March 21, 2006

Keep politics out of census, Nigerians told

By Estelle Shirbon

ABUJA (Reuters) - Nigeria began its first census in 15
years on Tuesday with President Olusegun Obasanjo, eager to
avoid a repeat of previous fiascos, appealing to his countrymen
to leave politics out of it.

Headcounts have been controversial in Africa's most
populous country because rival ethnic and religious groups have
tried to use them to assert their numerical superiority and
claim a larger share of oil revenues and political

"Census-taking is not politics and should therefore not be
a contest for political supremacy," Obasanjo said in a
television and radio broadcast to launch the census.

Disputes over census results between competing interest
groups have discredited several counts since independence from
Britain in 1960. Now, estimates of Nigeria's population range
from 120 million to 150 million.

The population is split about equally between Muslims in
the north and Christians in the south, and it has about 300
ethnic groups. Violence between tribes or religious groups,
often fanned by politicians seeking to bolster their own power
bases, has killed at least 14,000 people in the past seven

In a bid to stave off objections to the results on ethnic
and religious grounds and to avoid a flare-up of tensions, the
census questionnaire excludes faith and tribe.

Despite this precaution, some communities are hoping to use
the census to record their claims to land or property. In
southwestern Ondo state, five people were killed in weekend
fighting between two ethnic groups over ownership of a village.

The census runs until Saturday and strict travel
restrictions have been announced for the last two days. On
Tuesday, it was business as usual in most parts of the country.


In the commercial capital Lagos, however, businesses were
closed and there was no public transport after the Lagos state
government ordered a shut-down to boost its chances of having
its enormous population counted.

Authorities have been campaigning hard to encourage
Nigerians to be counted. The midday state television news
showed footage of Obasanjo responding to the census
questionnaire in the presidential villa in Abuja, while in most
of Nigeria's 36 states census takers began with governors and
their families.

Yet many fear the credibility of the census is under threat
because of power struggles ahead of elections next year.

Obasanjo's supporters are pushing for a change to the
constitution to allow him to stand for a third term, and the
president has not said whether he will stay or go in 2007.

The uncertainty over his plans has riled interest groups
hoping to get their own man in the top job and has been a
factor in religious and political violence. Some observers said
the census should have been put back until after the elections.

In his speech, Obasanjo tried to convince Nigerians that it
was in their interest for the census to go well.

"Reliable demographic data are desirable for the provision
of adequate housing, educational facilities, health and other
social services," he said.

A major challenge of the census is the logistics of a vast,
chaotic, impoverished country with few decent roads.

Obasanjo sought to reassure that the methods being used,
including the use of Geographical Positioning System (GPS) and
satellite images, would help overcome these difficulties.

At the other end of the technology spectrum, organizers
said they would use 1,000 donkeys and camels to reach remote
areas of northern Borno and Yobe states, local media reported.

(Additional reporting by Tume Ahemba in Lagos)