The resignation of Eze Festus Odimegwu as Chairman of the National Population Commission (NPC) on October 17 is not surprising. It is a wise step considering the strident calls on President Goodluck Jonathan to sack him on account of his recent castigation of past censuses in the country.
Odimegwu’s questioning of the credibility of past headcounts elicited angry comments from persons who felt he was coming into the assignment of conducting the 2016 census with an unhealthy mindset, and the presidency reportedly issued him a query.
His resignation, though unfortunate, is in order. It has laid to rest the problem of the loss of confidence in him and the agency to conduct an unbiased census in 2016. His decision to step aside is honourable and quite uncommon in our clime, especially among those occupying high public offices. His rather short-lived tenure at the population agency as a result of voicing his convictions on the shortcomings of the nation’s past censuses is capable of discouraging Nigerian public officers from speaking up according to the dictates of their conscience.
The resignation of the former census boss has since been accepted by the Federal Government, which appointed Dr. Sam Ahaiwe, the commissioner representing Abia State in the commission, as acting chairman pending the appointment of a substantive chairman. Odimegwu stirred the hornet’s nest at a press conference in August. He had, at the occasion, made statements which were understood by many to mean that past censuses in the country dating back to 1816, including the last census held in 2006, unduly favoured some sections of the country, and he was set to correct it in the 2016 exercise. He, at the time, pointedly said that Nigeria’s census figures were often distorted for selfish reasons. “Nigeria”, he had averred, “has run on falsehood for too long. We must stop this falsehood and put a stop to all of this”. He then admonished that the way forward would be to review the country’s laws to facilitate genuine enumeration. These comments were greeted with heavy criticisms, especially from key political actors from the North. Governor of Kano State, Alhaji Rabiu Kwankwaso, led the attack on Odimegwu, describing his appointment as a “mistake”. The query that was reportedly issued to Odimegwu soon after his controversial statements might have increased the pressure on him to quit and perhaps, also strengthened the position of those opposed to his continued stay in office. There is no doubt that his comments were seized upon by politicians to get him to vacate the NPC leadership. More attention was given to his statement than the content of his message, which is that Nigeria should either conduct a credible and reliable census exercise or forget about in 2016 as planned.
We commend Odimegwu for taking the honourable step of resigning rather than getting the NPC involved in needless controversy, which could mar the credibility and acceptability of the 2016 headcount. By resigning, he has put the interest of Nigeria above his personal interest so that proper attention can be paid to the conduct of an acceptable exercise, instead of dwelling on suspicions, claims and counter-claims on his actions and inactions. He had, shortly after his appointment, vowed that he would not compromise his principles and it is good that he has chosen to stand by his convictions.
His observations, however, remain germane. Unless the manifold challenges that confront our enumeration efforts are sincerely tackled, our country will continue to grope in the dark because our projections for development based on faulty population figures will remain unachievable.
Certainly, it is necessary to monitor Nigeria’s population. Public utilities are getting grossly overstretched and inadequate. Only a credible census will address the challenge. Unfortunately, the politicization of population in Nigeria has made credible headcounts a serious challenge in the country. This is the kernel of Odimegwu’s postulations.
Although he has now exited the NPC prematurely, it is still important that we consider the points made by the former NPC boss. We should not throw away the baby with the bathwater.
The problem with headcounts in Nigeria has to do with the struggle for supremacy based on ethnicity and religion. These two sore points and other grey areas must be addressed if the next headcount would not be another exercise in futility. Undoubtedly, a credible census is the solution to many of Nigeria’s planning and development challenges. Conversely, demographic manipulation dangerously rubs off on all facets of national life. Nigeria, more than ever before, needs a credible census that will be acceptable to all stakeholders. The exercise must not be compromised. This may be a huge challenge but it is achievable if there is sincerity of purpose. One of the logical steps toward achieving this is for the Federal Government to appoint a worthy replacement for Odimegwu. The resignation of Odimegwu should restore confidence in the commission’s neutrality and ability to give the nation an unbiased headcount in 2016. Let the next NPC boss learn requisite lessons from Odimegwu’s short and explosive tenure.