Census Fever in Nigeria

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Is Nigeria a country? It sounds like an easy problem on a school pop quiz. But for millions of Nigerians it is still a serious question — the question, in point of fact, at the core of their country's failings. The oil-rich nation, many Nigerians contend, will never "work" because, like so many troubled African countries, it is not a coherent whole but an artificial, colonial fusion of different cultures and ethnicities constantly pulling apart.

All that tension means that a national census in Nigeria, like the one that is happening this week, is much more than just a routine tallying of the population. Instead, it is the equivalent of a high-stakes, national competition to see which ethnic group is bigger and which should get a larger share of oil revenues and political representation. Holding a census has been so controversial that successive governments have put it off for the past 15 years. Guesses at the population of Nigeria range from 120 million to 150 million, probably about equally split between the Muslim north and the Christian south. One thing's for sure: Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa; at least one in six Africans hail from the West African state.

Some 1,000,000 census takers set off around the country on Tuesday and will knock on doors through Saturday asking how many people live in each house. There is no mention of religion and ethnicity on the census forms and President Olusegun Obasanjo has urged Nigerians to treat the national tally as an act of citizenship rather than politics. "Census-taking is not politics and should therefore not be a contest for political supremacy," Obasanjo said in a national television and radio broadcast. "We need accurate data for a planned and progressive society, so as to be able to plan for the provision of housing, health, education and other social services."

But Nigerians remain deeply suspicious of the census, and already several people were killed in census-related clashes last weekend. As has happened in previous polls, the results of the national enumeration are sure to be rejected by at least some groups.

Even before Nigeria won its independence from Britain in 1960, nationalist leader Obafemi Awolowo said Nigeria was not a country but a "mere geographical expression." Awolowo was a Yoruba, from the country's southwest. The Yoruba, who are mostly Christian, are just one of three main ethnic groups in Nigeria. In the north live the Hausa/Fulani, who are mostly Muslim, while the Christian Igbo inhabit the southeast. Within each main ethnic group are dozens of smaller divisions. Moreover, millions of people have moved out of their ancestral homes into rival areas. Frictions between the ethnic groups have often erupted into violence — the most serious being the Biafran war from 1967 to 1970, when fighting between Igbo separatists and the rest of the country, and a resulting famine, left more than a million people dead. Ethnic violence continues today. Since Nigeria's return to democracy in 1999, some 14,000 people have been killed in such ethnic clashes.

The new census could well further fuel ethnic tensions ahead of presidential elections due to take place in two years. If that happens, and Africa's giant falls apart yet again, one number is certain to shoot up — the price of oil.