Why Credible Census Matters in African States
Knowing how many residents in a country who are properly invested with civil responsibilities that accompany citizenship matters. There are strong reasons of late to agree that such civil exercise is more relevant in African states than elsewhere. One such important reason is the need to know who legitimately participated in plebicites of crucial national interest. The presence of ghost voters, illegal immigrant voters, and invented voters in Nigeria’s last presidential election is a phenomenon that continues to caste long shadows of doubt and legitimacy on election outcomes, and the process of internal resource allocation amongst various ethnic and social groups. The much touted beneficent attributes of modern technology to rectify known problems are only as useful as the humans who deploy them. In the case of Ethiopia’s census taking, the Economist is as lucid as it is helpful in making one of Africa’s enduring problems an issue to be taken seriously.
IN ETHIOPIA, Africa’s second most populous country, it is often difficult to distinguish politics from demography. On March 18th the government announced that the national census, due to begin one and a half years behind schedule on April 7th, would be postponed for a third time. It said that security concerns, especially in the south and west, made holding one almost impossible.
The count, which comes ahead of national elections scheduled for next year, was meant to be a showpiece of digital innovation, with census officials capturing data on touch tablets and transmitting it over mobile phone networks. Instead the delay has confirmed the toxic power of demography and numbers in Ethiopian politics.
When it finally happens, this will be only the fourth census in Ethiopia’s history. And every one of them has been contentious. The first, in 1984, could not be conducted in large parts of the country because of a civil war that was taking place at the time. The second, in 1994, came shortly before the introduction of ethnic federalism, by which Ethiopia was divided into regions that ostensibly followed ethnic boundaries. In the census all were made to choose an ethnicity, even though many Ethiopians are of mixed heritage.
The third, in 2007, was delayed because of unrest following disputed national elections two years earlier. The results of that count were questioned by leaders among the Amharas, the second largest ethnic group, who claimed that their people were undercounted by as many as 3m of about 20m.
The reason that counting people is so important to Ethiopia’s various ethnic groups is because it influences how much power and money they get. The formula calculating federal subsidies to the regions, for instance, takes population into account. So does the allocation of seats in Ethiopia’s upper parliamentary chamber, as well as the “political weight” that each group has in demanding ministries and posts in the federal government, notes Zemelak Ayele of Ethiopia’s Centre for Federal Studies. Some now argue that it should also influence representation in the politburo of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the multi-ethnic coalition that has ruled since it took power in 1991. Currently its four ethnically-based parties enjoy an equal voting share, regardless of large differences in their respective population size.
Questions over numbers are particularly sensitive given a shift in power within the EPRDF, which had long been dominated by Tigrayans, who make up only about 6% of the population. Abiy Ahmed, the prime minister, was swept to power a year ago on the back of rising discontent among members of the Oromo ethnicity, which makes up between one-third and, according to some Oromo activists, one-half of the population.
On the basis of demographics, Abiy’s Oromo faction boosted its representation across the federal government. For the first time in Ethiopian history Oromos now dominate the organs of state. Large numbers of Tigrayan officials have been purged, including from their former strongholds in the army and national intelligence agency.
Ethnic politics are also turning violent, at times. Activists from the Sidama tribe who are demanding the establishment of their own region forced some 2,500 people of other ethnicities from their homes in Hawassa last June. In Oromia almost 1m ethnic Gedeos were chased from their homes last year. This act of ethnic cleansing was fuelled in part by a belief among Oromos that Gedeos had become the largest ethnic group in the area and planned to annex it from Oromia. Meanwhile the regions of Amhara and Tigray battle over disputed territories along their shared border. “At root these are all conflicts over demographic representation,” says Kjetil Tronvoll of Bjorknes University College in Norway. “A census could directly contribute to ethnic cleansing.”
Some observers argue that, given the tensions, it makes sense to postpone the count. Unlike an election, which in theory could be conducted incrementally starting in more peaceful regions, the census must be carried out at once for it to be valid.
The results will be disputed regardless. “There is no trust in institutions,” notes Christophe Van der Beken, a professor at Addis Ababa University. In Amhara, where activists have campaigned against the census for months, rumours abound that the government is forcibly sterilising local women to suppress the number of Amhara people. “We believe numerical genocide will happen again,” says Dessalegn Chanie, the head of the National Movement of Amhara, a new opposition party. Meanwhile in the capital, Addis Ababa, many fear that the Oromo-led administration plans to alter the city’s demographics in favour of the Oromo. In a recent speech Lemma Mergersa, the regional president, said his government had resettled more than half a million Oromos around the city. “Politics in urban areas means ‘demography’,” he said.
Many see the delayed count as an early sign that next year’s election will be postponed too. Though it would be technically possible to hold an election without the results of the census beforehand, it would undermine the poll’s credibility. Ethiopia’s constituency map has not been redrawn since 1995, in which time the population has more than doubled. More to the point, many of the problems that plague the census will also bedevil the election. “If a government can’t deliver a census how can it deliver an election?” asks one local academic.
*Courtesy of The Economist.