March 21, 2006

Nigeria’s perilous census hits early snags

By Estelle Shirbon

ABUJA (Reuters) - Nigeria launched a census on Tuesday but
logistical hitches delayed counting in many places, increasing
pressure on organizers who also have to contend with political
tensions that have derailed previous headcounts.

The census is the first for 15 years in Africa's most
populous country and President Olusegun Obasanjo appealed to
his countrymen to ensure its success by keeping politics out of

"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 count.

Censuses are controversial in Nigeria 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.

Nigeria's 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.

Census organizers have excluded faith and ethnicity from
the questionnaire as a way to avoid fighting over the results.

But on the first day of the count, which runs until
Saturday, trouble came from another quarter. Across Nigeria,
many census takers refused to begin because they were not paid.

Reuters correspondents in northern Borno, Bauchi and Kano
states, central Plateau, southeastern Anambra and Enugu and
southern Rivers, all reported delays over unpaid wages.

State television footage from across the country showed
crowds of census takers in shouting matches with officials of
the National Population Commission. There was almost no footage
of counting taking place.


"Borno state may reject the outcome of the exercise if
steps are not taken to correct these anomalies," said Borno
state Governor Modu Sheriff, calling for additional time.

Rejection of the results is precisely what the government
is desperate to avoid. The results of several censuses since
independence from Britain in 1960 were scrapped because of
disputes between competing interest groups.

Estimates of Nigeria's population range from 120 million to
150 million and the government says it needs more precise data.

In the commercial capital Lagos, businesses were closed and
there was no public transport because the Lagos state
government ordered a five-day shutdown to boost its chances of
having its enormous population fully counted. In most other
parts of the country, business carried on as usual.

In an apparently isolated incident in Anambra in the
southeast, members of a separatist group, the Movement for the
Actualization of a Sovereign State of Biafra, tried to stop
people from being counted. They torched at least one car and
clashed with police, residents of the town of Nnewi said.

In northern Kano, one census taker drowned when a boat
capsized while carrying materials for the count across a river.

The worst census-related incident occurred at the weekend
in southwestern Ondo state, where five people died in a dispute
between two ethnic groups over ownership of a village.

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 what he wants to do 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.

(Additional reporting by Tume Ahemba in Lagos, Ibrahim
Mshelizza in Borno, Austin Ekeinde in Rivers, Chukwujama Eze in
Enugu, Ijeoma Ezekwere in Anambra, Mike Oboh in Kano, Ardo
Hazzad in Bauchi, Shuaibu Mohammed in Plateau)