OVER the past decade and a half, Africa’s population has grown fast, an estimated increase of almost 400 million people. But we can’t actually say that for sure. A report released by the Mo Ibrahim foundation last year revealed how much of our estimates are pure guesswork.
Take for example; only one third of Africans live in a country that has conducted a population census since 2010, while four out of five known births occur in a country where they are unlikely to be registered.
Yet even this represents a marked improvement for many African countries who have seen an explosion in the volume of data coming from national household surveys, censuses and new technologies such as mobile phones.
Provision of public goods and services like education, sanitation, housing and security require that a government knows how many citizens it has, hence the need for accurate data. But if you are a politician looking at the next election cycle, launching a new road or breaking ground for a hospital is probably more eye-catching than combing through those dry numbers.
THE POLITICS OF PEOPLE
And that seems to be the problem. In most countries, population censuses tend to be a very political affair, for good reason.
In Nigeria, for example, every census held since independence has been disputed. Censuses in Africa’s most populous nation are the subject of pitched political battles as states manipulate figures to inflate their population, which determines a state’s share of the national cake including budgets, political appointments, and seats in parliament. So some smart officials found a way of fiddling with the census numbers just to earn their state an edge over the others.
In the end everyone disputes the results, as happened in 2006 when provisional results of that year’s census showed that the northern state of Kano had overtaken Lagos as the countrys most populous state with 9.4 million people (going by this finding, Lagos population had decreased by a million since the previous 1991 census).
Bola Tinubu, then governor of Lagos, rejected the results before declaring Lagos’ own parallel count which put the state’s population at 17.5 million a difference of almost 9 million from the national results!
To date, the actual number of inhabitants in Lagos, Africa’s biggest metropolis, remains at best guess work, with figures ranging from a lowly 11 million to an astonishing 25 million inhabitants.
In central Africa, embattled Joseph Kabila’s DR Congo has not had a census in 33 years, and one planned for 2015 was overshadowed by Mr. Kabila’s decision to seek a third term leading to widespread protests in the capital Kinshasa.
TOO BIG TO MEASURE?
Perhaps nowhere else are the effects of lack of frequent and quality data on anything from registration of births, to who should pay tax more visible than in two of Africa’s three megacities, Kinshasa and Lagos.
With a GDP of $131bn in 2015, Lagos’ economy is the 7th largest in Africa, but it collected a paltry $1.3bn in revenue in the same year.
Even this is a much greater improvement from almost two decades ago when the entire city generated $48 million in internal revenue. Things began to change with the administrations of governors Bola Tinubu and then Babatunde Fashola who adopted technology to computerise the revenue collection process and build a database for tax payers.
Yet even with such enlightened and business-savvy administrations Lagos service provision problems remain: only 1 in 10 Lagosians has access to water supplied by the Lagos State Water Corporation, LSWC. The rest have to make do by drilling boreholes in their backyards or pay exorbitant fees to private water vendors.
Kinshasa, hot on the heels of Lagos with an estimated 10 million residents, shares a lot in common with Lagos. With 390,000 new residents pouring into the city a year according to the UN, the city is likely to face growing levels of urban stress as it grapples with major transitions in its demography, economy and politics.
In short, if you are a decision maker in Nigeria or the DR Congo today you ought to be more worried about the date for the next census (and its results) than about where the next big government investment or mining concession will be, because the next rebellion or uprising will be cooked and served from around the street corner; in the shanty towns next to the big city.
To borrow the words of a veteran Ugandan journalist, if young people in these cities dont have what to eat (and we don’t know how many they are), they will eventually eat us. Scary, but it drives the message home.