by Mohammed Haruna
If ever a man stands as indisputable evidence that the garb does not necessarily make the man, Eze Festus Odimegwu, Chairman of the Nigerian Population Commission (NPC), is such evidence.
Thirty four years ago or so, the man graduated from University of Nigeria Nsukka on top of his class with a first class honours in Chemistry. He soon joined the Nigerian Breweries Plc and, as one would expect of a man of his brilliance, he rose through the lower rungs of the company to eventually become its managing director and chief executive officer in 1997. He left in 2006.
In the course of his brilliant career he attended leadership and management courses in some of the best universities in the world, including London Business School, Wharton Business School and Stanford University Business School.
It was this brilliant man that President Goodluck Jonathan saw fit to appoint as the Chairman of the NPC in June last year. A little over one year on, the man has done and said everything to prove the president could not have been more wrong in his choice.
If, as is possible, even probable, the president was taken in by the man’s academic brilliance and apparently successful career in appointing him to the very sensitive job of Nigeria’s head-count, the president should never have been, understandable though it is.
This is simply because in spite of the man’s brilliance and successful career he had exposed himself long before his appointment as chair of NPC as one of the most obsequious Nigerians when, in the twilight of his brewing career, he chose to become one of the arrowheads of former president Olusegun Obasanjo’s infamous Third Term Agenda.
So obsequious was the man in his role as a leading promoter of President Obasanjo’s Third Term Agenda that it appears to have brought his otherwise brilliant career to an ignominious end when, rather than leave on his own, he seemed to have been gently shoved off for playing too much politics at the expense of his job as the boss of Nigeria’s top brewing company.
For a man who seemed so servile to President Obasanjo, it is truly shocking that he has since turned full circle to denigrate the man over one of the few successes he managed to chalk up in his eight years as president. For, Census 2006, probably save that of 1991 conducted by the late Makama Nupe, Alhaji Shehu Ahmadu Musa, is arguably the least controversial census ever carried out in this country since its first nationwide headcount in 1921.
At the heart of this controversy has always been the notion that the more sparsely populated North can never be more populous than the densely populated South, as all our headcounts have always shown. So strongly held is this notion in the South that even otherwise well educated Southerners like Senator Abraham Adesanya, the late leader of Afenifere, the umbrella Yoruba cultural group, would peddle the nonsense that Northerners counted their cattle, goats and sheep among their population!
As if to disprove the numerical superiority of the North, President Obasanjo, well ahead of the 2003 general elections, initially made the possession of a national identity card by any Nigerian 18 and above conditional for the exercise of their voting right, in clear contravention of the Constitution and contrary to the electoral law. In the end he was forced to go back on his insistence when it became obvious that it was logistically impossible to provide every eligible Nigerian with the ID card before the elections.
All the same the project went ahead in November 2002 and when the results were released in May 2003, it suggested an even wider margin of population between the North and the South than was the case in all the previous censuses. For example, whereas the 1991 headcount showed a ratio of 53.23% for the North against 47.77% for the South, Obasanjo’s ID card project showed the North had 54.50% of the country’s adult population as against 45.50% for the South.
It was highly instructive that the ID card project was carried out at a time the president, his minister of Internal Affairs, the late Chief Sunday Afolabi, the supervising minister who was a staunch Afenifere and Awoist, and Mr Deji Omotade, the late head of the Department of National Civic Registration (DNCR), were all not only Southerners; they were indeed, South-Westerners, the arrowheads of the campaign against the North’s numerical superiority vis-a-vis the South.
In spite of this exercise many a Southerner still clung on to his apparently mistaken belief that the population of the North was fiction. One such Southerner was Chief Bode George, the Peoples Democratic Party chieftain who was jailed for corruption several years ago but who seems to have since returned to reckoning in the party. The population of the North was fiction, he told a rally organised by the Southern Leadership Forum in Enugu in December 2005, a rally which clearly had the imprimatur of Obasanjo’s presidency. They will make sure the 2006 headcount, he told the rally to a thunderous applause, exposed the fiction. “We will fix it,” he said.
The 2006 census came and went and apparently all the Bode Georges of the world couldn’t “fix it.” The result of the headcount which Mr Samuila Danko Makama, Odimegwu’s predecessor, announced in October 2006 showed pretty much the same distribution the country had seen since before independence in 1960.
Odimegwu, it seems, has come to his job with an open agenda to do what many with even bigger political clout than he possesses have failed to carry out. As Mr Makama pointed out in an interview in the Daily Trust of June 27, at his very first address of the NPC staff after his appointment, Odimegwu tried to discredit all the headcounts that have been conducted in the country since Adam.
“The most shocking aspect,” said Makama, “was that he said all previous censuses in Nigeria, a section of the country has been cheating other sections, and that I failed to correct that, and that he had come to correct that.”
Since then the new census boss has been singing one variation or the other of this same theme of a fictitious Northern population. Like most of his regional compatriots, he seems to have clung on to the ignorant, possibly merely mischievous, belief that the North is mostly a barren desert that cannot have the population it has been credited with all these decades. They simply refuse to educate themselves about the country’s geography which would have shown them that only the northern fringes of the region are semi-arid and that the vast portion of its 730,885 square kilometres, which is more than 2/3rd of Nigeria’s 923,768 square kilometres, is arable and produces most of the country’s food and livestock.
His most recent display of ignorance about his job was his widely publicised press conference of August 20, in which he repeated his ill-considered and arrant nonsense that the 2006 census was cooked up. His evidence? The say so of one census official, Inuwa Mohammed, who he said once told an NPC meeting to review the census figures that it was all cooked up.
Apparently it does not matter to the man that, all told, there has been no more than 370 or so petitions nation-wide against the NPC’s 2006 headcount and that more than 75% of these petitions have been thrown out by the census tribunal.
The president cannot do worse than retain someone who has displayed so much ignorance, insensitivity and mischief as Odimegwu has, as the country’s census boss. Not only has he displayed so much ignorance, insensitivity and mischief, he goes down on record as the first census boss in the country’s history the vast majority of whose colleagues would carry out a full page newspaper advert announcing their vote of no confidence in his leadership.
If the president wants the country to have a census in three years’ time with any chance of being acceptable at all, he should sack Odimegwu today. If nothing else, any man, no matter how brilliant, who would praise a leader to high heavens today only to turn round and crucify him tomorrow as Odimegwu has done to Obasanjo, simply because the man is no longer in power, does not deserve any responsible job, not to talk of one as sensitive and important as the headcount of a country as big as Nigeria.
– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Mohammed Haruuna