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IGR’s Report on 2015 Census: No Smoke without Fire!

January 26, 2015 By Abu-Bakarr Sheriff

Mohamed King Koroma Statistician General SSL

Mohamed King Koroma Statistician General SSL

A relatively new Think Tank – Institute for Governance Reform (IGR) – established in February 2014, last week published its quarterly publication, Critical Perspectives on Governance, titled: “The Credibility of the 2015 Census in Sierra Leone: Will All Heads be Counted?”.

Like previous reports or publications on Sierra Leone, the report has generated widespread debate, some clearly informed by bigotry and parochial polemics, pooh-poohing the report, instead of taking stock of the good, the bad, and the ugly with open minds and in a spirit of getting the all-important census process right.

If the authors of this report wanted to generate an informed public debate on significant issues they raised in their report, with a view to engender changes in what they regard as anomalies in the census process, no doubt their genuine intention have been subverted by a rather divisive populace, not least Statistics Sierra Leone, who look at every report with suspicion. If anything, the response of Statistics Sierra Leone (SSL) – the statutory mandated to provide technical oversight of the census process – may just have stocked the embers of fire further. Imagine operatives at SSL referring to a scholarly research work as “trash” simply because they find some of its findings galling!

I would like to commend the authors of the report for their time and bravery to look into issues bordering on the 2015 census, which, as noted in the report, if well managed, could lead us to the El Dorado successive governments have promised, but have failed to deliver.

A strategic process as the census serves two main purposes: to count people and individuals, and to underscore the condition and needs of the former. In order words, the main aim of any census is to enable policy makers plan, using quality data, for all communities across the country, in this instance, for the next ten years at least. Of course, the geopolitical utility of the 2015 census cannot be overemphasized, especially in the current context of bipolar regional support for the two oldest political parties in the country.

Since biblical times, men and their households have been counted, for both political and socio-economic reasons. Here in Sierra Leone, population census is seen solely with a political lens by the political elites, not least because it determines boundary delimitation and by extension the number of parliamentary seats each district/region is allocated. This in turn could translate into the number of parliamentary seats (majority) the duopoly of APC and SLPP will be likely to command in Parliament. And, by extension, determine the race for the presidency.

However, census data can be useful for a broad spectrum of development planning. That is why it is imperative that we carefully read the IGR report with an open mind, so as to ensure we get it absolutely right.

That pathway should be encouraged, particularly because, as the report states, “The 2015 Census could germinate the seed of renewal for Sierra Leone”. Thus, if we all crave for that “renewal”, which is even more imperative post-Ebola, the census process should not only be rushed through, but be done in an efficient and transparent manner, in accordance with the UN Handbook on Census Management, which among other things insists on “data integrity” and that field staff should be “competitively recruited”.

The IGR report notes certain strength of the ongoing census process, including “an unprecedented Government of Sierra Leone financial and logistical commitment”, despite austerity measures enforced by the Ebola outbreak. Thus, unlike their predecessors who spent a paltry $1 million on the 2004 census, representing 1% of the budget, “The current government has committed at least 56% of the overall census budget”, which the report notes could be replicated in other sectors such as the derelict healthcare, rundown education and perennial youth employment.

The report also notes strong political will, expressed in support and collaboration from and among other state institutions, plus a well coordinated and improved donor support mechanism, spearheaded by the UNFPA.

Clearly, the above has been lost amid the polemics of outright dismissal of serious issues raised about a process that could serve as an impetus to our prosperity.

Instead, as expected, the debate has been largely centered on three key credibility challenges highlighted in the IGR report: party political mobilization of census personnel; ineffective mapping and pilot census; and management challenges in SSL.

To substantiate their claims, the IGR report notes that: “Background checks on the staff [District Census Officers] reveals that SSL has given absolute control of officials of the ruling party to manage the data collection and census management process,” evident by the fact that 9 out of 14 District Census Officers were active members of the ruling party means the process could be compromise as a result of “party political bias”.

On their part, SSL has come out come guns blazing, not only debunking the claim as spurious and unfounded, but describing the authors as tribal/regional bigots, in an apparent reference to Andrew Lavalie, Executive Director of the think tank and one of the authors of the report.

The truth though is that the IGR is a leading think tank of academics from across the country, intent on proffering informed policy alternatives.

Also, claims by SSL officials that they only checked academic qualifications and competence of District Census Officers is dubious, because the UN Handbook clearly states that such persons should not be partisan. Again, it sounds unconvincing that members of the interview panel couldn’t have picked out people who contested parliamentary seats or serve as party executives.

If the above is not bad enough, the report also notes that the constitution of the management team of the census was done “in such a way that priority was not given to technical competence and professionalism”. Thus, it claims, there was a “mismatch between the qualification and experience of the post holders and Benchmark qualification recommended by management review of the positions.” It cites as an example the fact that, “there is no trained and qualified demographer and statistician in the team managing the census.” A list of eight members of the management team is tabulated, inclusive of the Statistician-General, who all have graduate degrees in areas other than that stipulated by the SSL management review team.

This claim has also been rubbished by the SLL, both in a statement released last week and a presser organized same week. They retorted that the SSL management team and the Census Secretariat are not one and the same, adding that they have competent staff with years of experience in census and statistical operations in general, albeit admitting that some members of the management team were “co-opted into the Secretariat for administrative convenience and their expertise.”

Whatever that expertise is, is not clearly stated, although the IDR report has a list of names it says are part of the Census Management Team, a couple of whom have masters degrees in Peace and Conflict Studies, although their posts should have been occupied by people with advanced degrees in Economics, Statistics, Mathematics or Demography.

Aside that, the IGR report makes reference to a report by Dr. M.P.G. Pepper (a DFID consultant in 2012), who they say concluded that “the Statistician General (SG) and his management team lack the basic qualifications and experience in performing their functions….”

Curiously, the SSL statement made no mention of that, neither the issue of the abrupt termination of tenure of four of the five members of the SSL Council – Chairman C.J. Thomas, Dr. Lansana Nyallay (east), S.K. Foyoh (south) and Alhaji Olu Alghali (west), leaving Mohamed Adarqua Koroma (north) – barely one year into their three years mandate, nor allegations of financial impropriety.

Additionally, the report slams the cartographic field mapping already done by census officers, which it claims “was not well followed in the last mapping exercise”. It includes a letter of protest by a former SSL staff in Kenema, who alleged “acts of manipulation were done by senior managers managing the census to reduce population counts in Kenema district during the mapping.” Quoting the Global Times newspaper edition of 6th June 2014, the report says that instead of investigating the serious allegation, the entire team in Kenema was dismissed, without any reason! Again, the SSL has remained tight lipped on this.

Yet, a report instigated by SSL, carried out by the Council Monitoring Team (CMT) indicated that the issues raised in the Kenema protest letter could have been replicated in other districts. The CMT also maintained that “inconsistencies of the mapping exercise” in Bonthe, Waterloo, Kono, Kambia and Pujehun districts, while asserting that Tonkolili and Bombali Districts – ruling party strongholds – had more households mapped in the pilot census.

With the above in mind, despite efforts by SSL officials to dismiss it with the wave of the hand, kudos to the IGR for their bravado to not only raise these cogent issues, but to proffer recommendations, including willingness to dialogue with SLL officials.

Already, nine political parties have written a letter to President Ernest Bai Koroma, demanding that the 2015 census be deferred from the April date to a more convenient date, preferably, after the Ebola outbreak.

This unprecedented show of unity by a rather comatose opposition perhaps vindicates the IGR that there is no smoke without fire!

As the debate continues among Sierra Leones, the credibility of the process now hangs in the balance, despite claims to the contrary by the SSL that they would ensure the census passes all quality and integrity test. This becomes more compelling as billions of Leones would be spent on the census, which if a transparent and credible, would rub off on our quest for prosperity.