AfricaEthiopiaEthiopia in transitionEthiopia's 2019 censusIn-Depth AnalysisTopic of the Month

In-depth analysis: The postponement of the 4th Ethiopian census: Was it justified and what next?

Yohannes Kinfu (PHD), for Addis Standard

Addis Abeba, April 05/2019 – The coming Sunday, the 7th of April 2019, was meant to be the census date for Ethiopia’s 4th population and housing census (henceforth the census), but the federal government has postponed it indefinitely three weeks ago, on March 18, citing security reasons.  A few days later, on March 28th, Abraham Tekeste , Tigray Regional State’s urban Development, Trade & Industry bureau head with a rank of vice president, stated the region’s protest against the postponement arguing that despite the problems the census should still have gone ahead as planned.

These developments pose series of questions for an inquisitive mind. Was the challenge justified? Could the country have conducted a credible census given its circumstances? Are the reasons for and against postponing the census exhaustive and encompass all potential concerns? More specifically, were there other additional factors deserving reflection? If so, what are those factors and what remedial steps should be taken when the country is ready to conduct its next census.

But first why do we need a census, what for?

Censuses conducted on regular basis allow a nation to discharge its human right, governance and development obligations. Simply put, if services and facilities are to be developed in the right location at the right time and for the intended population group, then accurate population number is vital. In the era of ‘one man-one vote’, the dominant political philosophy of our era, getting counted is also more than a question of access to services; it is an integral element of one’s fundamental human right. “Leave No One Behind”, the motto of the UN Sustainable Development Goal, means that counting – and accounting for – individuals is also central to attaining international obligations.

In all parts of the globe marginalized individuals (and groups) are either grossly miscounted, deliberately blurred or entirely left out of census counts. Statistical marginalization in national censuses is an effective indicator and a manifestation of implicit and explicit ‘social marginalization’.  In short, if your ‘visibility’ is blurred or you are left out of census count because of the lapse on the part of the State, the State is effectively telling you that you don’t count. This is how much a census is important. It is about visibility, representation and individual rights. On the part of States, conducting a credible census is a huge social and legal responsibility; it is very much like conducting credible elections, because the consequences are gigantic.

Key pre-conditions of a census

Whilst a census is an administrative exercise, there are well established principles governing its conduct. Censuses are expected to be universal (meaning each individual and each set of living quarters is enumerated); periodic (meaning censuses are to be conducted in regular interval) and meet the criteria of simultaneity (meaning each individual and each set of living quarters should be enumerated as of the same well-defined point in time).

To ensure completeness, most countries have a census and statistics Act that governs the collection and operation of national censuses. In some countries (such as Australia) prosecution may occur for obstruction of the execution of census operations or for refusal to respond to questions asked in the census. However, even in such instances, exceptions apply, such as those related to identity related questions. For example, the Census and Statistics Act of Australia (1905), states that no person shall be liable to any penalty for omitting or refusing to state the religious denomination or sect to which he belongs or adheres.

To postpone or not to postpone, and other untold stories

The decision to postpone the census by the Census Commission was challenged by the administration in Tigray on many fronts: “legal/constitutional”, inability to exercise state power, erosion of credibility in the eyes of ‘others’ (in this case census partners) and resource ‘wastage’. On the other hand, the Census Commission’s position on the postponement of the census was fundamentally anchored on its assessment of the conditions on the ground, particularly the ‘peace factor’.  I will review the validity (or otherwise) of both sides sequentially, in no particular order. This is followed by a brief overview of other factors that I feel would have had serious implications if the census were to take place as originally planned and deserve attention in any future census operation.

By its nature, census is among one of the most complex and massive peace time exercise a nation can undertake. It requires a peaceful and stable environment to ensure everyone is counted and counted at the same nationally defined point in time.  The task becomes bigger or even impossible to handle in fragile and unstable conditions because a national census needs a nation’s undivided attention and careful planning executed across years.  One thing we could all agree is, this is hardly a time of peace, even by “Ethiopian standards”. All regions of the country are virtually confronted by some form of actual or potential instability. As we speak, the so-called Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s region, among the country’s largest, is effectively under military command while more than two million Ethiopians are currently internally displaced and spread all over the country.  Abraham Tekeste of Tigray regional state didn’t explain how these clearly visible challenges could have been resolved in the shortest time possible for the census operation to go ahead as planned.  However, we do know that peace cannot be imposed, even by the strongest of all nations on earth. It is a by-product of institutions created for and by the people. In the Ethiopian case, the current instability is a direct result of the mistakes and residual deficits of the immediate past. Fixing these institutional failures require the state’s undivided attention and a longer time than the few days that were available before the launch of the census.

That said, if the census were to take place as propagated by the Tigray regional state administration, the administration and execution would have created a nightmare for the Census Commission. First, they would have to overcome the technical and logistical difficulties associated with counting a huge displaced and potentially mobile population. While much of the theory on how to count mobile populations are known to students of demography and official statistics, actual implementation of required strategies would need careful planning and adequate time for preparation and testing of approaches, which was not available for the Census Commission. Let us say for argument’s sake, it was possible to fit in these activities somehow, but then we do know that displaced people usually have a multitude of concerns, of which participating in the census would be the least of their priorities. Suspicion of state agents involved in the counting exercise could also lead to erroneous responses or deliberate self-exclusion from the census. In addition, some places could have also become inaccessible and subject to being left out of the census and/or risk of not being covered at the same time as the rest of the country, violating the principles of universality and simultaneity of the census. Further, given the instability, the possibility for the census operation instigating further tension and conflict, even violence and new waves of displacement cannot be ruled out. Together, these would have raised coverage related issues as fewer people get captured, but more importantly may have over stretched the capacity of the state to maintain peace and stability over an extended area. A failure in this front means, endangering the stability of the country, not to mention of the entire region. Viewed from these positions, the decision to postpone would look rather pragmatic and by no means suggests “inability of the state to exercise its power.”

The basis for the alleged “violation of the country’s constitution or its legal framework” rests on Chapter 11, article 103/5 of the constitution, which stipulates that “a national population census shall be conducted every ten years”. However, few points need emphasis here. To begin with, although it is an ideal scenario, only a limited number of high- and middle-income countries, particularly those with long and established tradition of census taking, have been able to conduct their censuses at exactly 10 years apart from each other. In the case of Ethiopia, the 2007 census was, for example, conducted three years after it was supposed to be originally conducted. In 1994, the census operation was also carried out in pastoral regions long after in other parts of the country. Moreover, the 4th population and housing census, which is in question now, was originally scheduled for November 2017, which was then postponed to February 2017, and then changed to November 2018, and subsequently re-scheduled for April 7, 2019 before it was finally cancelled altogether. All these changes, except the most recent cancellation had happened when TPLF was on the driving seat of the political space in the country as it was in the other two censuses conducted in 1994 and 2007, which also did not meet the “constitutional” requirements. Yet, there is no evidence that I know (direct or implied), if a protest was registered, if ever, by the same quarter in earlier instances, which brings the validity of the ‘constitutional’ argument into a serious doubt.  That said, the most visible and fundamental evidence of constitutional crisis in Ethiopia and for Ethiopians (than the issue of adherence to the timing of the country’s census operations) has been and remains to be the implementation of core chapters related to individual rights, and more importantly the very constitution itself, which requires alignment with 21st century values. This is not of course to say that census periodicity should not be maintained, it is to indicate that the ‘constitutional’ argument was a political game, and a case of misplaced priority given the scale of other challenges, most of which, as a matter of fact, are the makings of the TPLF itself.

Further point against the postponement of the census focused on erosion of credibility in the eyes of external players, but this again misses the importance and very purpose of the census exercise itself.  First and foremost, countries do not plan and execute censuses to gain credibility from others; they do it because censuses meet their national needs and are a legal requirement as alluded to earlier.  That said, credibility emanates from conducting high-quality census in line with fundamental principles of official statistics. Credibility does not come from just conducting a census anyhow.  Let us dig rather a little deeper to highlight more serious and substantive issues that would have errored the credibility of the census, if it had gone as previously planned.

Like a successful national or local election, conducting credible census requires public confidence and full participation in the census. To this end, census experts and students of demography consider confidentiality as a crucial component of any successful census, in line with UN recommendations on census operations. A personal discussion with persons familiar with the operations of the census at CSA (during my brief visit to the Capital last December) revealed that INSA (the country’s intelligence and security agency) was going to oversee data management and security related aspects of the census. The rationale for this, as I was told, was that the census exercise was a ‘national security issue’ and not a ‘matter to be left to ‘outsiders’.  However, involving INSA in the census operation would have errored the credibility of the census immensely more than the postponement of the census itself.

For one, in any country, in countries like Ethiopia where its security/intelligence agency is marred by credibility and trust concerns, aligning the census operation with such agency would have ended up only fueling further distrust and obstructing census participation.  Second, INSA has no prior experience for the kind of exercise that it was mandated to undertake. As far as the public knows, any remotely related work that the agency may have done was in relation to allocation of apartments in the capital city, and this has been stained by controversies to say the least. Finally, from what was seen, there was no mechanism to enforce transparency in the activities of INSA, which, together with the point discussed above, would have led to serious concerns over the quality of the census output, both inside and outside of the country, and among citizens and the research community alike. 

A second and related factor that would have overshadowed the credibility of the census was the effect of what may be termed as the ‘politicization of the census’. Ideally, the Census Commission and the Central Statistical Agency (CSA) should have been the face of the census operation, with their activities insulated from undue interference. However, this was not the case in Ethiopia as it was seen from the multiple references that the census had received in high level political meetings and from the very fact that the census had been linked to the upcoming election. The situation was further complicated by the politics of identity prevailing in the country. The unintended consequence of identity politics and over politicization of the census is that they can easily lead to census misconduct as regions and local authorities’ get tempted to use the opportunity to ‘exaggerate’ their visibility in the national space. Given ongoing ‘land claims’ in almost all regions, it is also plausible that census numbers for some population groups could have been deliberately and easily manipulated by local authorities to justify continued ‘ownership’ or claim new territories. Even without this, population groups residing in contested areas or ‘outside of their home region’ (for lack of better phrase) could choose to misidentify their identity or choose to skip the census altogether for fear of being targeted by local politically vocal groups.  The call for boycotting the census made by some quarters and the appointment of political representatives in the Census Commission would have further compromised the credibility of the census.

Hence, with all these contextual factors operating in the back ground, the decision to postpone the census appear to be the best outcome for the country.  It is true that until the time of cancellation a substantial amount of resources had been put in census operations. While part of this would remain “wasted” some (such as the census maps, training manuals etc) can be brought to good use in future with limited additional investment. That said, what should not be lost in cost-benefit calculations of public investment is the indirect costs and benefits as well as the opportunity cost and welfare gains or losses that are not necessarily measured in monetary terms. In the case of the census, we can certainly count the benefits of avoiding instability, the additional benefit of avoiding the possibility of not being able to carry out any credible census in future because of erosion of trust and fear of being victimized as part of indirect social welfare gain derived from the postponement of the census as opposed to rolling it out it as planned. 

Next steps for consideration

The country should still aim at conducting the next census as soon as the conditions for a credible census are in place, but preparations should continue unabated.  Consultations and close collaboration with census partners such as UNFPA, ECA, the US Bureau of the Census, ISTAT (Italian Institute of National Statistics) or the UK Office of National Statistics should also remain active.

Second, the country should legislate strong Census and Statistics Act to ensure that census operations are cushioned from all forms of interference. Such an Act can stipulate the responsibilities of citizens to participate in the national census and consider imposing legal liabilities on those that would obstruct census operations. Such framework should also outlaw calls for census boycott and create mechanism for prosecution of those found guilty of census falsification, with no statutory limit. It should also outline the questions that should and should not be asked in the census and create a data commissioner responsible for managing the integrity of the census and similar public data.

Census operation and evidence creation should be viewed as part of institution building in the same way as our court and legal system.  No country can conduct a credible census by degrading its national statistical institutions. The CSA and the Census Commission, supported by census advisors, should be offered independence and needed professional space to drive census operations. The Census Commission itself may need to be re-constituted as an independent professional body, more like the way the electoral commission has been, bringing on board those who are committed to population science, have stone-like integrity and the highest standard of competence in the field.  Politicians of all colours should learn to be cautious about statements they make on census matters because if not carefully handled the mistakes could mean that the country may never have a census for a long time to come.  Similarly, it is also important that just as they claim to be committed to free and fair elections, politicians of all ‘faith’ should commit themselves to positively contribute to a census that is free from all forms of political interference, and face the full force of the law should they violate the census and statistics act to be developed in future.

The issues around identity and politics and their interface with census operations are complex and there are no easy answers. However, one way to get around this issue is to remove the ‘ethnicity’ or identity related questions from the census altogether, and there are countries that have taken this route. France and Tanzania are examples of this where asking identity related questions are illegal. Nigeria had included ethnicity and religion in its earlier census but decided to remove it in 1991 and the subsequent census, after its 1973 census, which included these questions led to impractical results. Some groups disapprove the removal of the questions arguing that identity related questions can help identify marginalization, help groups to develop their culture and improve representation in national politics. However, given current context in Ethiopia, and the heightened social tension linked to ethnicity, removing identity related questions may help the country generate a credible census than having it in. The lower house of parliament does not require numbers by ethnicity, nor that countries usually prepare their national plans by ethnicity. From a statistical/demographic techniques point of view, it is also “tricky” to monitor changes in population size by ethnic origin than by place of residence. That said, national sample surveys should be encouraged to continue collecting data on ethnicity and religion and other socio-demographic markers. Such data are vital to identify socio-economic and health inequalities and devise policies to manage gaps, if any.

In countries like Ethiopia where identity and the politics of number has the potential to threaten census operations an additional counter measure for restoring census credibility is to invite ‘census monitors’ into the country. These are more like election monitors only that in this case instead of ambassadors  and other dignitaries, they would be trained demographers with experience and expertise in the science of census operations who will monitor the entire census operation (i.e. staff training, adequacy of tools, accuracy of census maps, census taking during enumeration, quality of census supervision, data reporting back to central station, preliminary census outputs etc.) against international standards and best practices.  The country could seek assistance from the Union of African Population Scientists (UAPS), UNFPA, the Statistical division of the ECA or its census development partners, among others, to identify relevant individuals or groups for the task. Another approach is for National Planning Commission (NPC) to issue international tender and invite successful groups and companies to undertake the monitoring task.  Both approaches have been used in the past in several African countries (including Nigeria) and the involvement of monitors is seen to be vital in improving census credibility in polarized environments as it enhances transparency and accountability.

Finally, INSA should be removed from any future census operation in the country and required services should be purchased from private companies to be recruited from national or international market. Apart from addressing the issue of transparency and privacy concerns attributed to INSA, the use of a tested private firm will enable the country to handle any technical challenge that may arise during the operation with greater efficiency and competence. A national census is a huge project, not a place for experiment.

Hand in hand with the suggested views, CSA should continually endeavor to implement effective data quality assurance mechanisms during data collection and processing stages, and at the same time assembling a team of experts to undertake comprehensive post-census data quality validation exercise before results are released to the public. These activities need also to be complemented by a robust post enumeration survey (PES) that would help identify potential coverage and content errors in the main census exercise. AS


Yohannes Kinfu

Editori’s Note: Yohannes Kinfu (PHD) is a demographer and economist by training. He is currently affiliated with academic and research institutions in Australia and the USA.

Author’s disclaimer: The views expressed remain his and do not represent or reflect the institutions he is affiliated with.  For comments, feedback and follow-up queries:

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