By Vickie Remoe
At home in Freetown. I was at here every day and every night from November to Jan 2, 2022 when I returned to Ghana. I was excluded from the census. No enumerators came to my home. It is every citizen’s right to be counted and included in the national census.
Statistics Sierra Leone (StatsSL) says that the number of people living in Sierra Leone’s capital city decreased by 42.5% between 2015 and 2021. The agency’s provisional population results for the 2021 midterm census are questionable. The census data does not match Freetown City Council’s property records, the 2018 National Elections Voter Register for Freetown Urban, or the Ministry of Basic Education’s student registry. My lived experience and the provisional results are also at odds.
My family home is in a seaside community. I could access the beach from my backyard and front gate as a child. Now the sand is covered by bankin’–dirt and gravel, shanty houses for as far as I can see. Our home is sandwiched between two slums.
Sierra Leone is donor-dependent, so for censuses and elections, “development partners” foot the bill. A mission of European Union experts in October 2021 presented a status report on the 29 recommendations made by its 2018 Elections Observer Mission. EU reps said that the 2021 midterm census was unnecessary.
“The use of an optional census to provide data that might be used to change electoral boundaries shortly before an election is not conducive to the political atmosphere or good electoral practice. The voter register should be automatically produced from the civil register, which would save money and time.”
In April 2021, the World Bank had agreed to give Sierra Leone a $30 million grant “to strengthen its statistical system. One of the activities to be supported by the grant was the national Mid-Term Census by Stats SL.” By December, the World Bank had changed its tune. The Bank said, “the government had failed to meet the necessary conditions––critical actions for the funds to be disbursed.” President Bio announced that Statistics SL would go ahead with the midterm census to correct the “irregularities” of the 2015 census.
Statistician-General Osman “Mallam O” Sankoh said that while the Bank’s support was necessary, there were other donors. UNFPA said it would “continue to provide the necessary funds and technical skills for the 2021 Mid-Term Census.”
Once Stats SL announced that they would go ahead with the census, the APC party made a political blunder that would haunt them should the government decide to validate the provisional census results. They asked party members to “not participate in the Mid Term Census and not make themselves available to be counted.” It was the first time that a political party had gone to such extreme measures to protest a census.
Before the 2015 census, Sierra Leone People’s Party pressed the government to follow the constitution and do the necessary consultations and preparations. They never asked their members not to participate. When the provisional results were announced in 2016, however, SLPP “wholeheartedly and unreservedly” rejected the 2015 provisional census results. Citizens and civil society raised questions about the growth rate, especially when govt announced that new districts would be created in the North (regional voter base of the APC). It was clear then that the government had used the 2015 census to create new constituencies to gain an unfair advantage in the parliamentary elections.
Six years later, an SLPP government is in power, using the same tactics to manipulate the upcoming 2023 elections.
I was in Freetown from the first of December 2021 to the first of January 2022. No enumerators from Stats SL came to my house. I called my neighbor, and he said yes, enumerators had come to his office at the top of our road. They did not come down the road where I was.
If an enumerator had come to my house, they would have been able to count me, my cousin, his wife, and two children, our security guard, the housekeeper, the cleaner, and four members of my staff.
I read the Statistician-General’s statement last week; that’s when I realized my error. It wasn’t sampling. The goal had been to count all citizens. I was shocked to learn that Freetown’s population has reduced by 449,261 residents. How could this be if they had excluded me and the slums next to me? The SG said that one of the reasons why Freetown’s numbers had dwindled was that there was a mass exodus from the city to the provinces. He said people went to their villages to be counted there. If the point of the census is population accuracy and fixing errors from 2015, counting people in the villages where they no longer live instead of in Freetown where they reside only increases inaccuracies. Something about Mallam O’s census night migration theory mek a pini. Freetown’s Mayor Yvonne Aki Sawyerr also called foul on the midterm census.
Mayor provided irrefutable data from Dr. David Sengeh’s Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education’s Free Quality Education register of students in Freetown, the National Electoral Commission’s 2018 voter registry, and Freetown City Council’s property database and geospatial imagery.
The MBSSE’s 2020 register has 413,407 school-going children in Western Area Urban (Freetown). NEC’s voter register of adult voters is 606,939. Not considering those adults who didn’t register to vote, the sum of students and registered voters put Freetown’s population over the million mark––some 400,000 more than the midterm census. The Mayor shared additional data about 58 slums, whose population total 344,147. Slum houses are not in the City Council’s data of 107,526 assessable formal domestic structures. Let us assume that 4-6 people (we know it’s more) live in each house in FCC’s database. On the low end, it brings the estimate of residents to between (430,104 – 645,156) add that to the slum population, and the city’s population is between (774,251 – 989,303).
Which is more likely? That the ill-funded, poorly planned midterm census is more accurate than three different organizations known for data-driven decision-making? Is Professor Dr. Osman Sankoh’s midterm census correct and Lecturer Dr. Sengeh’s 2020 Free Quality Education student registry data flawed? If we accept that the 2021 provisional census results are accurate and credible, MBSSE, FCC, and NEC’s data is not.
Since my experience tells me Freetown’s population has grown, I believe this population data is erroneous. Every time I raise my head, I see the impact of rural-urban migration on the city’s hills as trees are felled, burnt, and cleared to make way for new housing. The deforestation is so bad that President Maada Bio visited the city dam to see the level of encroachment on reserved land. As for the slum dwellings dong to wi, a no wetin wi de pas.
I put out a call on Facebook and Twitter asking for citizens who were uncounted to get in touch with their stories. I wanted to know if my experience was unique. I interviewed six people who said they wanted to participate, but enumerators did show up.
Tania Frazer, 50, Consultant, Murray Town, Household of 4
50-year-old consultant Tania Frazer said she called the Statistics office twice to inform them they had not counted her. At the time, Tania lived in Murraytown with her husband, son, and niece. She is angry that she was left out. Tania has lived outside of Sierra Leonean for most of her adult life. 2018 was the first time she was able to register and vote. Tania wanted to be included in the census because it was her right as a citizen. She believes that the government deliberately excluded specific population segments from the data because they wanted to influence the 2023 elections.
Umu Jalloh, 27, Researcher, Goderich, Household of 7
27-year-old researcher Umu Jalloh said Statistics SL did not count her household of seven in Goderich. Umu was excluded from the national census in 2015 and 2021. She blames enumerators for the provisional census inaccuracies. Unqualified enumerators don’t go out to collect data; instead, they forge data. The people who hire enumerators choose their family and friends; not the most qualified.
Hamza Koroma, 29, Writer, Regent Road (CBD), Household of 2
29-year-old writer and researcher, Hamza Koroma lives with his brother Off Circular Road in Freetown’s Central Business District. He said he was away in Koindugu for work when he heard that an enumerator had come to his house. One of the residents in his compound asked the enumerator to leave, and they never returned. Hamza said that neither the 2015 nor the 2021 midterm censuses reflect an accurate count of citizens in Sierra Leone. His estimate is the 2021 midterm census is over 60% inaccurate, while the 2015 census is 10-15% inaccurate.
Dauda Daniel Kargbo, 41, Administrator, Wilkinson Road, Household of 5
41-year-old administrator Dauda Daniel Kargbo lives Off Wilkinson Road in a household of five; three adults and two children under the age of 15. He was interested in participating in the census until he heard the World Bank had pulled out. But once the process was ongoing, he had a change of heart. He called the toll-free Statistics Sierra Leone number. Stats SL told him they would send enumerators to count his house. No one came. He says the midterm census data should be null and void because it had unprecedented challenges that surpass those from the 2015 census.
Ibrahim Bah 48, Wilkinson Road, Driver, Household of 3
48-year-old Ibrahim Bah is a driver and lives on Wilkinson Road with two adult women. He noticed Stats SL had marked some fences as counted. He called the toll-free number to report that he had not been counted. He was told that enumerators would come, but they never showed up. This is the second time Ibrahim was left out of census data. He blames opposition politicians from the APC for politicizing the midterm census. He believes the planning for the census was poor and the selection of enumerators flawed. Ibrahim says everyone isn’t counted during a census, but the midterm census left too many people out. He says the government must do its best to correct the data. If the 2021 data is used to create new constituencies, it will have the same outcome as 2015–more MPs in the regional stronghold of the party in power.
Umar Koroma, 30, Businessman, Aberdeen, Household of 15
30-year-old Umar Koroma is a businessman who lives with 14 other people in Aberdeen. When he is not home, there is a nanny. When he noticed no one had come to count them, he asked his neighbors if they had been counted. They hadn’t. In 2015 his household was counted. He says the provisional census data does not reflect the actual population of Sierra Leone. The data flaws are due to poor planning and enumerator ineffectiveness. As a Sierra Leonean living in Sierra Leone, he should have been counted. He worries that whatever plans use the 2021 data will exclude him. If the census data is accepted with its flaws as the accurate national count, then the census will harm the transparency of the 2023 elections. The discrepancy between the population as stated in this census data and the voter register in Freetown Urban will increase fears about overvoting and voter manipulation.
Mohamed Gandoh Jalloh, 28, Poultry Farmer, Allentown, Household 11
28-year-old Mohamed Gandoh Jalloh is a poultry farmer who lives with ten other adults and children in Allentown, Kissy. He says enumerators neither came to his house nor his community. Gandoh asked his neighbors if they had been counted, and they said no. When he heard the provisional census results, he was reminded of the issues highlighted by donors. He says he has friends who worked for Stats SL to supervise enumerators, and one of them confessed that they knew the data was inaccurate. In 2015 he was counted, and he felt included in national development. The government should cancel the census because it shouldn’t use inaccurate data. Gandoh says he feels he doesn’t belong in Sierra Leone because he was left out. The solutions, policies, and services that will be made based on the data exclude him.
While Statistics Sierra Leone has lost some credibility and public trust due to issues with the 2021 midterm census results, there is still time before the 2023 elections to take corrective measures. I do not know what those measures should be, but the first and most important is acknowledging that the midterm census was deeply flawed. If the purpose of the midterm census was to fix issues from 2015 or to get accurate and credible population data to inform national development––it failed. The results do not represent the current population of Western Area Urban (Freetown) and the rest of Sierra Leone.
Free, fair, and credible elections have been the cornerstone of Sierra Leone’s post-war transitional democracy for 21 years. Should the government ratify the midterm census, it will delegitimize the 2023 parliamentary and presidential elections. Citizens, civil society, and donors must encourage the government to reject the provisional midterm census results; to ensure that this government does not disenfranchise citizens from the elections. If we move forward with this midterm census data, we are excluding thousands of Sierra Leonean citizens from national planning and development.