In the News: Results Trickle Out From the Nigerian Census

(January 2007) Nigeria’s population reached 140 million, according to provisional results of the Nigerian population census released in December 2006.1

“The fact that it was a big number is a big deal,” says Carl Haub, senior demographer at the Population Reference Bureau.

The last census taken in 1991 surprised analysts because it came in low, prompting calls for a recount. At 89 million, the total population figure fell short of government estimates by more than 20 million (see table). For a while, the 1991 census shook people’s faith in demographic statistics, says Haub, who has fielded many calls from people wanting to know how the numbers could come out so low. But demographers say the 2006 census figure seems plausible.

Nigeria’s Population, 1991 and 2006

Year Census Estimate
1991 89 million 112 million to 123 million
2006   140 million 120 million to 150 million

Sources: National Population Commission, 1991 Population Census of the Federal Republic of Nigeria; and F. Onuah, “Nigeria Gives Census Results, Avoids Risky Details,” Reuters, Dec. 30, 2006 (, accessed Jan. 4, 2007).

Nigerian census numbers have not always been credible. Census taking has a checkered history in Nigeria. The 1952/1953 census was the first near-scientific census conducted in the country, but it probably undercounted the population. Results of the first post-independence census conducted in 1962 were withdrawn.2

In recent decades, Nigeria’s population estimates have been based on the 1963 census. Although its reliability has been questioned, it was deemed more dependable than the 1973 census, which never saw the light of day because the results were discredited. No census was taken in 1981.3

To reduce objections to the 2006 results, the census questionnaire did not ask questions about religion or ethnic background. Even so, the census count will be controversial. In the past, rival ethnic and religious groups have tried to use the numbers to assert numerical superiority, and by extension, claim a larger share of oil revenues and political representation. Census numbers in Nigeria guide political redistricting, the distribution of federal funds, and even civil service hiring.4

The balance of political power in the nation is almost evenly split between a mostly Muslim population in the north which has traditionally controlled the government and the coastal, largely Christian south.5

Because the relative size of states gets translated into power, the results could be a source of conflict. The three primary ethnic groups—Yoruba, Hausa, and Igbo—are vying for control. Each fear domination by the others. The outgoing president hails from the southern Yoruba group, which is reluctant to give up power. But the northern Hausa, who have traditionally dominated the country’s ruling elite, want power back.6

After initially promising not to release more detailed information on the population of states for fear of fueling violence or setting off ethnic, political, or religious clashes, the National Population Commission (NPC) released more detailed census results in early January. The northern states account for 75 million people, while the southern states are home to 65 million. In reactions to census results from earlier years, the north tended to support the results, because they reinforced their numerical advantage. And people in the south tended to call for cancelling the results of the census.7

Before the census was conducted in March 2006, the Lagos state commissioner for information and strategy said that any number less than 15 million would not be acceptable for most Lagos residents. Lagos is a state on the southern border. According to the latest census, Lagos was the second-largest state with a population of 9.0 million, following Kano, a northern state with a population of 9.4 million.8

As early as 2004, the NPC chairman revealed that his greatest fear was that people would be so fixated on certain numbers that when results were below what they expected, they would reject the census.

Sandra Yin is associate editor at the Population Reference Bureau.


  1. Felix Onuah, “Nigeria Gives Census Result, Avoids Risky Details,” Reuters, Dec. 30, 2006, accessed online at, on Jan. 4, 2007.
  2. National Population Commission (NPC), 1991 Population Census of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (Abuja, Nigeria: NPC, 1998): 6.
  3. NPC, 1991 Population Census.
  4. Onuah, “Nigeria Gives Census Result.”
  5. Robert Lalasz, “In the News: The Nigerian Census,” Population Reference Bureau (2006), accessed online at, on Jan. 4, 2007.
  6. Christian A. Purefoy, “Census Stirs Old Rivalries Between Nigeria’s Tribes,” The Independent, March 20, 2006, accessed online at, on Jan. 5, 2007.
  7. Bolade Omonijo, Rotimi Ajayi, and Ben Agande, “Census – Kano Beats Lagos,” Vanguard (Lagos), Jan. 10, 2007, accessed online at, on Jan. 11, 2007.
  8. Omonijo, Ajayi, and Agande, “Census – Kano Beats Lagos.”