Thursday, 3 July 2014

Whose numbers?

Early last year, a Canada-based academic, Morten Jerven, published a book with the title, ‘Poor Numbers: How we are misled by African development statistics and what to do about it’. As the title indicates, his basic premise was that most figures given for the continent are plain wrong. His book caused a furore. Calling the author a ‘hired gun’ who had not dome his research, Pali Lehohla, the South African Statistician General, said that ‘unless he is stopped in his tracks’ he will ‘hijack the African statistical programme,’ and proceeded to try and prevent him from attending a conference organised by the UN Economic Commission for Africa. Mr Jerven responded by saying that Mr Lehohla and his counterparts ‘are doing well in the current system,’ and that ‘[a]ny change to the status quo in the political economy of statistics in Africa is considered a threat.’ It seems that the two have since made up, which doesn’t mean that the problem has gone away.
Mr Jerven, an economic historian, was concerned with GDP figures. Here in Nigeria, we recently rebased our economy and discovered that we were underselling ourselves. According to the new figures, we are now Africa’s biggest economy. This may well be so. I am no economist although I’ve often wished I was the better to understand the world I live in, what with its getting and spending and laying waste our powers, as William Wordsworth, himself no economist, poetically put it.
But I do believe I understand something about politics, more particularly Nigerian politics, which in any case is the duty of every citizen. Among the things I understand because everybody else does, too, is that we can’t count ourselves, and that this is not a problem of economics but of politics. Every census since 1952 up to and including the last one in 2006 has been disputed. We don’t have to go far to find out why. In a recent interview, Festus Odimegwu, the immediate past chair of the National Population Commission, bemoaned the parlous state of the commission itself, the place where all the activity was supposed to be taking place – ‘Nothing was working there. The commission was deliberately killed, so it will not fulfil its constitutional obligations’ – and was finally forced to resign when he queried the figures for Kano State:

In the process, when all these fraudulent people were shouting, Governor Kwankwaso started running his mouth from Kano that I, Festus Odimegwu, His Royal Majesty, that I am drunk. He made a joke of a serious matter, as the biggest beneficiary of the fraud that is the demographic data in Nigeria

Mr Jerven himself got ‘a peek into…the domestic political pressures some serious technocrats have to deal with’ when he was finally permitted to attend the conference and was subjected to ‘a loud rant’ from Busani Ngcaweni, Deputy Director-General in the South African Presidency.  There is a character in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations who, presented with an apparently intractable problem, ‘took the case altogether out of the region of metaphysics...and by that means vanquished it.’ Mr Ngcawemi did the opposite by accusing Mr Jerven of ‘sustain[ing] the meta-narrative of the Heart of Darkness' while also managing to slip in something or other about Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses alongside the Conrad novella, which was where he finally lost me.
Regarding our population here in Nigeria, we know perfectly well that the figures are skewed in favour of the north for reasons of patronage, and that it’s doubtful whether Kano State is more populous than Lagos State. According to the 2006 census, the former has just under 9.5mn; the latter 9.1mn. So outraged was the then Lagos State governor that he denounced the figures and went ahead to do his own illegal enumeration given that counting Nigerians is a strictly federal matter, whereupon he came out with almost twice that, as even the UN agencies agree.
With that in mind, I recently undertook some research on behalf of Africa Check – - on the question of Nigeria’s population. During my background reading, I came across a study by Africapolis, a French based team currently part of a global study of urban populations. Using ‘a combination of satellite imagery, geographic information systems, and the largest collection of documentation on the region ever collated,’ it concluded that the 2006 census for Lagos was reasonable. It also found the population of Kano city – about one-fifth of the state’s land mass - ‘inflated’. Perhaps there are many people in the hard-to-access rural areas but we know all about the cultural problems of counting the womenfolk in those parts.
Part – or even most – of Mr Ngcaweni’s ‘rant’ (although I wouldn’t have used that word myself, having watched his slick, measured performance on YouTube) is this business of foreigners doing our work for us, or at least the work they want done but which we won’t or can’t do ourselves. Another participant at the UN conference, and himself a former director of the commission hosting the event, criticised Mr Jerven on a number of issues, as contained in the commission’s own report, to wit: ‘sensationalism and Afro statistical pessimism’, ‘failure to consult statistical elders’, and ‘the insinuation of political interference in the management of statistics’. Having cleared away the troublesome weeds, he had two questions: ‘which equation is he trying to solve and on whose behalf is he working?’
Unfortunately, the problem is with the weeds, not the questions, the answers to which are self-evident, only a pity that he should be asking them, having introduced the very sensationalism he deplores by his appeal to bogus authority that is the continent’s greatest bugbear. And in embodying the very politics he attributes to others, he enables all sorts of things for which we – not they – are responsible, things like women dying in childbirth, things like babies dying before they reach the age of five, things like children not going to school. Sensational, perhaps, but until we know who this abstraction is we cannot possibly plan for its future. 

©Adewale Maja-Pearce
A version of this piece first appeared in Hallmark newspaper, 1 July 2014
Adewale Maja-Pearce is the author of several books, including Loyalties
and Other Stories, In My Father's Country, How many miles to Babylon?, A
Mask Dancing, Who's Afraid of Wole Soyinka?, From Khaki to Agbada,
Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa and Other Essays, A Peculiar Tragedy, and
Counting the Cost, as well as the 1998 and 1999 annual reports on human
rights violations in Nigeria. He also edited The Heinemann Book of African
Poetry in English, Wole Soyinka: An Appraisal, Christopher Okigbo:
Collected Poems, The New Gong Book of New Nigerian Short Stories,
and Dream Chasers. The House My Father Built, a memoir, will be
published later this year.


  1. We may have to ask the Ameticans to come ciunt us! Wonder why 99% of the Chairmen of Nigeria's Nat. Population Commission have been Malos? 'Our' President had to ask Mr. Odimegwu to resign! Haba! Mallam!

  2. Two quick comments:
    1. has my notes on the population census "errors"
    2. is good stuff, sir. Thai rice and Nigerian (Ekiti, developing world) politics