by Abba Mahmood
Mr. Festus Odimegwu first came to national limelight as one of what they called “Corporate Nigeria” when he was the CEO of Nigeria Breweries Plc in Lagos. He was part of the third term attempt that was central to derailing Obasanjo, which led to his sack by the company. Since then, he has gotten appointed as Chairman of the National Population Commission, NPC, the agency charged with the responsibility to conduct national census. It appears his main brief since he got this appointment is to use every opportunity to discredit all previous censuses conducted in Nigeria, instead of getting ready to conduct a good one. He seems to be on a misguided and dangerous mission bordering on megalomania.
Last week, he was at it again during a press conference. Hear Mr. Odimegwu boasting first: “I am a professional manager, technocrat, one of the best from Corporate Nigeria, and anybody who said it is not true should come and give his debate”. It is really very unfortunate that someone who read Chemistry who has worked most of his life in a brewery is calling himself a “technocrat”. How the Senate cleared someone who was never in public service and knows no where except his village and Lagos to head such a sensitive national assignment is the 600 billion Naira question.
Hear him again. “The governor of Minna told us people stayed for the whole time waiting for enumerators to come. Enumerators never came then suddenly you publish a figure for them, they will say there is no census.”
Mr. Odimegwu is so ignorant of the country that he didn’t know there is no state called Minna, but Niger! The former NPC Chairman who conducted the 2006 census, Chief Samuila Makama, had since explained that the census was not conducted in one day, so if on a particular day this enumerators did not come to a place, they must come within the days earmarked for the census.
“For anybody to say there was no census just because some people in some places complained that they waited for enumerators who didn’t come, portrays ignorance of the census process or outright mischief … enumerators can’t cover enumeration areas assigned to them in one day, and that’s why it is spread over a number of days. A problem we encountered was that everybody wanted to be counted on the first day of the census. The 2006 census was extended from five to seven days, to give opportunity to people not already counted to be counted”, said Chief Makama.
Mr. Odimegwu has unveiled what he called five-years plan for the next census which according to him, will require N600 billion and will create 5million jobs. He said there will be need, “to have a solar kiosk in the 200,000 localities and each of them will employ an average of 25 people that is the 5 million jobs. The people that will do this for us while they are sending information to us, we would also use them as community enlightenment center”, Mr. Odimegwu said.
Now, how did Mr. Odimegwu arrive at the 200,000 localities in Nigeria when he has discredited every previous data available in the country? What has census got to do with kiosks and jobs creation? Mr. Odimegwu should know that counting human beings is not the same as counting cartons or bottles of beer which he knows very well. And I do not see how one kiosk will create 25 jobs as he said, unless of course, he is suffering from hallucination.
Chief Makama was of the patriotic view that the manner Mr. Odimegwu is recklessly discrediting the 2006 census has very serious implications for Nigeria. “All the specialized services of the National Population Commission are funded by the donor agencies, the development partners. Now, Festus Odimegwu has said that the development partners would provide some of the N600 billion he has proposed for the next census, but the same Festus Odimegwu has discredited the 2006 census in which the development partners participated, spent N18billion for its conduct, and endorsed its outcome. How can he turn round now to ask the same development partners for money?” Chief Makama wondered.
From 1861 when Lagos became a colony to 2006 when the last census was conducted by a competent technocrat and career public servant who served this country with distinction and retired as a federal permanent secretary, Chief Samuila Makama and his team, the Nigerian census percentages for the various parts of the country has been consistently the same. But, the new Chairman of the NPC, Mr. Odimegwu has come with a personal agenda, in fact a vengeance mission, to discredit all previous censuses conducted in the country. It is a personal agenda because if it were institutional, the NPC should have been the agency issuing the statements officially instead of the politically motivated statements coming from a chairman who is obviously suffering from drunken amnesia.
Mr. Odimegwu mentioned in his press briefing that former Lagos governor, Tinubu, “conducted his (Tinubu’s) census in Lagos and got 17.2million people instead of Makama’s 9 million”. The constitutional body for conducting census is the NPC and anybody who conducts any other “census” is just cooking up fiction. Census is only conducted by a dejure government of a county and not anyone else. Lagos is the most populous city in Nigeria, no doubt but the most populous state is Kano. That is the fact established by one of the most scientific censuses ever conducted in Nigeria, the 2006 census. Lagos has migrant population- people coming from all over to conduct business and go that is why the density is very high during work days. In any case virtually all the skyscrapers in Lagos and other parts of Nigeria are offices, so where is the population? Between Makama a seasoned, experienced first class administrator and Odimegwu, a beer seller everybody knows who to believe in this matter.
The governor of Kano, Engr. Rabiu Kwankwaso had reason to speak to the press when he came to confer with President Jonathan last week. “I was invited by the president and I had very fruitful discussions with him. Basically, we discussed the state of the nation, the airlines that applied to go to Kano but were refused approval by the aviation ministry and I also raised the issue of the Chairman of the National Population Commission, Festus Odimegwu. And we are not happy about that appointment and think that it was a mistake. Odimegwu shouldn’t be there in the first place, because he had only worked in alcoholic industry all his life. And my guess is that he is taking a lot of his products and that is why we feel that his appointment is a mistake because he cannot be the chairman of NPC and at the same time attacking what his predecessors had done” said Governor Kwankwaso.
Mr. Odimegwu ought to be reminded that he is now a public servant, heading one of the most strategic agencies and not alcohol brewer anymore. His utterances therefore have to be guarded and controlled. There are channels of communication and decent words of communication within government circles. We should plan to get it better, not bitter. It is not too late to reverse a mistake. Government should save itself the embarrassing calamity by removing Odimegwu immediately, not just querying him before he causes more damage to national stability as census is too sensitive a matter to be left to one who has never had any experience in public service and who is not ready to learn. In that way, Odimegwu will be free to go and set up his kiosks and do what he knows best- selling beer and doing beer parlor talks. God save Nigeria.
– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Abba Mahmood