The jury is still out on Sierra Leone’s Housing and Population Census


February 9, 2015 By Abu-bakarr Sheriff

Censuses have been held since biblical times for the purpose of counting men, their dependents and livestock. It goes without saying that the process of census should be guided by fairness and integrity, in order that the dual goals of development planning and boundary delimitation are maximized. The latter is political. In our polarized political landscape, where everything is seen from a political lens, it comes as no surprise that more interest is vested in the political gains than development benefits of undertaking a good census, acceptable to all.

Thus, it has come as no surprise that since the Institute of Governance Reform (IGR) released their report – The Credibility of the 2015 Census in Sierra Leone: Will All Heads be Counted? – on how Statistics Sierra Leone (SSL) are going about planning for the second census in the second republic, much of the debates, actions and reactions have been largely skewed towards politics.

For starters, the IGR was dismissed as troublemakers, as SSL staffers attempted to pooh-pooh the report, albeit without addressing the core merits therein. What is remiss in their dismissal of the IGR report though, and I make bold to state, is their brazen attempt to hide under the carpet serious issues about the process, not least staff recruited to conduct the census, members of the Census Secretariat and accountability and transparency issues.

Indeed, the IGR report recommended, inter-alia that, the Dr. M.P.G. Pepper report should be implemented, a dubious cartographic mapping, which had already been done, should be revisited, while recruitment of political apparatchiks, including some officials at the Census Secretariat, should be revisited, because they are either party activists or lack the benchmark qualification sanctioned by the Statistics Council for the posts in question.

Granted, a postponement was recommended by the IGR. But to postpone the census until December and not act on the latent and manifest issues raised by the IGR and a coalition of political parties, would only serve as palliative to a process which credibility hands in the balance. Or put mildly, a process which the jury is still out on.

That said, government deserves commendation for acting just in time to postpone the census until December. However, the current administration has more than just a point to prove that the decision was not solely informed by political considerations.

I say this because the hinted two years extension or “injury time” as one columnist calls it, doesn’t come from the blues. Talks about tenure elongation in favor of the incumbent president had dominated many fora prior to the current Ebola outbreak.

While I would admit they were just rumors, you would agree with me that some rumors eventually turn out to be true. A thorough analysis of the State House release can be instructive in that respect.

Firstly, instead of postponing the census for four months, as was previously the case, this latest postponement is for eight months, until December 2015! Secondly, while assuring that this latest postponement would in no way compromise the integrity of the census, it went on to say that the results will only be available by December 2016.

However, what the terse release from State House failed to elucidate is whether other recommendations proffered by the IDR, DFID and the disbanded Statistic Council will be addressed between now and December. Put simply, the census is postponed both as a result of the outbreak and flaws identified in the process so far. Hence, the Ebola outbreak should not be the sole reason espoused for the postponement.

Otherwise, one will be left with a feeling that this is all a dress rehearsal to a hideous plot to extend the constitutional five years term of the president, given that some bizarre reasons have been touted for the Pa to be given more time to “do more” as he had promised in 2012.

If arguably the December 2016 date would accord SSL to do a good job, including revisiting those controversial cartographic mapping and enumeration of census areas, suggestions that elections should be postponed beyond 2018 do not only illuminate the bizarre, but a disingenuous intent to manipulate a constitutional provision, with a calculated aim to subvert the smooth democratic process this country has enjoyed since 1996.

Section 38 of the 1991 constitution – authored by one-party proponents who were more pressed for democratic reform and less inspired by it – stipulates that a census should be conducted within an interval of not less than five years or not more than seven years. Like many clauses in the said constitution, this section which is being bandied as justification for a controversial “injury time” for the current administration, has its ambiguity, as expressed in the proviso.

Be that as it may, the question is why didn’t the government or SSL push for a census in 2013, exactly seven years after the publication of the 2004 census on Thursday, 24 February 2006. If as some suggest that we cannot violate our constitution, then our next census should have been in December 2013, more than seven years after the publication of the last census result.

Besides, why would it take the National Electoral Commission (NEC) two years to do boundary delimitation, as some people have suggested? NEC can do boundary and constituency delimitation, provided there is proper planning and coordination within six months, unless there is a covert plan to delay the process in order to benefit certain people. Thus, where there is genuine intent to do a transparent and fair job, we can achieve both feat by mid or late 2017, and still go on to do our elections in 2018.

What nobody has mentioned in this debate is Local Council elections which are due to be conducted in 2016. Are those campaigning for tenure elongation also suggesting that mayors, chairmen and councilors should remain in office until 2020, an additional four more years into their tenure, until the census results are out and wards are demarcated?

The above is indicative of how and why a so-called “injury or extra time” is untenable, not least in the current health and economic circumstance. The fact is, we can complete the census and boundary/constituency delimitation within two years and still have time to conduct elections in 2018.

Calls that an “injury time” or “extra time” should be awarded because of the Ebola epidemic, which like the civil war, made it practically impossible to access large swathe of areas in the country, are nonstarter. This is simply because, during the current outbreak, despite the debilitating effects on all of us, the president has continued to serve the country, traversing all the twelve districts. And if anything, a president is elected to serve both in good and bad times, which sums up his “whole” leadership credentials.

Lastly, any attempt to link the above with the constitutional review process is not only disingenuous but also puerile, as there is no way one can postpone elections until a referendum on a new constitution is complete. Well, unless there is some grand sinister plot to compromise the process for the benefit of one man and his lackeys. Thankfully, State House has issued a statement to the effect that that process should be complete by March 2016 – two years before elections are due in 2018.

What is clear in our latest constitutional quandary is that Sierra Leone is in desperate need of a progressive constitution, like the Kenyan Constitution of 2010, which succinctly and precisely, without deliberate ambiguity, answers questions of elections, census, etc., and is vividly clear on no third term or “injury time” for the president – Moi Kibaki – who had served his two terms prior to the new constitution coming into effect.

That said, the jury is still out on the census process, as postponement without addressing current flaws, will be a waste of resources. As well as stifle our development aspirations for decades.