UGANDA is gearing up for a first census in 12 years, and counting its people now is hugely important as the population growth rate has averaged 3.3% since 1990— far above Africa’s average rate over the same period which has been 2.3%.
Today, the east African country is estimated to have Africa’s second-youngest population after Niger, and knowing just how many people to plan for is a top government priority.
Democracy—and its distribution of resources—depends on numbers, so census-taking has political undertones the world over, as politicians try to fiddle the books to boost the numbers of “their” people and “erase” others.
Sometimes, being invisible has its benefits, as happened in colonial Nigeria, where certain sections of the country would deliberately under-count themselves in order to avoid paying taxes.
When numbers don’t add up
More recently, Nairobi’s (in)famous Kibera slum had been said to have one million residents, making it the “biggest slum in Africa”.
NGOs like superlatives, and the thousands operating in the slum would repeat this factoid in one funding proposal after another; while media made the figure stick—until a 2009 census revealed that Kibera had just over 170,000 residents, an extraordinary 488% overestimation (although, of course, some claim the census undercounted there because it was an opposition stronghold).
Demographers say a country should hold a census every ten years, but some countries in Africa have been guess-timating their population for far longer.
Angola has gone longest without an official census, the last time the country counted its people was before independence, in 1970, when the population was officially 5.9 million. In 2010, Angola’s population was estimated at 19.5 million—meaning that a staggering 69% of Angolans are “guessed” citizens.
Somalia comes second in the guessing game, with the last census being conducted in 1975, with the rate of guessed citizens at 60%.
Eritrea too, has never officially counted its people (South Sudan can be excused since it only got independence in 2011); the last time a count was done, Eritrea was still part of Ethiopia, in 1984.
Ethiopia, which has seen a flurry of Foreign Direct Investment and multinationals rushing to capitalise on the estimated 90-million strong market, has 54% of its citizens apparently guessed.
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has also gone three decades without a census, since 1984, with a 53% population guess rate.
All these countries share a history of civil war and instability. Conducting a census during war is impossible, but even after relative peace returns—as in Angola or Eritrea’s case—countries may still hold off counting people officially to avoid “disappointment”: Rebels often negotiate ceasefire deals and peace settlements deals based on these population guess-timations, and when resource distribution is on the table, a good politician knows it is always better to err on the higher side.