The Nigerian census, now set for May 3, is, at its core, a math exercise as it’d involve counting individuals and gathering spatial and demographic data like housing, migration and residents per household.

Yet, unless you’re new to Nigeria, you’d know Nigeria has a problem regarding numbers. To put it simply, Nigeria has a counting and accounting problem. Let’s start with the counting problem.

The counting problem: How many people does Nigeria have?

If you enter “Nigeria population” on Google, you’ll get numbers between 211 and 224 million. On paper, that’s a large number. Two hundred million of anything — from cash to people — is a lot.

In reality, the numbers have raised questions about its credibility. In 2018, Stears argued that Nigeria’s population wasn’t 180 million, as was the commonly quoted figure. No one knew for sure. The numbers used to determine Nigeria’s population are estimated.

Nigeria last conducted a census in 2006. While the official count was 140 million, there were questions about how the numbers were calculated. The president-elect, Bola Tinubu, who was Lagos state governor then, rejected the figures allocated to Lagos, which was nine million. The state conducted its “survey” and concluded that its population was 17.5 million — almost double the official figure.

The reason for manipulating census figures comes down to resource control. More numbers mean more allocation of resources from the federal government, which is good news for politicians. The incentive to conjure figures is strong because censuses don’t come up often. With the last one held 17 years ago, no one can say when the next one will come. These numbers are what the federal government will use to guide policymaking in resource allocation for the foreseeable future. As a result, there’s an incentive for data to get distorted.

Today, according to its 2023 budget, Lagos state claims its population is over 27 million, an astonishing 200% increase from 2006. It then leaves question marks on why a state with this many people had less than 1.2 million turn up at its governorship election. The math doesn’t add up.

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The accounting problem: How much does it cost to conduct a census?

The other aspect of the numbers problem comes down to accounting. Exactly how much does it cost to conduct a census? 

In September 2022, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo said the census would cost ₦‎198 billion. At the time, they earmarked ₦‎21 billion for mapping the country into enumeration areas. However, two months later, the National Population Commission (NPC) told the Senate that the census would cost ₦532.7 billion. This is a census that the NPC chair has described as “digital”, so how and why did the cost balloon so quickly?

But that’s not all. In its strategy document, the NPC said the census would cost ₦841.9 billion. That’s over ₦300 billion more than its previous estimate. Earlier this month, the FG said it’d need ₦869 billion to conduct the census. The numbers keep rising, and no one is being held accountable. Just like no one knows the actual size of Nigeria’s population, no one knows the real cost of conducting a three-day census.

Will the 2023 census be a true reflection of Nigeria’s population?

The NPC has repeatedly told Nigerians that the 2023 census would be “different.” Of course, the NPC is right as it’ll be the most expensive ever. The real bother is whether the outcome will justify the expense. Given how the Independent National Electoral Commission performed at the elections compared with its lofty pre-election promises, it might be wise not to get too excited about the NPC’s readiness for the census. Most recently, it has been pleading with Nigerians not to travel home for the census, which begs the question of whether they didn’t foresee this scenario.

The die is cast, and the census will hold one way or another. Whether the NPC is better prepared to learn from its shoddy history of conducting censuses and whether the numbers will be a true reflection of our population is anyone’s guess. The NPC has a rare opportunity to provide us with a credible count, unlike its sister commission, INEC. Will that happen? We’ll know for sure when the census ends on May 5.



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