The Politics of the Census in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone, 2018 elections
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There have been several instances where successive governments do not trust national data from past governments. Sierra Leone is no different when it comes to this. On the 21st July, 2020, the president of Sierra Leone, His Excellency Julius Maada Bio, made a pronouncement that Statistics Sierra Leone will on the 10th December begin a 14-day national mid-term census. According to the president, one of the rationales for conducting the mid-term national population and housing census is to address perceived anomalies in the past census.

However, while the 2002 Census Act gives the president the authority to “direct a census”, the pronouncement sparked a public outburst among some opposition politicians and civil society groups who saw it as a façade for cooking data that will justify the creation of more constituencies and districts in the incumbent’s strongholds in the Southeast ahead of the 2023 general elections. Some politicians from the opposition party, the APC, were arrested in the Northern town of Makeni— a stronghold of the party — for calling on their supporters to boycott the entire process. Similarly, the chairman of the National Grand Coalition (NGC) party, Dr. Dennis Bright, and the Secretary General of the All Peoples Congress (APC), Ambassador Osman Yansanneh, were both taken to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in the capital city, Freetown, for police questioning regarding what they told their supporters. On the 13th December, 2021, another arrest and detention were made by the police in the Eastern town of Kono against  Miss Diana Konomanyi, the Eastern Region Chairperson of the APC and Miss Femi Claudius Cole, the only female presidential aspirant for the 2018 general elections who also serves as the chairperson of the Unity Party and doubles as the chairperson of the Coalition of Progressive Political Parties (CoPPP). Miss Konomanyi was arrested regarding a video she made calling her Kono people not to participate in the census. No invitation was sent to Miss Cole but she accompanied Miss Konomanyi when she was invited to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and, upon her arrival at the CID, she was also arrested for defying the census.

This is not the first time that census data has been criticized by opposition politicians and civil society groups. For instance, the Director of the Institute for Governance Reforms (IGR), Mr. Andrew Lavali, criticized Statistics Sierra Leone for substantial abnormalities in the2015 census process. He went on to add that most of the recruited District Census Officers were either APC supporters or strong party officials. In other words, no attempt was made to recruit competent and experienced officials and enumerators for a job that requires a high-level of expertise. In fact, the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP), which was the main opposition at the time, condemned the process by saying “everything they have done so far is inaccurate and opaque”

Statistics Sierra Leone responded to the IGR Director saying that the IGR has not only tried to undermine the census process but also cast doubt on the integrity of the international institutions and local organizations that monitored the entire census process and concluded that the data collected is credible. This view is in line with that of Alhaji  Waritay, the National Coordinator for Democracy Sierra Leone – a civil society group that was part of the Census Technical Team – who described the census process as being transparent, inclusive, participatory and accountable.

What we have seen so far is a lack of trust in Statistics Sierra Leone and the regime that authorizes their operations by opposition politicians and CSOs. What makes this particular census so controversial is the fact that while the World Bank initially approved a $30 million grant to Sierra Leone to carry out the Mid-term national Census, its country director Mr. Laporte, recently informed the government that World Bank is no longer going to fund census. Laporte’s letter states that “The Bank experts had previously communicated to the Government that this funding would be disbursed upon the satisfactory completion of several critical actions,” but “To date, while work on most actions points is underway with some completed, several critical action points require further technical work to be satisfactorily addressed including evaluation of the pilot census, the field operation plan for the enumeration, and ensuring enumerators are adequately trained. All these outstanding actions are necessary and must be addressed prior to commencing data collection to minimize the risk of inadequate and poor data quality”.

Some commentators such as Abu Shaw, Abdul Rashid Thomas and Sylvia Olayinka Blyden thought that World Bank’s withdrawal from the census process—combined with criticism by CSOs and opposition politicians — would have prevented the government from moving forward with the census but the government went ahead with it nonetheless.

On the 31st May, 2022, Statistics Sierra Leone published the 2021 Census provisional results. Again, many politicians and civil society organizations have called it null and void. Like the 2015 census, the population in the incumbent’s strongholds has increased dramatically while little can be said about the opposition’s strongholds. In fact, Dr. Dennis Bright of the NGC, called the population increase in Kenema (from 609,891 to 772,472), Bo (from 575 478 to 756,975) and Bonthe (from 200,781 to 297,561) as crazy. While the population in the ruling SLPP stronghold towns increased sharply, the stronghold towns of the opposition APC decreased exponentially. For instance, Western Area Urban (Freetown city) decreased from 1,055,964 to 606,701 (decreased by 47.2 percent), Western Area Rural decreased from 662,056 to 444,272 (decreased by 49.0 percent), Bombali decreased from 606,544 to 387,263 (decreased by 36.2 percent) and Koinadugu decreased from 409,372 to 206,133 (decreased by 49.6 percent). In responding to these strong allegations, the Statistician-General said that the decline of Freetown’s population could be explained using the phenomenon known as one night-in country migration” where people move from the city to their respective towns and villages to be counted there.  Meanwhile, a press release published on the 2nd June, 20222 on an unverified Facebook page named Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) said that they are “pleased with the outcome, especially when it was unique in that it is the first digital census ever conducted in Sierra Leone”. They further called on the president to ignore all those condemning the results. In the same press release, they called on the National Electoral Commission to begin delimiting constituency boundaries as enshrined in Act No. 6 of the country’s 1991 constitution.

In responding to the data about the new population of Western Area Urban, mayor Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr tweeted on 31st May 2022 saying that the Freetown City Council property rate database has over 107,000 houses excluding the slums and she is surprised to see that her city has been nearly reduced to half. The National Electoral Watch (NEW) – a coalition of civic and non-governmental organizations – made a press release on the 2nd June, 2022 calling for the government not to use this new data for planning or development purposes and should be nullified altogether. They further analyzed that the total number of registered eligible voters in 2017 in Freetown is 606,939 while the mid-term census said the total population (including citizens and non-citizens) in Freetown is 606,701. It’s difficult to wrap one’s head around such data. In other words, we have more registered voters in Freetown than the total number of people living in Freetown. While it is hard to tell who presented the most credible data, there is obviously variance in Statistics SL provisional census results and those presented by the mayor.

NEW further cited an earlier letter where they argued that this mid-term census lacks inclusion, something that they said is a key ingredient in any democratic governance. According to NEW, the census was proclaimed when the country was still fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, and since most of the political parties called on their supporters to boycott the process, the government should have postponed or cancelled the process.


Implications for Sustainable Development

There is this general consensus among policy scholars that development interventions must be data-driven to enhance sustainable development. However, it is difficult to make any meaningful public policy intervention if the evidence is distorted or questionable. According to UN (2014) “Official statistics provide an indispensable element in the information system of a democratic society, serving the government, the economy and the public with data about the economic, demographic, social and environmental situation. To this end, official statistics that meet the test of practical utility are to be compiled and made available on an impartial basis by official statistical agencies to honor citizens’ entitlement to public information”. While there are challenges that accompany data collection communication in low-income countries, some national statistical data have been highly weaponized. In other words, they have been used against opposition political parties which has the tendency to derail years of democratic progress. Also, since these data inadvertently inform business policies, if there is mistrust then investors will find it difficult to invest in such countries.

Moreover, in Tanzania for instance, the government claimed that economic growth in the country was at 6.8 % in 2017 and 7 % in 2019. Furthermore, the government made a projection of a 5.5 % growth rate in 2020. Contrarily, IMF data showed a growth rate of 1.9 %. In other words, the IMF and World Bank noticed that the Tanzanian government overstated their national data.

The key questions we need to ask ourselves are, is this data not going to affect the Free Quality Education Policy? The Free Quality Education Policy is the flagship program of the SLPP government. The policy aims to provide free quality education from primary to high school so that the burden of school fees and related learning materials can be reduced for parents. What about the drug distribution for the Free Medical program for pregnant and lactating mothers? Will national resource distribution happen evenly? Are investors going to find it difficult to trust Sierra Leone’s data?

Moving Forward

The proclamation and publishing of the 2021 mid-term census have been clouded with mixed feelings. For instance, World Bank and EU withdrew their support in the middle of the exercise, opposition political parties condemned the process – calling their supporters to boycott the process – and civil societies such as NEW called for a cancellation or annulling of the results. The census has cast doubt on the electoral legitimacy of the 2023 elections if the provisional results are used. One of the justifications for the mid-term census is because of the anomalies of the 2015 census but this problem only compounds as people question these provisional census results.

The question we need to ask ourselves is, how can Statistics Sierra Leone processes be better designed to remove politicization?

To answer this question, I recommend that the 2002 Statistics Act be reviewed to reflect the current realities. A Technical Committee comprising all the political parties should be incorporated into the Act. This is because census data is not only going to be used for development purposes but will also inform boundary delimitation and new constituency creation. Because of the sensitive nature of these political decisions, involving the various political parties would help foster trust in the process.

Furthermore, the 2002 Census Act dictates that the president can direct a census on the advice of the Ministry of Development but did not say with the approval of parliament. To create room for parliamentary debate and avoid distrust, all should be approved by parliament before being undertaken. 

Furthermore, introducing ICT (technologies and tools that are used for collecting, editing, storing and sharing information) tools in data collection can reduce the distrust and politicization of data if the enumerators are properly trained. The Kobo tool, for instance, can record the GPS locations of enumerators in real time. This makes verifying the locations of enumerated areas by external auditors, political parties and civil societies easy.

Issa Darlington Kamara (@IssaDKamara) is a junior lecturer who teaches Politics and Democracy at the Development Studies Department, University of Makeni.

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