on April 5, 2006.
  15. Associated Press, "Suspicion, Taboos, Fear Confront Nigerian Census Takers."
  16. Adigun, "Nigeria's Census Ends With Many Still Uncounted."