Censuses in Nigeria have always been a controversial affair. This, perhaps is caused by political reasons influenced by the numbers and allocations to be appended to each demography and geographical zone. The results of the 1991 census, which has been called the best so far, is keenly contested by experts.
In 1989, after a number of attempts to conduct the census in the previous years of the military, the General Badamosi Babangida led government felt the need to create the National Population Commission (NPC) and so the populations commission was established by Decree 23 of 1989.
In 1991, Nigeria, led by the military government of General Ibrahim Babangida had another try at a population count. And just like the verve which would later be witnessed in the 1992 general elections where citizens participation was a given, catchy songs in diverse dialects imploring citizens to comply with instructions by enumerators as well as show cooperation, were rolled out to mobilise.
The census held in December 1991 as promised but by the time the figures were officially announced in March 1992, it had lost some of its vitality.
One major problem which analysts point out of the 1991 census figures was the lower growth rate of the economic centers in the southwest and the southeast regions when compared with that in the northern part of Nigeria.
A five-year average growth rate forecasted between 1970 and 1990 indicated an increase from 26.6% to 37.9%; therefore, the population during the 28-year period from 1963 and 1991 must have been approximately 100 million.
Prior to the 1991 census, the population of Nigeria was estimated by the United Nations (UN) in 1987 at 87 million people. However, the 1991 census which was even more carefully conducted than previous ones reflected a population of 87.5 million – even World Bank estimates show that the number should have exceeded 120 million. Could there have been a case of intentionally reducing the figures of the southern part of the country?
The discrepancy of 30 million between the forecasted numbers and the actual released census figures provoked strong reaction and conspiracy theories among politicians in the country. At some point, they called for a recount. Skeptics even suggested that the full publication of the figures had to do with the political situation in Nigeria at the time where a certain region may want to assert ethnic hegemony.
The political infighting which was common in the early 90’s and the series of coups d’etat and counter coups within and outside of the military prior to the 1991 census may have tainted the outcome even before it began. Arguments for some of the numerical distortions can also be traced to the affiliated advantages which a state with higher population figures will benefit from when revenues are shared between states and the Federal Government.
It was all of these, and more, which finally ridiculed the legacy and credibility of the much touted 1991 census.
Fifteen years later, the Nigerian population grew by more than 50% to 140 million as recorded in the 2006 census. This further cemented the incredulity of the 1991 census.