Furious debate is ongoing about tomorrow’s census. Should we be allowed to drink and be counted or should the bars be closed? Should we open the gate for the enumerators or put a chair outside of the gate for fear of “ngeta” in our own homes? Should we be accounted at all now that we have registered for the mysterious Huduma Namba?
Personally, I can see why the government would want to close the bars during the count. There are Kenyans who are more devoted to their local bar, than even their own families. The bar and their fake bar friends are their lives, their support system. They will fight tooth and nail to keep the bar open because without it they would be lost. The fact of the matter is that if the bar is open, they will not be at home to be counted.
The other constituency is made up of bar owners and those who depend on that line of business — bar attendants, beer distributors and so on — who stand to lose if the ministerial order is allowed to stand. But if everyone is at home for the count tomorrow night, whom will they sell their products to? Personally, I think if you must drink, why not drink at home?
A census is not a citizenship audit; neither is it carried out to register people for government services. It is a process of collecting, analysing and disseminating personal, social and economic data on every individual in a particular country at a specific point in time. As such, a census is a scientific, planning tool which helps scholars and policy makers understand and plan for a certain population.
Unfortunately, this is not how politicians, ethnic chauvinists and other malign forces see it. They see it as a supremacy contest, an opportunity to measure their numerical strength against other communities and thereby lay the grounds for domination, subjugation and unfair access to public resources. In some countries, it has become impossible to have a census, so irrational is this tribal competition.
The last census was controversial and degenerated into a court battle that went all the way to the Court of Appeal. Then Planning Minister Wycliff Oparanya ordered a recount in Lagdera, Mandera East, Mandera Central, Mandera West, Wajir East, Turkana North, Turkana South and Turkana Central. After the recount, Mr Oparanya revised the combined population of those areas from 2.35 million to 1.3 million.
This disagreement had ugly undertones. These are traditionally marginalised areas and the feeling in those localities are raw about being left out of the mainstream, of perceptions of being treated as second class citizens and not being allowed to fully belong. To many people in those areas, an attempt to revise the population numbers may have appeared like typical unfairness against them.
But the bureaucrats were arguing that the science was not in keeping with the numbers they were seeing: These are areas of high birth and mortality rates, which could not support an increase of 140 per cent in the intercensal period. The population, the argument went, could not have grown that much through births, but maybe through migration.
But even more worrying was the quality of data collected. The government claimed that in some areas, respondents refused to answer enumerators’ questions, citing cultural reasons, and instead grabbed the questionnaire and filled them for themselves.
Now, as in many disadvantaged areas of rural Africa, the levels of literacy in the contested areas are low. The census questionnaire is a detailed instrument and takes some training to navigate effectively. Data collected from self-administered census questionnaires can’t be very reliable.
One hopes that the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics has learnt from that debacle and will avoid those pitfalls this time round. Any attempt to politicise the census should be vigorously resisted. Any effort to cook the numbers should equally be punished to the fullest extent of the law. For the politicians and other ethnic actors, please give the country a chance, for once. Try and see beyond your tribe; we are not saying that your tribe should be taken away from you, it should not. But it should coexist with another larger, and more important unit called Kenya.
Then there are the other ethnic chauvinists who fear the growing influence of other tribes and would want to keep them down by unfairly challenging the count. For heaven’s sake this is a data collection exercise not a fertility contest. In any case, even if it was, everyone deserves a fair shake, breed and let breed.
I think all the problems we have suffered as a nation — corruption, bloodshed, destabilising elections, domination and corruption — have at their root a backward and primitive tribalism, a total inability to get out of the ethnic cave and to insist on seeing the world through a very narrow, limiting prism. Saturday’s census should be used as a weapon to beat down that monster and to provide an opportunity for reason to prevail.
It’s data collection, not data creation. And a night’s sobriety is good for everyone so close the bars by all means and let everyone stagger home to be counted.
As for the thugs looking for a chance to steal, let the police and the local administration do their job of keeping us safe.