March 21, 2006

Nigerians urged to keep politics out of census

By Estelle Shirbon

ABUJA (Reuters) - Nigeria launched its first census for 15
years on Tuesday and President Olusegun Obasanjo, eager to
avoid a repeat of previous fiascoes, appealed to his countrymen
to keep politics out of it.

Headcounts are 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 representation.

"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 results have discredited several counts since
independence from Britain in 1960. 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 among about 300
ethnic groups. Ethnic and religious violence has killed at
least 14,000 people in the past seven years.

In a bid to stave off objections to the results and to
avoid tensions, the census questionnaire excludes faith and

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.

On Tuesday, there were early signs of trouble in far
northern Borno state, where officials said they had not
received sufficient supplies of census materials.

"Borno state may reject the outcome of the exercise if
steps are not taken to correct these anomalies," the state
governor Modu Sheriff told reporters, calling for more time.

In southern Port Harcourt, census-takers said they had not
received their stipends and refused to begin counting.


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 shutdown to boost its chances of having
its enormous population fully 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

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 groups hoping to
get their own man into 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 interests 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.

Organizing the census is a major challenge in a vast,
chaotic, impoverished country with few decent roads.

Obasanjo said new methods, including the Global Positioning
System and satellite images, would help.

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, Nigerian media

(Additional reporting by Tume Ahemba in Lagos, Ibrahim
Mshelizza in Borno state, Austin Ekeinde in Port Harcourt)