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Nigeria is preparing for another census in 2016. Head counts in the West African nation are, like elections, controversial do-or-die affairs. Powerful vested interests always tussle to have the numbers in their favour

One of the many problems that stared the corrective military government of the late General Murtala Ramat Muhammad in the face was the national head count which took place two years before the government came to power in July, 1975. The new government took one look at the head count and promptly threw it out of the window. The nation, in the estimation of the new government, could not rely on the 1973 census and ordered a reversion to the head count conducted ten years earlier. Government took the right decision, if you knew what happened then. I was a census enumerator in 1973, so I knew what happened. Many things went wrong with the '73 census.

In a sense, what the former chairman of the National Population Commission, NPC, Chief festus Odimegwu, did this year was exactly what General Murtala Muhammad did in 1975. The only difference being that, whereas General Muhammad had the mandate to reverse what he considered a flawed national head count, Chief Odimegwu could only complain, if only to draw attention to the charade of headcounts in Nigeria and probably sensitize Nigerians on the need to allow for a credible national head count in 2016. Chief Odimegwu must have been living in the past where, to some extent, speaking the truth even by public office holders was taken for granted. Poor man! One columnist even said Chief Odimegwu, a former managing director of Nigerian Breweries PLC, was still suffering from the hangover of free booze. Another dismissed him as a man fit only to count beer bottles in his sober mood!

May be! But, perhaps, it is better for us to get out of our collective stupor especially now that we have succeeded in haunting Chief Odimegwu out of office. Of course, there were those who risked calling on Nigerians to subject Chief Odimegwu's utterances to serious scrutiny but who promptly got shouted down, forcing others, with similar motives to clam up. But Chief Odimegwu should find solace in the fact that what he said was not too far from the truth. He should have known that national head counts in Nigeria, like our elections, are very sensitive matters. Let's mince no words: head counts are do-or-die affairs in Nigeria, they are serious matters that are conducted the way wars are conducted. And the reason for this is simple: headcounts determines, to a large extent, what is shared from the federation account. The larger you appear to look, the better. Population size plays a great role in determining what goes to where.

Chief Odimegwu probably did not participate, at whatever level, in any head count in this country. In making his statement, he probably relied on mere hear say from interested rumour-peddlers and had no proof to back up his statement. There may be some substance in 'molue' talks but no one takes you serious the moment you press your case with 'proof' you picked from the motor park or a pepper soup joint. It was 'molue' talk that bored an ugly hole in the hitherto iron-cast reputation of late Dr. Tai Solarin after he confessed that his accusation of former president, Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, was built around 'evidence' he picked while taking a ride in a 'molue' in Lagos. Dr. Solarin never succeeded in salvaging his dented reputation after that episode. Dr. Solarin, for most part of his years on earth, enjoyed 'molue' rides because it provided him an opportunity to connect with the masses. Can Chief Odimegwu remember the last time he rode on a 'molue', assuming he ever rode one in his entire life? So where did hief Odimegwu pick this love for 'molue'' talk from? After Dr. Solarin, no one would have thought any Nigerian of repute would rely on 'molue' talk to build a case, especially a sensitive case, as that of the veracity or otherwise of national head counts.

On a personal note, I too have issues with past censuses. As a fourteen year old teacher trainee in 1973, I was an active participant in that year's census in the only state in the defunct Niger province, now Niger state, in today's north central geo-political zone. From Minna, we were moved to Paiko where we took necessary briefing before we deployed. Two of us from the same school were in the team that headed for Tungan Mallam, which was going to be our base throughout the duration of the head count. We had no problem in settling down in Tungan Mallam because the traditional ruler had taken special interest in us because, Zubair, one of his own biological sons, was on holiday and had introduced the two of us as seniors at school in Minna. I remember my escort, a very caring soldier and devout Muslim from today's south west. The man was simply god-send! Aside the two of us from Ahmadu Bahago College, there were students from Government Secondary School, Government Teachers College and Women Teachers College, all in Minna some of whom I still relate with.

But the point of interest was the enumeration proper. It is now forty years ago but I still remember it as if the census took place yesterday, that the five hamlets I enumerated returned ninety nine names, one of the highest by enumerators resident in Tungan Mallam. Back in Paiko, the ninety names I officially enumerated became five hundred following strict instructions from census officials to all enumerators to that effect. Then somebody thought there should be a second upward review after which my initial ninety nine became one thousand. Well, I hardly need to add here that all of enumerators, in our innocence, were involved. A friend who participated in the '73 headcount was involved in the 1991 exercise and he spoke of how it was his turn too, as a senior census official, to direct enumerators to pad results. This was in another state in today's north central geo-political zone.

It is okay to lampoon Chief Odimegwu; it is okay to haunt him out of office. His former staff at the Population Commission who conspired against Chief Odimegwu know the truth. And if they refuse to say it, Nigerians should not delude themselves into believing that there is any difference between our headcounts and our elections. There is no difference; they are both determined by the winner-takes-all mentality. To get credible headcount means other variables, not population, should determine allocation of resources.

* Abdulrazaq Magaji is based in Abuja and can be reached at [email][email protected]