Nigeria’s first census in 15 years fraught with religious and tribal rivalries
ABUJA, Nigeria – Nigeria’s government is holding the first census in 15 years of the world’s most populous African nation – an exercise so likely to fan religious, tribal and regional rivalries some say it shouldn’t be tried.At stake in the census is what share Nigeria’s estimated 130 million citizens will get of the oil-bloated national treasury and political power in a federal system. Nigeria is the world’s eighth-largest exporter of crude oil at a time of rising prices.The long-delayed five-day head count, which begins Tuesday, comes in a year marred by fatal riots between Christians and Muslims, and unprecedented violence by southern militants who have attacked petroleum installations and kidnapped foreign workers to press their demands for a greater share of the country’s oil wealth.It also comes the year before elections critical to sealing a transition from military despotism to multiparty democracy. From independence in 1960 until 1999, Nigeria was ruled almost exclusively by Muslim soldiers from the arid and dusty north who plundered a treasury bloated by oil pumped from the largely Christian south.President Olusegun Obasanjo, a southern Christian, became only the second democratically elected president in 1999. Once a military strongman himself, he has fanned speculation he might approve a constitutional change allowing him to seek a third term. That has created yet another explosive issue in a country where more than 10,000 people have died and some 3.4 million have been forced from their homes in ethnic, religious or communal violence since 2000.The census has already been marred by violence: At least five people were killed in an ethnic clash Saturday over census boundaries in southwestern Ondo state, police said Monday, adding that reinforcements sent there would ensure the census goes ahead as planned.In northern Nigeria, census officials rioted over pay in at least three towns, witnesses said.Despite the unrest, National Population Commission Chairman Samu’ila Danko Makama told a news conference Monday that “all arrangements humanly possible” had been made “to conduct an accurate, reliable and acceptable census.”To avoid pitfalls blamed for the failure of previous attempts, Nigerians will not be asked their religion or tribe. Census officials are being sent far from home in hopes of avoiding the regional biases that led to manipulation in the past.Judge Abdulkadir Orire, secretary of the Jamatul Nasril Islamiya, an umbrella for Nigeria’s Muslim organizations, said 99 percent of Nigerians hoped the census would allow a fair distribution of wealth.He said governments had concentrated on the south’s petroleum to the detriment of developing agriculture and other minerals elsewhere – skewing the political scene.”Because the petrol came, it has made everybody lazy, just waiting for money from petroleum,” Orire said. “If other resources were developed, you may find that those other resources might even be greater” than oil.Benjamin T. Shande, a 50-year-old government security officer in Abuja, the capital in the heart of the country, said past censuses have favored the north, giving it credit for too many people.”You see just two villages (in the north) and they give them a state government … and there will be running water, electricity, roads. In my place you can travel more than 200 kilometers and you don’t see even a local government,” said Shande, from central Benue state.Northerners note they outnumbered southerners in Nigeria’s first census, under British colonizers in 1952-1953, and that their culture of polygamy and rejection of birth control would indicate that would remain the case.Four subsequent attempts to count Nigeria’s people were canceled or rejected, except for a 1963 count that was accepted despite acknowledged flaws.The Guardian, Nigeria’s leading newspaper, hit a pessimistic note in an editorial Monday: “Tomorrow’s census is about to happen in an environment of controversy, uncertainty, tension and a measure of insecurity in some parts of the country,” it said. “The rigging culture remains a national dilemma, and leaves the census exercise open to suspicion, manipulation and abuse.”—Associated Press writers Dulue Mbachu in Lagos, Nigeria, and Njadvara Musa in Maiduguri, Nigeria, contributed to this report.
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