Opinion: So, they finally got Festus Odimegwu?

by Dan Onwukwe


One thing is clear: Odimegwu’s background is that of a man who is excessively courageous, not afraid to walk in the dark. He’s no doubt a high achiever, very bright, fun-loving, gutsy and proud.

The very moment he excoriated the conduct of past headcounts in the country, beginning from the first attempt in 1816,to the last one in 2016, that they were largely flawed, lopsided and skewed in favour of a section of the country, he stirred the hornest nest.

He ruffled some feathers,especially the political elite in the Northern part of the country.

I knew that comment was pure gold dust for controversy,an open invitation for the decisive blow to be delivered by those who don’t like his gut. It was over politicised.

And so, it proved last Thursday,October 17, as Eze Festus Odimegwu, until then Chairman of the National Population Commission(NPC) threw in the towel.

His resignation was conveyed to the Federal Government via an email he sent from overseas where he was reported to be vacationing. It has long been accepted by the President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan.

We know that pressure has been mounting on him to quit or the President to sack him since that blustery day he addressed the media  as part of the preparations for the next census in 2016. Odimegwu had said,among other things, ”Nigeria has run on falsehood for too long. We must stop this falsehood and put a stop to all this…”

He also took a swipe at the 2006, saying that because it was flawed in every material particular,the former board of NPC couldn’t summon the courage to publish the figures.Were you surprised he made these comments? Did he show enough circumspection? Well,it depends on how you view his comments and the man himself?

One thing is clear: Odimegwu’s background is that of a man who is excessively courageous,not afraid to walk in the dark. He’s no doubt a high achiever, very bright, fun-loving, gutsy and proud.

He may be suffering from tthe ‘smartest-in-the class syndrom, but a  man with all these virtues and ‘vices’ can only have a controversial,volatile personality. And he always stands on his conviction,and for good measure,such caused him his job as MD/CEO of Nigeria Breweries.And now the NPC hot seat.

Love or hate him, (and Odimegwu has both friends and foes large numbers), his personality does not favour “management by hand grenade”, a situation where he can be censored. So,it was no surprise that his time at NPC was short and explosive.

The likes of Alhaji Rabiu Kwankwaso shouldn’t gloat over Odimegwu’s exit. A useful starting point will be to ask the question: Was what Odimegwu said on our past headcounts right or wrong? This fact is plain: faulty population figures drastically affect planning and, inevitably, national development.

And at the heart of our unreliable headcounts are two sore, infectious points: ethnicity and religion. Which was why Odimegwu declared that he would ensure that these two areas were not included in the data form in the 2016 census or else he will resign. Perhaps that may have weighed much in his decision to quit.

Also, let’s look at what went wrong with the 2006 headcount under Chief Samu’ila Makama as NPC boss. Anyone who followed keenly that census would have seen how the exercise was blighted by hitches, trailed by reports of indequate, lost or stolen census materials, poor logistics, low awareness and buy-in.

The then NPC did not win the hearts and minds of Nigerians. What was evident was a lack of collective national will. In some places it was alleged that census results had already been decided, and the headcount was a mere public show to legitimise a conspiracy to give some regions a higher population strength. All of this was what Odimegwu tried to put in perspective two months ago. Reality bites.

It is honourable for Odimegwu to have resigned. It’s a wise step to avoid loss of confidence in his ability and that of the commission to conduct a credible census in 2016. It takes candour to do so in a country where men and women of conviction are in short supply.

Had he not resigned and perhaps stayed on the next census, those who considered his comment a “mistake” would have had a good ‘exhibit’ to challenge the result of the headcount in court if it does not favour them.

I understand the ex-NPC boss  had endured agonizingly in silence the very moment the presidency queried him over his comment. Those close to him say it’s something he’s not used to. He’s used to issued commands, not compelled to answer query especially on a matter he’s well convinced he was right.

Whatever his critics may say about his resignation, Odimegwu had been vindicated by the recent  nullification of the 2006 headcount in 14 local councils of Lagos State, by the National Census Tribunal. The  area affected by the judgment delivered three months ago, are Amuwo-Odofin,Eti-Osa,Alimosho, Lagos Island, Lagos Mainland, Surulere, Epe, Badagry, Ifako-Ijaiye, Apapa, Agege, Ojo, Ajeromi-Ifelodun and Ikeja councils.

It needs be recalled that the Lagos State Government had,on behalf of 19 out of the old local government areas which covers 40 out of the present 57 councils in the State, petitioned the  National Census Tribunal to nullify the 9,113,605 declared as the population of Lagos state by the NPC in the 2006 headcount based on alleged irregularities which purportedly resulted in the exclusion of some residents of Lagos from the exercise.

Clearly, the same anomalies could have happened in many other States across the country, which validates Odimegwu’s claims.

Undoubtedly, a lot of census figures have been manipulated to serve narrow political interests that defeats the real essence of census as a viable tool for development planning. The issues raised by Odimegwu will  remain ever valid and relevant. We cannot in all sincerity make much progress if government and institutions in charge of census fail to address the grey areas that have stymied past headcounts in the country. Neither can Nigeria build enduring infrastructure without accurate demographic data.

To paraphrase Odimegwu,it is either we do an accurate census or we will not do anything meaningfully’. The message is simple:we can no longer afford to have unreliable and controversial census. It will be most unfortunate, and in fact,a mistake to conclude,as the rumour doing the rounds has it that  the resignation of Odimegwu was part of a political game plan by the presidency to satisfy one of the conditions of a particular region of the country ahead of the 2015 General Elections. That will be very sad, indeed.


Read this article in the Sun Newspapers


Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija

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