ANALYSIS: Nigeria’s massive data poverty and why we should be concerned
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NIGERIA is the world’s 13th largest oil producer and President Muhammadu Buhari re-affirmed in his latest Independence Day address that oil constitutes the bulk of Nigeria’s revenue and foreign exchange earnings. But, as the country quickly depletes her limited oil reserves and the world at large advances in technology, experts agree it’s time it focused on something else: data.
Communications Minister Isa Ali Pantami appears to share this view too. “Data is the oil of the 21st century,” he tweeted on Thursday, paraphrasing reputable research analyst, Peter Sondergaard Gartner. “But oil is just useless thick goop until you refine it into fuel. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the refinery in a digital economy.”
The country, however, still has a long way to go in making this shift—no thanks to an entrenched poor record-keeping and data collection culture.
Journalists hit a wall
With investigative and data journalism increasingly gaining ground among Nigerian reporters, one challenge they often face is the unavailability of important data.
According to the 2019 National Freedom of Information Ranking by the Public and Private Development Centre (PPDC), out of a total of 191 public institutions, 87 (45.5 per cent) do not engage in proactive disclosure of information and the rest (54.5) only partially disclose proactively.
Data available to the PPDC also revealed that there’s a 33.5 per cent chance of getting all details requested through an FOI request, a 10.5 per cent chance of getting some of the details, and a 56 per cent chance of getting nothing at all. This is similar to The ICIR‘s experience in the past year, with over 60 per cent of requests either denied or ignored.
But an unwillingness to respond to requests for data is not the only problem, public institutions, in fact, do not have some of those data on record and in an easily retrievable form.
In April, Director of Press at the Federal Ministry of Justice, Modupe Ogundoro, told Bayo Akinloye, then a reporter with ThisDay Newspaper, she couldn’t confirm they have records on the number of name changes done in the last five years.
“How do you expect me to know the number of changes of name that has been done in the country? … I have gone around asking people which department handles records of change of name. I have spoken with my colleagues in the legal department and they told me that they don’t have such records,” she said.
“There must be a record somewhere. I am not saying we don’t have the records in the ministry and I am not saying that we have. I am working on finding out where, if it exists, the record is.”
Also, in July, a PremiumTimes reporter, Evelyn Okakwu, revealed how there seems to be no coordinated data with the Nigerian Prisons Service on the number of inmates detained and released in the last 15 years.
“After tracing the letter in vain for weeks, Mr Enobore [spokesperson of the Nigerian Prisons] requested a more concise application for the said data,” she wrote. “A further request for a similar data, to cover five or ten years, was not granted by the service. The subsequent letter was also lost between the statistics and operations units of the service.”
No show in global reports
Another indication of Nigeria’s inadequate data collection is how much information about it is available in various global comparative reports. There are either instances where the country has no statistics on certain objects or the statistics aren’t available for some periods.
In the 2018 Human Development Statistical Update, for example, Nigeria’s gender inequality index, international student mobility, percentage of female internet users, proportion of schools with internet access, female share of employment in senior and middle management, among other indices, are not available.
There are a lot more examples in the 2018 Global Innovation Index with missing statistics on graduates in science and engineering, tertiary inbound mobility, females employed with advanced degrees, research talent in business enterprise, intellectual property receipts, cultural and creative services exports, and so on.
The 2019 Global Talent Competitiveness Report does not have figures for the country on research and development expenditure, vocational enrolment, and population with secondary and tertiary education.
Likewise, the 2019 International Tourism Highlights does not have 2017 and 2018 figures for Nigeria on international tourist arrivals and the 2018 World International Property Indicators Report contains very little statistics on patent applications and grants in Nigeria.
Other examples, funding problem
The huge vacuum in Nigeria’s data hemisphere can be seen in various aspects, from population to elections, security, migration, and so on.
In 2018, responding to an FOI request filed by TheCable, the Independent National Electoral Commission admitted that it is not in custody of a state-by-state breakdown of the 2007 presidential results and instead directed the news agency to consult the various state offices.
Also, in July 2018, The ICIR asked the electoral commission for details of presidential and gubernatorial electoral results from 1999 till date as well as a state-by-state breakdown of the number of uncollected Permanent Voters Cards (PVCs), number of applications for transfer of PVC, and state of origin of applicants. However, in its reply, it only provided results for presidential elections from 2007 and a breakdown of collected and uncollected PVCs, ignoring other enquiries.
Despite a recommendation by the United Nations Population Fund that national censuses should be conducted every 10 years, Nigeria has gone 13 years without one. The National Population Commission has blamed this delay on poor funding.
The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) is another crucial data-gathering agency that has been a victim of insufficient funding. In November, the head of the agency, Yemi Kale, admitted they could not gather and release updated unemployment statistics “due to budgetary releases”.
Money down the drain
Because a lot of official processes are not documented, Nigeria keeps losing money to corruption. This takes various forms such as unrecorded payments for public services or the use of ghost workers. Buhari said in February that the government had saved almost $550 million (N198 billion) from identifying phantom employees on the payroll.
Comptroller-General of the Nigerian Customs Service, Hameed Ali, told federal lawmakers on Wednesday that, contrary to expectations, the agency has been making an average of N5.3 billion daily, more money than usual, since the borders were closed.
“What we have discovered is that most of those cargoes that used to go to Benin [Republic] and are then smuggled into Nigeria [now come to us],” he explained. “Now that we have closed the border they are forced to bring their goods to either Apapa or Tin Can Island and we have to collect duty on them.”
Likewise, the absence of data on procurement has also encouraged misappropriation by government agencies and public officeholders. According to the Thematic Research Network on Data and Statistics, “The inaccessibility of budgetary information across the Nigerian Government aids financial corruption among public sector workers.”
Also stressing this point, Oluseun Onigbinde, founder of BudgIT said in a 2013 interview that improving access to information encourages debate in the society and shows traces of corruption.
“If no one knows what goes on in government and citizens are handed a fuzzy narrative, the incentive to steal funds is high. When we open up information about the flow of public funds, we strengthen the social contract, and deepen the trust between the electorate and the leader,” he said.
To grow, we need data
“No meaningful national development can take place without empowering the national statistical system.” This was the conclusion of a 2011 comparative study of Nigeria against Rwanda published by the Journal of Sustainable Development. It explained that is because of the need to map out strategic plans and also set up machinery for execution and monitoring.
Kale, Nigeria’s Statistician-General, agrees. While delivering a lecturer in August at the University of Lagos, he said meaningful progress cannot take place without “good, reliable, and timely data”.
Reliable and comprehensive statistics, experts have stated, are needed to formulate sound economic policies and development plans. It is what ensures budgets are focusing on the most important projects and priorities are not misplaced. Through Big Data, it also helps government and private companies to be more efficient by establishing patterns and predicting behaviours.
“Why do statistics matter?” the World Bank asked in its World Development Indicators of 2000.
“In simple terms, they are the evidence on which policies are built. They help identify needs, set goals, and monitor progress. Without good statistics, the development progress is blind: policymakers cannot learn from their mistakes, the public cannot hold them accountable.”