The 1991 Census and the Population Policy of the Babangida Regime


“I would want us to evolve the kind of society which has the capacity to sustain itself and survive even against the determined onslaught of its adversaries. It is a society that resolutely rejects anarchy arising from sickness of body, spirit and mind, the corruption of morals and manners and the decay of institutions.”

Ibrahim Babangida, 26th October, 1985.


The 1991 Census and the Population Policy of the Babangida Regime

  1. A. Ariyo


Access to update and accurate information on the size, composition and distribution of a nation’s population is an imperative for sound policy formulation and effective planning. This need is more pressing in developing nations where economic, social and political infrastructure and institutions are at a rudimentary level and should be expanded and transformed into effective means of development. In Nigeria, however, a complete picture of the nation’s population had for a long time been difficult-to- get. The Babangida administration therefore, deserves commendation for giving Nigeria a national population policy in 1988 and carrying out a national census in 1991.

Was the 1991 census exercise better conducted than the previous ones? Are the population figures from the 1991 census more reliable than those of the previous exercises? How sound is the 1988 national population policy, and can it carry Nigeria to the “promised land”? The first part of this paper is devoted to an examination of the preparation for and the actual conduct of the 1991 census. This is followed in the second part by a review of the 1991 census figures against the projected trends in the growth of the nation’s population. The third and final part of the paper, examines the efficacy of the national population policy within the context of the economic policies being pursued in the country.

Preparation for and Conduct of the 1991 Census

Institutional Arrangements

One of the items on-the transition agenda recommended by the Political Bureau, itself a creation of the Babangida administration was the conduct of a national census. Following the approval of this recommendation by the Armed Forces Ruling Council, the then existing National Population Bureau went into a discussion with the United Nations Department of Technical Cooperation and Development (UNDTC) to work out the modality for the conduct of a national population census in Nigeria. This collaboration resulted in the design of a three-phase three-year work plan. The first and second phases of the work plan covered the preparatory groundwork for the actual census. These were the demarcation of enumeration areas, recruitment of key personnel and field staff, improvement of data processing capacity, enactment of a census enabling decree, procurement of census materials, preparation of census documents and publicity materials, and the conduct of pre-tests and a trial census. The third phase was the comprehensive enumeration of “all” persons in the country, processing of the enumeration returns and the publication and dissemination of census results (National Population Commission, 1992).

The National Population Commission (NPC) which was inaugurated on 22 April, 1988 and legally established by Decree No. 23 of 1989, took over the functions of the erstwhile National Population Bureau. The NPC divided the country into seven zones and assigned a commissioner with supervisory responsibilities to a zone-where he or she had no paternal, maternal or matrimonial connections. Eight functional departments were also created to provide specialist support for the census project.

Demarcation of Enumeration Areas

An Enumeration Area (EA) is a small area that an enumerator can completely cover during the census enumeration period. In the 1991 census five EAs constituted a Supervisory Area (SA). The National Population Commission claimed to have employed the aid of topographical and cadastral maps, aerial photographs and spot satellite mosaics to divide the country into 210,000 enumeration areas, each with a population of between 250 and 600 (National Population Commission, 1992). The Commission was satisfied that the 210,000 enumeration areas would enable every part of the country to be adequately covered such that no villages or communities would be omitted or “discovered” during or after the census.

Pre-tests and Trial Census

Another preparatory exercise which the National Population Commission engaged in was to perfect the enumeration techniques and assess the logistical requirements in a real census situation. To this end three pretests and a trial census were carried out. The first and the second pretests took place in November 1989 and May 1990 respectively. The second pretest was made more elaborate than the first by stratifying the country on the basis of terrain and climatic conditions and conducting the exercise in highly diverse environments in a sample of two SAs in two Local Government Areas (LGAs) in every State of the Federation. As well, attempts were made to collect empirical data on the location of special population groups such as lunatics, beggars, wonderers and the destitutes.

The third pretest was carried out in November 1990 in four to five SAs in each of the 453 LGAs existing in the country at the time. The experience gained from the third pretest was used to revise and fine-tune the draft census questionnaire. The trial census conducted in a real census environment between 12th and 14th March 1991 was a full dress rehearsal involving one out of every five EAs in every LGA or 20 percent of the entire country. It provided the much needed opportunity to evaluate every arrangement made for the actual census.

Public Enlightenment Program

Realising the deep-seated cynicism and misconceptions about census in Nigeria, the National Population Commission drew up a plan for an intensive and sustained public enlightenment program to generate positive awareness of the 1991 census. Census enlightenment and public affairs committees were set up at the Commission’s headquarters and in all the states and LGAs to carry the census message to the grassroots. In May 1990, General Babangida himself flagged off the public enlightenment campaign, thus giving the planned 1991 census a high profile and boost. The electronic and print media, posters, handbills, pamphlets and trade fairs were the avenues the National Population Commission exploited to guarantee public awareness of the 1991 census.

Training of Census Personnel

The National Population Commission became aware, after the trial census, that it would require 800,000 enumerators and supervisors who should be properly trained for the actual census. The recruitment and training of these field staff were staggered over a period of four months. Chief and principal training officers and facilitators were trained at the Commission’s headquarters in Lagos after which they moved to the states to train more facilitators. The facilitators who were trained at the state level moved on to train more supervisors and enumerators-at the LGA level.

Logistical Support

To cope with the enormous logistical requirement of the 1991 census, a National census logistic committee was set up at the Commission’s headquarters and in all the states. The committees also liaised with the state and local government departments and private business organisations to provide vehicles to complement the Commissions ‘ own fleet of vehicles.

Data Processing

The National Population Commission established a data processing centre in Enugu, Ibadan, Kaduna, Kano, Lagos, Port Harcourt and Yola, the headquarters of the seven zones into which it divided the country. An assistant director who had no paternal, maternal or matrimonial connections with the zone headed each data processing centre. In addition, each director enjoyed the assistance of a resident local computer consultant and a United Nations associate expert. The task of coordinating the zonal data processing centres rested with the headquarters of the computer centres under a commissioner and a director at the National Population Commission’s head office in Lagos.

The Conduct of the 1991 Census

Between November 27 and 30, 1991, the National Population Commission conducted the national census and claimed to have covered 99.7 percent of the people in the country within the four -day period (National Population Commission, 1992). The Commission also appointed professional men and women to observe and monitor the enumerators in all the states of the Federation. A post-enumeration survey of the 1991 census was also conducted between 17 and 19 December 1991 in a sample of 5 percent of the enumeration areas. On 19th March 1992, the Armed Forces Ruling Council received and accepted the provisional results of the 1991 national population census as the official population figures for the country.

An Overview of the 1991 Census Figures

As a participant observer of the Nigerian census scene since 1963, an enumerator in 1963 and 1973 head-counts and a census personnel trainer in 1991, I can say without hesitation that the preparation for the 1991 census was far more superior to those of the censuses that preceded it. It could not have been otherwise, considering the caliber of the members of the National Population Commission and the commitment of the Federal Military Government of the day to bequeath to the nation credible national population figures. It can be said, therefore, that in terms of design and execution, the 1991 census represents an important benchmark in the country. But how do the 1991 census returns which have become the official population figures compared with expert opinions about the trend of growth of Nigeria’s population; are they any more reliable than those of the past headcounts? Let us now turn our attention to a review of the 1991 census figures.



Projected Population Growth Pattern and the 1991 Census Figures

A complete picture of Nigeria’s population is difficult to get from official national census figures. All the population counts ever undertaken in this country from the colonial period to date are steeped in a lot of controversy. Population figures of the 1911, 1920, 1931, and 1952 censuses were alleged to be under-estimate, because they were derived from sample surveys carried out by the colonial administration using methodologies which varied from region to region. In the post-colonial period, the use of population as a major criterion in the allocation of federally-generated revenues resulted in excessive voluntaristic inflation of the 1963 census figures making them far more unreliable than the estimates of the colonial period. The attempt at another national census in 1973 was marked by even higher inflations than in 1963. It generated such intense controversies that threatened the fragile unity of the nation just emerging from a civil war that the military government eventually had to cancel it outright. On May 17, 1977 the Supreme Military Council officially accepted the controversial 1963 population census figures, thereby locking the nation into using the same discredited population figures for planning purposes. Eyebrows have also been raised about the population figures of the census carried out twenty-eight years later in 1991 because they showed the rate of growth of Nigeria’s population to be incredibly low during that period and out of character for a developing country.

Table l (See Appendix D) sheds more light on the problems that have been highlighted about the population counts that have been undertaken in Nigeria, including that of 1991. The official census figures shown in Table 1 portray an apparently erratic pattern of population growth. The intercensal periods of 1921 – 1931 and 1963 – 1991 show an unusually low average annual rate of growth, while that of 1952-1963 shows unusually high average annual rates of growth. The prevailing circumstances in the country do not justify this pattern of population growth during the period under consideration.

The argument for a higher rate of growth of Nigeria’s population (more than 2% but less than 4% per annum) centres on certain socio-economic conditions of the post -colonial period. The importation of modern curative and preventive medical technologies which dates back to the 1950’s, and which was intensified in the 1970’s, must have resulted in improved maternal health, a decline in death rates and rapid population growth. Various estimates have put the decline in death rates in Nigeria from 26.9 per 1000 in 1965-66 to 17.9 per 1000 during 1975-80 period, and a further decline to between 15.6 and 10.7 per 1000 by the year 2000 (Orubuloye, 1983, United Nations. 1990). (See Table in Appendix).

It is also plausible to ascribe high fertility and rapid growth of Nigeria’s population to the prosperity the nation experienced during the oil boom period of the 1970’s, a period when early marriage was affordable and many whose religion and culture permitted could indulge in polygamy, while many others had the economic wherewithal to afford children outside marriage. Orthodox demographic transition model would suggest that declining mortality and increasing prosperity at this period should be matched by low fertility behaviour.

On the contrary, Nigeria continues to record persistent high birth rates. Estimates of total fertility from sample surveys conducted in different parts of the country vary from 5.3 through 5.6 to about 7.4 live births per woman at the end of her reproductive life.

In traditional societies with a subsistence economy the sole purpose of procreation is to provide a buffer against periods of adversity and old age. That the desire for children still remains strong in Nigeria that is transiting from subsistence to a modem economy is a reflection of the non-existence of official or other forms of social security measures for the sick, the unemployed and the elderly in the country. (See Table in Appendix D).

Given the foregoing shortcomings which have bedeviled national censuses in Nigeria, scholars have had to rely on projections using various growth rates that are considered plausible to approximate the size and growth pattern of the nation’s population. The 1952/53 and 1963 census figures have been subjected to various forms of adjustment which yielded annual growth rates of between 2. 7% and 2.9%, and this has led to the suggestion that Nigeria’s population growth rate must lie between 2.0 and 3.0 per annum, much like what obtains in other West African countries with reliable census figures and socio-economic conditions similar to those of Nigeria (Eke, 1966; Okonjo, 1968; Green and Milone, 1969; Olusanya, 1975).

The projected population totals using this range of growth rates under the assumption of constant fertility, declining mortality and zero net migration are shown in Table 2. What these projections seek to do is to demonstrate the relative sizes of population that would be generated by different hypothetical growth rates within which the actual growth rate must lie. Nigeria’s population of 56 millions in 1963 will be approximately 114, 128 and 162 millions by the end of the 20th century under assumed growth rates of 2.5 and 3% per annum respectively, and 98, 109 and 138 millions with the 1963 population estimated at 48 million. The population index in Table 2 shows that even at the low rate of 2% per annum, Nigeria’s population will double that of 1963 at the end of the year 2000 with higher growth rates resulting in shorter doubling periods. On the basis of the official growth rate of 2.5% per annum, the nation’s population of 63 million in 1963 would have grown to 102 million in 1989 as against the 88.5 million reported for in the 1991 census.

Population Composition

The population of Nigeria was predominantly young in 1963 with those below 15 years of age constituting 43.0% of the population (Table 3). United Nations’ projections indicate that the proportion of the population under 15 years of age will rise to 47. 5% by the year 2000 while the proportion of the working age population, that is, from 15 to 64 years, will decrease from 54.9% in 1963 to 50.1 % by the year 2000. The proportion of old persons, that is, those over 64 years will increase from 2.1 % to 2.4% during the same period (United Nations, 1991). The preponderance of children in Nigeria’s population is indicative of sustained high level of fertility and a potential for high fertility in the future. A huge proportion of children in the population also implies a heavy load of dependency on the working population with the attendant heavy demand on national resources to meet the educational, health and various other needs of the young people.

With regards to gender composition, Nigeria’s population is almost evenly distributed among the sexes. There were 50.5% males and 49.5% females in the country in 1963 and 49.8% males and 50.2% females in 1991 (National population Commission, 1963, 1992). The projected gender composition of the country’s population to the year 2000 reveals similar pattern (United Nations, 1991). (See Table in Appendix D).

Population Distribution.

The most notable characteristic of population distribution in Nigeria is its unevenness. As against the average national population density of 60 and 98 persons per square kilometer in 1963 and 1991″ respectively, there exist significant regional variations in population density and a tendency towards increasing concentrations across the country (Table 4). Areas of persistent high population densities are Lagos, southeastern and southwestern Nigeria. In each of these regions, including the north, are also to be found pockets of much higher population densities than those shown in Table 4, especially in the immediate hinterlands of the major urban centres of which the Kano close-settled zone with a density of over 400 persons per square kilometer is a classic example (Mortimore, 1993).

The regional variation in population density in Nigeria is a reflection of the spatial variation in the incidence of natural resource endowment, social and economic history. The coalescence and interplay of all or some of these factors in a favourable way in Lagos, the southeast, the southwest, Igboland and central Hausa-land resulted in their attainment of high population densities, but much less so in the middle belt which still remains sparsely populated. The population distribution pattern shown in Table 4 is useful only for generalised conclusions. The regional densities need to be subjected to further analysis on the basis of micro-spatial units such as local government areas before more meaningful deductions amenable to policy can be made. (See Table in Appendix D).

The observed deviation of the 1991 national population figures from expert projections is quite significant and has been attributed to two factors: either the population size of the projection base year (1993) was too low, or the 1991 census figures represent a serious underestimate after all.

Probable Source of Error in the 1991 Census

Although the National Population Commission claimed to have used maps, aerial photographs and spot satellite images to divide the country into EAs, it is obvious that the maps used were outdated as most of them were produced from aerial photographs taken in the early to mid-1960s. In addition only a few isolated portions of the country had aerial photographs or spot satellite mosaic coverage for special agricultural projects in the 1980s. Thus the demarcation of the enumeration areas was largely based on instruments that did not reflect the population realities on the ground. During actual census many EAs turned out to be too large and the number of enumerators engaged for head count became inadequate. With such circumstances as witnessed by this writer, the enumerators just stopped counting at the expiration of the enumeration period without actually covering the entire EAs.

The high and growing rate of unemployment, the intense pressure on social and economic infrastructure, the high demand for energy, housing, education, health care, potable water, etc, and the much-larger-than expected turn out of people on every occasion to take advantage of new or expanded social services, whether in the rural or urban areas, all go to show that Nigeria’s population in 1991 was much larger than the official figure of 88.5 million.

No country has ever conducted a perfect census, not even the technologically advanced nations like the U.S.A, Canada or Japan. The shortcomings of the 1991 census, one should say, were not intended, but rather they were the cumulative effect of the lack of seriousness of the pre-Babangida regimes on census matters, especially in their not laying a good foundation on which the regime under consideration could build. In spite of the impressive preparation for the 1991 census, the problem associated with its results should be seen as objective lessons that much still needs to be done to improve on census taking in the country in order to achieve less controversial results.

The National Population Policy

The formulation and adoption of a Nigerian national population policy is another laudable achievement of the Babangida administration. It was premised on the notion that the country had the capacity to control the fertility behaviour of its citizens and reduce the high rate of population growth and thereby minimise or remove their adverse effects on the people’s lives and progress. In other words, the national population policy was aimed at improving the quality of life and standard of living of all Nigerians within the limit of available resources. A public policy provides a framework for the allocation of public resources to achieve desired futures. Since its adoption, however, the national population policy has been derisively reduced to not more than ‘two children per woman. For the benefit of those who might not have access to the official document, the goals, objectives and achievement targets of the “National Policy on Population for Development, Unity, Progress and Self-Reliance” which the Armed Forces Ruling Council under General Babangida approved for the nation on 4th February 1988 are reproduced below.

  1. Population Policy Goals: The goals of the National Policy on Population for Development shall be: –
  1. to improve the standards of living and the quality of life of the people of this nation;
  2. to promote their health and welfare, especially through preventing premature death and illness among high risk groups of mothers and children;
  3. to achieve lower population growth rates, through reduction of birth rate by voluntary fertility regulation methods that are compatible with the attainment of economic and social goals of the nation and
  4. to achieve a more even distribution of population between urban and rural areas.


  1. Population Policy Objectives: In order to achieve these goals the objectives of the population policy shall be:
  1. to promote awareness among the citizens of this country of population problems and the effects of rapid population growth on development, within the shortest possible time;
  2. to provide to everyone the necessary information and education on the value of reasonable family size to both the individual family and the future of the nation in achieving self-reliance;
  3. to educate all young people on population matters, sexual relationships, fertility regulation and family planning before entering the ages of marriage and child bearing to assist them towards maintaining responsible parenthood and reasonable family sizes within their ability to foster;
  4. to make family planning means and services to all couples and individuals easily accessible at affordable cost, at the earliest possible time, to enable them to regulate their fertility;
  5. to provide fertility management programs that will respond to the needs of sterile or sub-fertile couples to achieve reasonable self-fulfillment;
  6. to improve demographic data collection and analysis on a regular basis and to use such data for economic and social development planning and
  7. to enhance integrated rural and urban development in order to improve the living conditions in the rural areas and to slow down the rate of migration from rural areas to the cities.
  8. Targets: for this population policy shall be:
  9. For the protection of the health of mother and child, to reduce the proportion of women who get married before the age of 18 years by 50 percent by 1995 and by 80 percent by the year 2000;
  10. to reduce pregnancy by mothers below 18 years and above 35 years of age by 50 percent by 1995 and by 90 percent by the year 2000;
  11. to reduce the proportion of women bearing more than four children by 50 percent by 1995 and by 80 percent by the year 2000;
  12. to extend the coverage of family planning service to 50 percent of women of child bearing age by f995 and 80 percent by year 2000;
  13. to direct a significant proportion of the family planning program in terms of family life education and appropriate family planning service at an adult males by the year 2000;
  14. to reduce the number of children a woman is likely to have during her lifetime, now over 6, to 4 per woman by year 2000 and reduce the present rate of population growth from about 3.3 percent per year to 2.5 percent by 1995 and 2.0 percent by the year 2000;
  15. to reduce the infant mortality rate to 50 per 1000 live births by the year 1990 and 30 per 1000 live births by the year 2000 and the crude death rate to 10 per 1000 by 1990 and 8 per 1000 by the year 2000.
  16. to make available suitable family life education, family planning information and services to an adolescent by the year 2000 to enable them to assume responsible parenthood;
  17. and to provide 50 percent of rural communities with basic social amenities by 1990 and 75 percent by the year 2000 in order to simulate and sustain self-reliant development.
  18. Family planning services shall be made available to all persons voluntarily wishing to use them. Priority attention shall be given to reaching high risk clients, for example, women under 18′ or over 35, those with four or more children, those with previous complicated pregnancies or childbirth or those with chronic illnesses which increase the health risk of pregnancy.

The Efficacy of the National Population Policy

Considered on their own merits as they are detailed above, population policy goals, objectives and targets are incontrovertible. They are as laudable as the goals of the second national development plan of 1970. It is however, necessary to consider the policy along with the strategies for its implementation and set both against the prevailing operative economic policy environment in order to appropriately assess their efficacy.

The repertoire of strategies for the implementation of the national population policy includes family planning and fertility regulation, maternal and child health improvement, the creation of awareness among men and their role in determining the appropriate family size, the development of children and youth-oriented programs, the promotion of population education and information, rural-urban migration reversal and the generation of more reliable population information through training, research and data collection.

The key concept of the implementation strategies is voluntarism. It was officially declared that “the strategies for the implementation of the national population policy should be voluntary and in accord with fundamental human rights of the individuals” (Federal Ministry of Health, 1988:15). That is undeniably the essence of democracy- the freedom to choose. But that approach immediately raises a very vital question: to what extent does the Nigerian environment allow most individuals in the country to voluntarily lower their fertility behaviour? The answer, which is not far-fetched, is embedded in the demographers’ popular sayings that ‘while the rich choose the Cadillac the poor choose children. What this implies is that because the satisfaction of the basic needs of the rich is guaranteed they can indulge in the luxuries of life, including expensive cars. For the poor, however, meeting basic needs is a daily struggle and having many children is a potent survival strategy in the face of adversity. Relatively, easy access to sound education, good health care services, potable water, decent housing, employment opportunities and old age security are the pre-requisites for making children economically undesirable. In other words, when there is a strong sense of social and economic security among the generality of the people in their working life and at old age, they will voluntarily choose to have fewer children.

But the Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) which was introduced by the Babangida administration in 1986 and, the gradual withdrawal of government from the provision of vital social goods, privatization and globalization, all of which followed in its wake have wiped out the middle class and impoverished most Nigerians. Many are jobless, homeless and unsure where the next meal will come from. Many of the children who should be in school where they can receive appropriate population education are roaming the streets. Children participation in the informal sector in Nigeria is growing at alarming rate while poverty in the country is at a worrisome level (UNDP, 1999). At the same time fertility is sustained at high levels in both the rural and urban areas in spite of the population policy.

In specific terms, the national population policy has failed to bring down the vital statistics that account for the rapid growth of the nation’s population. For example, the policy was to have lowered the natural growth rate from 3.3% in 1988 to 2.5% and 2.0% in 1995 and 2000 respectively, but this rate stood at 3.1 in 1996. Fertility rate or the number of births to a woman in her reproductive life which stood at between 5 and 7 in 1988 was also to be brought down to 4 in 2000, but it remained at 8 in 1998. Infant mortality rate has not responded significantly to the population policy either. The target was to bring it down to 50 and 30 per thousand in 1990 and 1995 respectively, but it stood at 87 per thousand in 1996 (population Reference Bureau, 1996). It should be obvious to perceptive observers that the national population policy has suffered, and is still suffering, from the lack of resources in the required quantum for its full implementation. So not much can be expected of it.

The intent and purpose of the national population policy is laudable, but like all policies it cannot operate effectively in isolation. The population policy requires appropriate supportive economic, social and political policies to achieve its set goals. The national population policy can only become an efficacious instrument of social engineering if government re-appraises its stand on funding social goods and services in order to ease the burden of the poor and empower them to make the right choices in their fertility behaviour. The pace of government withdrawal from meeting its social obligations to the populace in Nigeria appears to be too rapid to foster a significant reduction in fertility that is at the heart of the national population policy.




The 1991 population census and the national population policy are two of the important legacies of the Babangida administration. Both the Government and the officers of the National Population Commission demonstrated an unflinching commitment to the census project and preparation for it was as thorough as it could be, given the prevailing circumstances at the time. The major hole experts could punch in the results of the 1991 census was that it represented an under-estimation of the nation’s population. This defect most likely arose from the use of obsolete instruments in demarcating the enumeration areas which resulted in the employment of grossly inadequate enumerators who could not cover all the densely populated enumeration areas. In spite of its shortcomings, the 1991 census remain a reference document of immense value.

Be that as it may, it does not appear that any lesson has been learnt from the 1991 census as no serious preparation is afoot, especially by way of producing up-to-date large scale maps of the country for the conduct of another census in 2001 which is only a couple of months away. The nation needs such maps for every part of the country for many purposes, including a national census. In addition, other avenues for generating population information that can be used to corroborate and supplement census figures should be strengthened. Birth and school registration and the national identity cards would be most useful in this regard. A solid foundation in census preparation and census taking was laid during the 1991 head count. Will the next census be an improvement over it? One cannot see any evidence to that effect as no serious effort is being made to achieve that goal.

Another legacy of the Babangida regime, is the national population policy that we have portrayed as a fledging instrument of social engineering waiting for an appropriate economic policy environment to thrive. The structural adjustment program that has pauperised the majority of Nigerians is the bane of the national population policy. Fertility will remain high among the poor who are the majority in the country as long as government continues to renege on its responsibility of providing an enabling environment for voluntary fertility reduction that is at the heart of the population policy. A national policy of economic empowerment of the poor masses is required, therefore, to change the fortunes of the national population policy.


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