Apart from perceived huge burden on the national economy and escalating insecurity situation, another reason that has been flaunted against the conduct of the 2022 Population and Housing Census is its proximity to the 2023 General Election, slated for February and March 2023.
The secondary use of census figures for political representation and distribution of revenues, as against its primary purpose for national planning, is considered to have elevated census to a contentious national event that cannot share the same national space with election.
According to this school of thought, a good census is only fit to be conducted in a context that is totally devoid of electoral activities. Census is a landmine that should be avoided not only on one or two days slated for voting but also during other electoral activities such as registration of political parties, party conventions, nomination of candidates, election campaign and announcement of result.
Yes, census is politically relevant because of its use for delineation of constituencies and revenue allocation and election is also about struggle for power but this linkage does not necessarily make census and election strange bedfellows. It is indeed an exaggeration to place census on the same level of sensitivity with elections or to assume that census will complicate elections.
This line of reasoning betrays a limited understanding of the complex factors that drive the level of sensitivity of census and election, which are different and definitely not mutually reinforcing as to make their conduct within a shared time frame a no-go area.
In examining the potential impact of census taking on the electoral process and outcome, the right questions have to be posed and addressed realistically.
Concerns on the need to divorce census from election have largely been raised in relation to security as it is believed that a joint or close implementation of the two activities might further compromise the fragile peace in the country.
But the questions that need to be addressed are what will make individuals or groups take up arm against themselves within the context of census enumeration? What are the interests at stake in census and are these interests so contradictory as to provoke violence within the community? Conversely, how do these questions play out within the context of the electoral process?
For a community, local government area, state or any other administrative unit, what is at stake in the census is the desire to be adequately counted during the census.
This collective desire is a unifying factor that cuts across party divides, religious or ethnic affiliation and socio-economic conditions. There is a popular understanding that the whole community stands to gain from a proper and accurate census either in terms of availability of data for planning purposes, political representation or allocation of economic resources.
Judging from experiences of previous censuses, communities are more eager to play supporting roles in facilitating the enumeration process through mobilisation of additional resources, public enlightenment and provision of security not only for the census but also preparatory activities. Over the years, census has always provided a platform for common and active participation in community development as it constantly reminds members of their collective interests and shared destiny. There is therefore no practical need for communities to be at war with each over the census.
Can similar responses be affirmed to these overarching questions in relation to elections? The answer is definitely no. Election is about competition for political offices, not between communities or administrative units but among members of the same constituency.
What is at stake in the electoral process is not really the collective interest of the community but often irreconcilable partisan interests of individual members of the constituency working at cross purposes to ensure victory at the poll. Given the huge investment in elections and the corresponding rewards of victory, elections provoke differences within the community.
The win-at-all cost mindset of electoral competition beclouds the collective interest of the community, and more often lead to violence. A lingering feature of electoral competition in Nigeria is the mobilization of citizens against each other not only during voting days but also intra party disputes, campaign and post-election period.
Analysts of the Nigerian politics can easily relate with the concept of election violence, as they have comprehensively examined its root causes and various manifestations. Majority of Nigerian voters have not only experienced election violence but some have also been victims.
The incidence of election violence has constantly undermined the integrity of the electoral process. Elections are often marked with cut throat competition leading to clashes among political contestants, destruction of properties, injuries and loss of lives, snatching of ballot boxes, disruption of voting process and post-election protests.
These negative features have not only distorted the essence of election as the expression of popular wish but have undermined broad based participation in the electoral process. It is therefore not surprising that voter turnout has consistently been lower than 40% of the registered voter population.
But for the census, the perception of violence is largely imaginary and not supported by historical fact. Yes, census results had generated controversies in some sections of the country leading to cancellation of the result like in 1973 or litigations in other previous censuses. But the scale of violence witnessed in successive elections is practically unknown in the history of Nigerian censuses.
There is absolutely no reason for individuals to be at war against each other in a census context. What is at stake is a collective interest to be counted rather than individual ambitions of winning. Nobody recruits and arms thugs to disrupt the census process. Incidence of assassination, destruction of census materials, attack on officials and injuries over the census are very rare if they have ever been recorded.
Specifically in relation to the 2023 General elections, those who have argued that the census is too close to the election have not been able to establish the political stakes in the next census that will make it complicate the next election.
Critical issues that will define the outcome of the election have been determined and will not in any way be influenced by the outcome of the 2022 Census. The voter register of over 85 million has been finalized and can only be increased through the on-going Continuous Voter Registration (CVR), and not the census figures.
There is no way the 2022 Census will serve any purpose in voter registration for the 2023 election. In any case, the number of registered people is not determined by population but rather by the number of people who come out to register.
Similarly, political representation for the 2023 election has been established by the provisions of the 1999 Constitution as amended, which will not change before the next election. With the exception of seats at the House of Representatives of the National Assembly and State Houses of Assembly which are determined by population, every state has equal number of constituencies at the Senatorial and governorship elections.
This will definitely not change before the 2022 Census and the 2023 General Elections.
Judging by the schedule of activities for the 2023 General Election as released by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), it is even more difficult to sustain the argument that 2022 Census should not be conducted before the next election. The census is proposed to be conducted in the last week of November 2022 for a maximum period of one week with restrictions likely in the first three days.
However, this will be clear three months before the general election scheduled for last week of February and second week of March 2023. Apart from election, the other sensitive stage of the electoral process is the nomination of candidates and party primaries which often trigger some violence due to intra party differences and lack of internal democracy.
However, INEC expects political parties to conclude nominations for presidential, national assembly, governorship and state houses of assembly elections by 3rd June 2022. This is six months ahead of the census. The November date for the census is therefore sufficiently timed to insulate the exercise from the risks of core political activities, if there is any.
In any case, given the dynamics of electoral competition in Nigeria, we must come to the realization that there cannot be any period absolutely free of electoral activity that could be safe for the conduct of the census and brace up to the reality of how to manage census within the context of election.
The modern trend in electoral administration is the Electoral Cycle Approach (ECA) in which there is actually no start nor end period for elections as inter related electoral activities will need to be implemented between elections.
Examples of activities that are implemented within the ECA are development of legal framework, planning and implementation, training and education, voter registration, electoral campaign, voting operations and election day operations, verification of results and post-election. Each of these electoral activities carry varying measure of sensitivity.
In addition, conduct of off cycle and bye elections has become a permanent feature of Nigeria’s electoral process. Apart from the 7 governorship elections in Kogi, Bayelsa, Edo, Ondo, Osun, Ekiti and Anambra, which are conducted outside the general election, there is also the increasing number of bye-elections into National Assembly and State Houses of Assembly due to vacancies occasioned by deaths or resignation. INEC disclosed that it conducted 195 bye-elections between 2015 to 2019.
There are also several Local Government elections conducted by State Independent Electoral Commissions (SIECs) at interval of 3 years. Given the all year-round calendar nature of electoral activities, finding an election free period for the ’safe conduct’ of the census will be an exercise in futility. Does this mean that census will never be conducted because of fear of elections?
Curiously, the contention that census and elections are strange bedfellow is not supported by historical facts.
The 1991 Census was conducted on the eve of the gubernatorial election, which produced governors for the then 30 States in the aborted Third Republic. The census was conducted from 20th to 28th November 1991 followed by the governorship election in December 1991. There was no evidence to suggest that the 1991 Census and its results negatively affected the 1991 governorship election as the elected governors were sworn-in in January 1992.
Rather than postponement, the 2022 Census should indeed be conducted before the 2023 election to serve as a moderating influence on the highly envisaged competitive environment of the 2023 election.
A census conducted in November 2022 will help to nurture unity, commitment towards common goals and belief in the supremacy of collective interests over individual ambitions among the political class, thereby promoting the peaceful conduct of the 2023 election.
Due to the exigencies of communal participation in the census process, political actors of various divides are likely to work together to ensure that their respective communities are counted. They will contribute resources for the welfare of enumerators, sensitize their people and provide security for the functionaries. This spirit of togetherness and cooperation can linger for another three months and will definitely moderate possible antagonism and violence among contestants during the general election.
Conducting the next census in November 2022 before the general election in February/March 2023 will be a most auspicious and strategic decision for the nation not only for the successful conduct of the 2022 Population and Housing Census but also for a peaceful and credible 2023 General election.
The fear of the 2022 Census complicating the 2023 election is a myth that is not sustained by historical fact, the interplay of factors driving the sensitivity of the two events and the spacious timelines between the 2023 core electoral activities as released by INEC.
Isiaka Yahaya, Ph.D is an Election Expert and Development Consultant based in Abuja
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