Again, Kenyans have a rendezvous with destiny in August this year. Kenya will hold its sixth Population and Housing Census since 1963 and eighth since 1945. This will be the first census undertaken in the new dispensation of a devolved system of governance.
Defined as “the procedure of systematically acquiring and recording information about the members of a given population”, censuses in Africa’s divided societies, like elections, are becoming moments of instability.
This undermines the credibility, integrity and usefulness of census results. According to the Chairman of the National Population Commission (NPC) of Nigeria, Festus Odimegwu: “No census has been credible in Nigeria since 1863.”
Certainly, censuses are as old as the human civilisation. In Africa, the Greek historian, Herodotus, tells us that ancient Egyptian rulers (Pharaohs) required every Egyptian to declare their sources of income annually to the administration officials responsible for the provinces known as Nomarch.
But the world has come a long way since the time of the Roman Republic when the census was merely a list that kept track of all adult males fit for military service.
Population and housing census has become an exalted international practice taken at least every 10 years, with the United Nations defining its essential features as "individual enumeration, universality within a defined territory, simultaneity and defined periodicity".
What has made census a big deal is that it is what a referendum is in electoral processes. It is not sampling where information is obtained only from only a subset of a population, but targets the whole population.
However, the worldwide trend to enumerate the ethnicity and race of people continues to draw controversy.
Despite this, with the exception of France, the other four veto-wielding members of the United Nations Security Council (America, Britian, Russia and China) have enumerated ethnicity or race during past censuses.
Kenya is one of the 19 African states where the ethnicity or race of people was enumerated in at least one census since 1991. From the first census in the 1940s all the way to the most recent in 2009, Kenya enumerated its people by ethnicity (the exception being the 1999 census where ethnicity figures were not made public).
However, with the government (both at the county and national levels) increasingly becoming a mechanism for distributing largese along identity lines, the data collected during each decennial census is at the heart of fierce contestation along ethnic lines as a strategy to access resources.
It is in the light of this that it was suggested that the ethnicity question should have been dropped in the 2009 census as part of the effort to promote national healing in the aftermath of the 2007/2008 post-election violence.
The ethnic question was included, nonetheless. “We have decided to be transparent," said then Planning Minister Wycliffe Oparanya when releasing the results of the census a year later in 2010.
In February 2012, Oparanya tabled revised post-census figures in Parliament showing that the figures of people in the eight sub-counties in Northern Kenya (Lagdera, Mandera East, Mandera Central, Mandera West, Wajir East, Turkana North, Turkana South and Turkana Central districts) were inflated in the 2009 population count.
The inflated figures read that the two regions of North Eastern and Turkana had 2.35 million people, which the Minister revised downward to 1.3 million people as the actual population size.
Speculation went viral that the results had been “doctored” because of some untypical growth in the number of certain communities.
The elite in the affected areas moved to the High Court arguing that the minister had no powers to alter the census results. Justice Mohamed Warsame, then a High Court Judge, ruled in their favour, barring the State from using the projected results to demarcate electoral boundaries.
However, four years later, in 2016, the Court of Appeal set aside the orders. But the controversy has lingered on, and now casts a long shadow over the 2019 census.
Ahead of the 2019 census, the debate on ethnic enumeration revolves around two arguments. One view, articulated by the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC), is that there is a danger some groups will use the results to obtain more resources.
The second view, linked to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, is that Kenyans need to be told how many they are in terms of tribes. Besides helping authorities to plan better, ethnic statistics are a reflection of Kenya’s cultural diversity and migration patterns.
Obviously, there is nothing political in ethnic statistics themselves. What is worrying is an obnoxious battle for “genetic supremacy” in which the fertility rate of ethnic groups is weaponised.
One politician went public arguing that Kenya’s pastoralist communities, especially the country’s ethnic Somali (whose fertility rate is the highest in the country at 6.4 pc), are genetically outpacing and overtaking “the big five ethnic majorities” such as the Kikuyu who have the lowest (2.8 pc) growth. This was interpreted as an attempt to prepare grounds to inflate figures of the 2019 census.
Technology holds the key to ensuring the quality, accuracy and dependability of the 2019 census data in the light of insecurity, terrorism and fear of inflation of ethnic numbers in remote parts of Kenya to controversial levels. “The use of technology enhances quality of the data”, said Mr Henry Rotich, Cabinet Secretary, The National Treasury and Planning, in a press briefing on January 23. The Government should consider using drone-based technology, now widely used to count wildlife more accurately and precisely than humans, to enhance the accuracy and credibility of the coming census.
Prof Kagwanja is a former Government Adviser and currently Chief Executive of Africa Policy Institute.