CENSUS: SHOULD HE WHO PAYS THE PIPER CALL THE TUNE?

It is a brave columnist who will attempt to pass judgment on a matter that continues to polarize our nation-the census. I do not have the temerity to do that and will therefore merely summarize the views of various stakeholders.

Statistics Sierra Leone says it stands by its results and was little affected by any boycott, but has not officially proffered reasons as to why some results buck the trend.

The SLPP Secretariat has commended the outcome of the process and has called for a boundary delimitation process to commence. SLPP supporters also commend the outcome, and apart from proffering various reasons for regional variations in results, blame the opposition’s call for a boycott for the nature of the results. According to some, the opposition parties have no leg to stand on with their complaints as they advised their members not to participate in what they consider an illegitimate process.

Opposition parties say the results are badly flawed and cite their opposition to the census in the first place based on its “illegality” and the “unpreparedness” of Statistics Sierra Leone. This view seems to be echoed by National Election Watch (NEW) in its Press release, though some major civil society outfits have chosen to stay mute.

But it is views from enraged members of the public that are most caustic and derisory. The reduction in the Western Urban population of some 400,000 compared to the 2015 census and some 165,000 compared to the 2004 one and the very significant increase in the Kenema population, way over that for Freetown in particular have attracted some funny comments amongst other specific comments puncturing claims about the validity of the census. Also gaining currency amongst members of this group is the claim by many (seemingly in large numbers from comments and a survey), especially in Freetown who claim that they were not counted.

I will not attempt to join the debate as my views may be considered water off a duck’s back by many. I would rather comment on what is largely agreed could be the implications of adopting the results of the census.

NEC would most likely carry out a boundary delimitation exercise. Obviously the results as they stand will create more Parliamentary seats in SLPP strongholds in the South East. Though this may not affect Presidential elections, a successful opposition Presidential candidate will be faced with a predominantly hostile legislature. The government may even be inclined to create new Districts.

Resource allocation will be affected because of the population redistribution. The “disappearance” of 400,000 people from the Western Urban area seems to fly in the face of concerns that urban migration into Freetown has resulted in acute overcrowding, planning problems and paucity of infrastructural services. Development planners will surely be faced with a conundrum -Should they throw out what they may consider spurious results or go with their gut feeling?

There may be other issues that are not readily apparent. Freetown, in particular, with its considerably lower stated population, may get considerably less funding from the government. The perceived marginalization of Freetown will be hotly debated by those aggrieved for a long time to come. Also, it will not be surprising if government and opposition parties are at daggers drawn over this and other contentious electoral issues from now till the General Elections.

But censuses are not new. The first modern population census was conducted in April 1963. Since then, four more censuses have been undertaken in December 1974, December 1985, December 2004 and December 2015 respectively before this one. Major disagreements over census results are also not new. For the 2015 census, SLPP levied several accusations against the APC government, bordering on concerns about the cartographic mapping done by Statistics Sierra Leone and what they claim was the non transparent and skewed recruitment process for additional staff based on political loyalties as well as anomalies in the process.

The SLPP claims that the outcome of the 2018 Parliamentary elections, which resulted in a majority of seats for the APC was influenced by some Parliamentary constituencies with considerably small number of voters, influenced by the 2015 census results, which resulted in considerably more seats in APC strongholds. The SLPP had 48 seats and the APC 68, even though the SLPP won the Presidential election.
The initial concurrence by donors of government’s assertion of significant irregularities in the 2015 census results to warrant a Mid-Term census was later followed by some having cold feet over the process, doubting whether the activities required would be effectively completed in a timeous manner. The Government nevertheless continued with the process.

A political pundit I talked to who has no dog in this fight gave me his views on this census saga.

“The SLPP felt compelled to correct the anomalies in the 2015 census that led to an overwhelming majority of Parliamentary seats for the APC that may last for years if not corrected. They later had “Judicial MPs”, with the ouster of some APC MPs through an elections Appeal Process. In its quest to redress the situation which may continue into the next election, it has probably “overcompensated” by letting the pendulum swing too much to the other side with an incredulous outcome for the current census. If we are not careful this pendulum will keep swinging in perpetuity, always responding to the whims of the party in power, with disastrous consequences.”

Controversies over census results have also occurred in other countries. In Nigeria’s 1962 census, Southern politicians were determined to end the north’s dominance of Nigerian politics through the census which determined not only parliamentary representation but also revenue allocation and employee distribution in the civil service. Although the final results were not made public, the preliminary results indicated that whereas the north’s population had gone up from 16.5 million in the last census in 1952 to 22.5 million, an increase of 30%, it had increased in some parts of the east by up to 200% and more than 70% in general. The west also reported an increase of 70%. The northern leaders were not about to take that lying down. A new census was held in 1963 and this time, an additional 8.5 million people were “discovered” in the north bringing the total to 31 million for the north. Another census was conducted a decade later in 1973 but was so hotly disputed and produced such incredible figures that the government simply nullified the result. Undoubtedly these led to a considerable amount of political turmoil.

But what should be done? I will repeat what I wrote in this column at that time as advice to government on the 2015 census- “The government needs to come out with responses to these allegations to assuage the fears of many discerning people. The last thing we want is to have another cause for one party to feel it is being treated unfairly, with the concomitant insecurity it could create. Surely, we can do the decent thing to count ourselves correctly. Why should we wait until another Moses arrives to address this serious situation and take us to the promised land?”

But a clergyman friend of mine has given me the best answer as to why even Moses, who conducted two successful censuses will not succeed with a Sierra Leone census- “Moses would probably ask for Aaron to assist him and will insist that both SLPP and APC should have no part to play in the census preparations, which they will refuse.”

There is one census that is a silver lining however in terms of perceived non-interference by the government. The 2004 census actually resulted in less parliamentary seats in districts like Bonthe and Pujehun. Bonthe, a District from which then President Kabbah’s wife, Patricia hailed was particularly riled as it saw its parliamentary seats drop from 5 to 3. That these occurred in supposedly SLPP strongholds under SLPP’s political watch is a credit to President Kabbah.

The fact is often lost on successive governments that data from a census will guide policy formulation, planning and resource allocation. However, it seems governments are more interested in the boundary delimitation angle of things in order to gain political advantage.

As already stated, it will help if the government gets to the bottom of allegations by those aggrieved and address concerns raised. A state institution like Statistics Sierra Leone will almost always be accused of bias in our kind of highly polarized ethnic and regional setting and needs to be protected from interference. However, in our present polarized atmosphere, there will always be the accusation that he who pays the piper calls the tune.

Ponder my thoughts

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