How unchecked movement into Nigeria can affect census

THE scores of uncontrolled borders in Nigeria are hindering efforts to curb insecurity within the country, where more than 35,000 people have died due to terrorism.

Out of about 1500 borders across the country, only 86 are legal and under government supervision, while more than 1400 others are ‘illegal’ and poorly protected.

The National Immigration Service (NIS) blames this on poor funding and inadequate manpower, and according to the military, this is hindering its efforts to curb violent extremism in the country. 

Security analysts predict that the uncontrolled movement of people through the porous borders may adversely affect the forthcoming population census, an exercise earlier slated for May 23 but rescheduled to an undisclosed date.

The Head of Agent-X Security Agency, a security startup in Nigeria, Timothy Avele, believes poor border management can affect the census.

“Illegal migration can affect the outcome of the 2023 population census,” the Avele said.

Avele is concerned that the commission might be unable to identify the people’s nationality, which could result in inaccurate figures.

“The National Population Commission can end up with the wrong population figures. They currently do not have an effective method of identifying real Nigerians and non-Nigerians,” he said.

He said it is essential for the government to have an accurate figure on the citizens and the total population of people living in the country.

Why data accuracy is important 

Presently, there is no data detailing Nigeria’s exact population, as the last census was conducted in 2006, about 17 years ago.

The United Nations recommends that a census is conducted once in 10 years. This means Nigeria was due for a population census in 2016.

According to the 2006 census figures, Nigeria’s population was 140 million. The data released by the NPC at that time put the northern population at 75 million and the southern states at 65 million.

Then in 2016, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) put the country’s estimated population at 193 million.

Nigeria’s population was about 216 million in 2022, according to the United Nations, and the figure is projected to rise to 223.8 million by mid-2023 and to 401 million by the end of 2050.

“Nigeria needs accurate data on its people,” Avele said. “It needs a new population census that will help it understand its people,” he explained further.

He pointed out the importance of clear and precise estimates of the distribution and characteristics of citizens and migrants. 

He said, “Data accuracy is the foundation of any nation’s security and economic prosperity. Without accurate data, it is difficult to plan effectively.”

The census, according to him, is a chance for the country to get a non-contestable figure that will help the government plan for its citizens while noting that access into the country through unmanned entry points should be considered a major threat to the process.

Can digitalisation of the process help? 

To improve the census process, the federal government released N2.8 billion to the NPC to procure software and mobile devices that will be used to carry out the exercise digitally. The forthcoming census will be the first in almost two decades.

It will also be the first digital census.

The Director-General (DG) of the National Orientation Agency (NOA), Garba Abari, says the digitalisation of the process will ensure credibility and efficiency, contrary to what was obtainable in the previous census.

According to him, this census will provide specificity and correctness to data obtained. 

But a Senior Security Analyst with SBM Intelligence, Mcharry Confidence, thinks otherwise.

According to him, a digital census would not prevent the infiltration of migrants.

The digital equipment can only ensure that the counting of houses and structures within the enclave of Nigeria’s territory is captured digitally.

These tools, he says, cannot differentiate between a Nigerian and an undocumented migrant; hence, the credibility of the census still depends on the security of land borders.

Mcharry said the government must prioritise border security and ensure there is no unchecked movement along the borders while the census is ongoing.

“Anything outside border security will incredibly affect the accuracy of the figures. We saw this in the 2006 population census, where it was reported that a lot of foreigners were registering for the census,” he said.

He also noted that identity tags can be used to identify citizens, “Tags like certificates of origin from the LGA, and birth certificates can be useful. However, they can also be falsified.”

There are several reports on the arrests of undocumented migrants with false documents by security operatives.

In 2019, security operatives arrested over 1,400 illegal migrants at the border areas.

And in 2022, they arrested 516 non-Nigerians with PVCs in Zaria LGA, Kaduna state.

The migrants had 1,000 pvcs and numerous local government indigene forms. The nationals were from Togo, Chad, and Senegal, Cameroon.

However, data on the number of illegal migrants in the country or the rate of unchecked movement at border areas are unavailable.

No problem with illegal migrants — NPC

The National Population Commission has prepared questionnaires that require people to disclose their country of origin during the census, says the NPC Director of Public Affairs, Isiaka Yahaya.

He said getting people to provide information on their nationality would be easy, “We do not envisage any problem with illegal migrants or porous borders. Why would they lie to us?” he asked. 

Yahaya said the commission had concluded arrangements to get details on the people’s country of origin and the length of time they have spent within Nigeria ahead of the exercise.

“We have questionnaires, and we will use that to get the details that is needed. People will fill out the questionnaires during the census, and we intend to rely on the information they provide,” he said.

He noted that the 2023 census is not focused on getting the figure of Nigerians in the country but on the total population of people living in the country.

However, he noted that the commission would still “provide data on the population of Nigerians and foreigners in the country from the figures obtained from the census.”

    “We don’t care about the nationality of the people; as long as they are on the landscape of this country, they will be counted. When government have to make a decision, what will determine that decision is the total population of people living in that particular area, not just the citizens.

    “The census is not about Nigeria, but we can get figures for Nigerians in the country from our total population. We can even provide information on local government areas,” he said.

    But the SBM analyst, Mcharry, insists that poor border management can significantly affect the credibility of the exercise. 

    It is essential for the government to get accurate figures,” he says. “And it is going to depend on how they control the movement of people during the census,” Mcharry noted.

    Beloved John is an investigative reporter with International Centre for Investigative Reporting.

    You can reach her via: [email protected]

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