What is the ACTUAL Population of Sierra Leone? Questionable Census Data and National Elections on March 7, 2018

February 13, 2018  By Dr. Fodei Batty

Depending on any number of sources you consult, from the country’s development partners to credible international news outlets, the population of Sierra Leone varies widely by as much hundreds of thousands.

According to the British Broadcasting Corporation, the population of Sierra Leone in 2017 was 6.1 million people, whereas the Millennium Challenge Corporation, one of the United States’ most influential international aid agencies, listed the population of Sierra Leone in 2017 as 6.4 million people. Another source, the African Development Bank, listed the population of Sierra Leone in 2017 as 6.7 million people.

In contrast to the first three international sources, Statistics Sierra Leone listed the population of Sierra Leone in 2015 as 7.1 million people following the national population and housing census that was conducted after the devastating Ebola epidemic that needlessly destroyed over 4,000 innocent Sierra Leonean lives.

 Thus, there is a yawning gap of over 400,000 people between Statistic Sierra Leone’s final population count that was officially declared by the incumbent APC government in 2015 and the highest numbers that are documented by influential and credible international sources in 2017, two years after the government conducted its census in 2015.

Why does Sierra Leone’s population data vary so widely? One could be forgiven for thinking that the variance is due to innocuous statistical error. However, 400,000 people is not attributable to mere overestimation, especially when the much lower and much more believable figures from credible international institutions are offered two years after the APC government’s so-called census of 2015.

Curious about the discrepancy in Sierra Leone’s population figures, I delved into the data to study the population trend since the first post-independence count in 1963. I found several inconsistencies which suggest that the most recent census figures published by Statistics Sierra Leone in 2015 were, at best, incorrect, or worse, deliberately fudged to deceive the Sierra Leonean public, international donors, and other stakeholders.

Using an ARIMA statistical model, which I cannot explain here for clarity because of the somewhat long and complicated nature of the explanation, I employed some basic principles of demography to examine moving averages over time in the rate of change of the population figures in Sierra Leone published by Statistics Sierra Leone.

The data, which can be found boldly published on Statistics Sierra Leone’s website, irregularly lists the population of Sierra Leone for various years since British colonial rule in 1901 through 2015.

After independence in 1961, the national census was not conducted according to the international standard of a 10-year gap between censuses. Instead, there is a count of the population for 1963, 1974, 1985, 2004, and 2015. The 19 years gap between 1985 and 2004 and the 11 years gap between 2004 and 2015 are partly attributable to the financial and social constraints of the rebel war and the Ebola epidemic, respectively.

The other variables I included in the analysis include the average annual birth and death rates that constitute the population replacement rate, and the associated drops in the population due to increased mortality and projected spikes from increased birth rates among the population following each crises.

As listed by Statistics Sierra Leone, the population of Sierra Leone for the years I looked at were the following:

  1. 1963 = 2, 180, 355
  2. 1974 = 2, 735, 159
  3. 1985 = 3, 515, 812 [one-party APC rule]
  4. 2004 = 4, 976, 871
  5. 2015 = 7, 092, 113

From the above, I calculated the average rate of change in the population between 1963 and 1974 as 50,000 people/year given the replacement rate derived from the average ratio of births and deaths.

For the next eleven year period between 1974 and the next census in 1985, the average rate of change in the population increased slightly to 70,000 people/year, given the replacement rate.

Although the next period was understandably affected by the RUF rebel war, the nineteen year gap between censuses, from 1985 to 2004, was one of the longest on record in modern history between any two national population censuses. In spite of the conflict, however, and the long lapse between censuses, the 2004 census numbers show that the average rate of change in the population was 77,000 people/year; a figure that did not stray from the previous rates of change.

So, a fairly steady trend was established in Sierra Leone’s population increase between 1963 and 2004. However, when the census was conducted in 2015 under the APC’s watch, the reported numbers of 7, 092, 113 suggests that the rate of change in the population more than doubled from an average of about 66,000 people/year to a whopping 190,000 people/year.

The dramatic difference in the rate of change in the population attracts instant suspicion because sociocultural conditions in most countries tend to be fairly stable over time. Societies hardly deviate from established attitudes and cultural expectations, except in the face of major generational motivations. There was no such motivation, however, for people to dramatically increase the birth rate in Sierra Leone in the years under review.

The United States, for example, experienced a “baby boom generation” following World War II but thereafter reverted, as a society, to the established pattern of small family sizes.

Thus, the reported two million increase in Sierra Leone’s population between 2004 and 2015 is a statistical impossibility especially if you factor increased outmigration as conditions in the country worsened over time. The reported period also covered the two-year Ebola epidemic under the APC during which you can expect that most people were discouraged from having children because of the fear of having to go to a hospital and potentially contracting Ebola.

As we head into a critical election on March 7, 2018, it is disturbing that the population data that is broadcast by the APC government of Sierra Leone, and from which the voting roll was derived, potentially includes a significant chunk of the population that is unaccounted for and not supported by the data from neutral, disinterested, but credible international organizations such as the BBC.

It is even more disheartening that besides the Institute for Governance Reform (IGR), civil society in Sierra Leone has remained largely silent in holding the APC government accountable for what is clearly fudged and massaged numbers put out by Statistics Sierra Leone.

The data also shows that the population increases in districts in the north that are favorable to the APC in past elections were inconsistent with the established trends. The same data for the 2015 census curiously reported that several other districts in the south and the east of Sierra Leone that have been unfavorable to the APC in the past surprisingly lost populations and exhibited trends that were inconsistent with previous census data.

Heading into a critical election, 400,000 people, or more, is a lot to play with in small country such as Sierra Leone, where elections are often won with razor-thin margins. It is not unreasonable to expect that any overestimation in Sierra Leone’s population data was deliberate and potentially serves a very narrow partisan interest.

Since the voting eligible population that received voter identity cards is drawn from national population data, opposition parties should be aware that no one stands to exploit the discrepancy in the population data more than the incumbent APC government that oversaw and widely applauded the conduct and quality of the now discredited population census in 2015, and potentially manufactured the fudged numbers, even as the Institute for Governance Reform cried “foul” pointing at flaws in the census process.

As international election observers stream into the country, they might already be too late to detect and catch some of the electoral fraud that may already have been perpetuated using fraudulent data from the so-called 2015 population census.

Extra vigilance by NEC and the opposition parties will be needed at polling stations on Election Day in order to deter stuffing of the ballot boxes using pre-filled ballot papers drawn from the unaccounted count in Sierra Leone’s population that offers a ready pool of ghost voters for nefarious intents.

Eternal vigilance, they say, is the price of liberty!

Dr. Fodei Batty is an associate professor of political science at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut, USA.