Nigeria’s political and statistical revolutions

By Morten Jerven
Posted on Tuesday, 22 September 2015 11:56

Yemi Kale, director of the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics (NBS), announced that Nigeria’s new gross domestic product (GDP) for 2013 was N80trn ($510bn), compared with the old estimate of N42trn.

“If I am going to do this job properly, I need to be ready to lose my job,” Kale argues

This statistical earthquake not only cast great doubt over comparisons of wealth and poverty in Africa and beyond, but the GDP rebasing also had geopolitical importance.

According to the new numbers, Nigeria had leapfrogged South Africa to become the largest economy in Africa.

“Impossible!” cried some. “Outrageous!” cried much of South Africa.

Such statistical news seems to make a mockery of any objectivity with regard to numbers and provides the perfect hook for media stories of lies, damned lies and statistics, and the oh-so-familiar scenario of a statistical bureau catering to political leaders.

For most observers it is hard to comprehend the difficulty of putting the complex social and economic reality of the biggest economy in Africa into concrete numbers.

In Nigeria, the total size of the population has been fiercely contested since the 1960s.

The poverty rate is anybody’s guess, and calculating the total size of the economy remains a work in progress.

Nevertheless, the GDP revision was both long overdue and widely anticipated.

The NBS had been using a 1990 benchmark year estimate to calculate GDP and economic growth.

The real shock was not that the upward revision was so large but that this benchmark had not been updated for such a long time.

In 2011 Kale became statistician general of Nigeria. Many people regard economic statistics as inherently objective, but that is not the case.

Local politics, global politics and the availability of solid information determine their quality.

These variables make the job of any chief statistician that much more challenging.

Kale was apprehensive before announcing the new GDP numbers in 2014. He had already had to delay the publication of the figures, which were anticipated since 2010.

“I was embarrassed six times,” he explains. But when he saw the size of the change he wanted to sit down and double-check all the numbers himself.

“We were afraid that the numbers would be politicised,” says Kale. He feared suggestions they had been cooked up to give the sitting politicians an artificial boost.

Contrary to what some have claimed, the NBS does not need a formal endorsement from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank to issue new numbers.

Kale anticipated that an informal approval from such institutions was necessary nevertheless. “I understood the geopolitical significance.

We invited the African Development Bank, the World Bank, even economics professors in Nigeria, so that they could all see the numbers.

The IMF wanted us to wait until the summer to announce so that their technical consultant could have a final look, but [finance minister] Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala asked whether we were ready. And we said: ‘Yes, we are ready,’ and so we released the new numbers. It was important to get them out early before it got politicised because of the [oncoming] elections.”

Talking about the 2015 election of oppositionist and former military leader Muhammadu Buhari, Kale says: “Politics in Nigeria is maturing. This time the debates were often issue-based rather than just based on identity. This means that politicians are more often evaluated on the basis of their performance, and therefore statistics become part of the debates.”

Kale points out that his office and the statistics it produces are praised when the numbers suit the political agenda of a concerned politician.

But when his numbers put politicians in a bad light, they are quick to accuse him of distorting the facts.

During the 2015 election campaign, former central bank governor Charles Soludo attacked finance minister Okonjo-Iweala for cherry-picking statistics produced by Kale’s agency to make her case.

Okonjo-Iweala responded fiercely, using statistics more convenient for her case while also criticising the work of Kale and his colleagues.

Particularly contested in the debate were poverty rates. In the exchange, Soludo referred to NBS statistics that said poverty was 75%, whereas Okonjo-Iweala quoted World Bank data putting the figure at 35%.

The two surveys were not comparable, and Kale was not comfortable with either of them.

“I was very upset,” Kale explains, recalling the incident. “I was called upon to respond, but we had to stay out the debate. Both participants attacked the statistics put out by the NBS. They should have known better but did it for purely political reasons. Data was not the issue; it was politics. But it was hurting me and my office. I was not happy.”

Kale’s job is complicated by the fact that there are many issues on which reliable data are hard to come by, such as the poverty rate. When asked what we actually know about poverty in Nigeria, Kale says: “We don’t know. That’s the short answer.”

Kale and his office are entitled by law to correct and comment on erroneous use or wrong interpretations of their data, but they choose their fights carefully.

“We intervene when there are statements such as ‘NBS numbers say…’ and it is wrong, but we cannot
deal with every issue. We are also mindful of not pushing our legal entitlement too strongly,” he says.

Kale is careful to underline that there is no political tampering with statistics in Nigeria, but that does not mean that politicians do not try.

“Politicians call and say that they are unhappy about this and that statistic and that it is damaging their political ambitions of getting re-elected. I am sorry, but we went to the field and this is what we found.”

If GDP is hard to estimate, population is harder because all of Nigeria’s censuses have been heavily contested. Naudotų automobilių supirkimas Vilniuje – pasiimame patys. Sumokame iš karto ir brangiai.

Between the census held by the colonial authorities in 1953 and the census held in 1962, Nigeria gained independence.

In 1953, the population correctly anticipated that the census would form the basis for estimating tax receipts, so people tried to avoid being counted.

In 1962, the census would be used to determine federal expenditure and political rights.

The 1962 population count was rejected, and a new census was called for in 1963. The end result was a count of 30 million in 1953 and an almost doubling to 56 million in 1963.

The census was widely considered fraudulent and, since then, it has been impossible to agree upon the size and distribution of the population.

Kale has talked about the well-known problem of the population of Lagos being underestimated.

During a census, people would leave Lagos to be counted in their home state in order to give their home state the benefit.

The problems with population counting are so endemic that the National Population Commission has for decades been an independent entity.

The upside for the NBS is that it does not get tainted by the bad reputation of the population commission.

The downside is that the NBS has no influence over these statistics. “If anything, I think that population is overestimated now. The vital statistics system is not sufficient to generate population growth data, so it has only projected 3% flat and unchanged growth since 2006. That assumes that there are no changes in mortality rates and fertility rates since 2006.”

A new population number is due in 2016, and current projections indicate a population of almost 174 million in 2013.

The job has taken its toll on Kale, whose term in office expires in 2016. “If I am going to do this job properly, I need to be ready to lose my job,” he argues.

He had already offered his resignation when the integrity of his office was questioned in the squabble between Soludo and Okonjo-Iweala.

Will he take another stint? “Right now, I am tired. Maybe someone else should have a go,” he says.

There is a lot of talk of the ‘data revolution’ and calls for data scientists to solve development problems. Come 2016, there may be some big shoes to fill.

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