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Nigeria Census Off to Slow Start

Nigeria's long-delayed head count has started rather sluggishly. Gilbert da Costa reports for VOA that logistical problems could be a major challenge to what authorities are hoping will be the most credible census in Nigeria.

President Olusegun Obasanjo, in a televised address, urged his countrymen not to see the poll as a contest for political supremacy.

He said far-reaching steps had been taken to enhance the credibility of the exercise.

"For the first time in the conduct of census in Nigeria, the 2006 census has employed such technology as the use of geographic positioning system, GPS, and satellite imageries," he said. "Consequently, for the first time, it will be possible to verify the extent of buildings and persons as enumerated during the census."

Hours into the exercise however, it became obvious that logistical challenges inherent in a vast, chaotic and impoverished country could be a major drawback.

My attempts to track down census field workers yielded no result, two hours into the exercise.

I drove to the Abuja office of the National Population Commission, where a large crowd of census officials were engaged in a heated argument with their director.

One of the agitated workers, Peter Ali, explained his predicament to VOA.

"After the training, we [were] supposed to have been paid for the training. Up till now, at least 75 percent of us have not been paid," he noted. "Many of us have not been posted to our E.A.s [enumeration areas] where we are supposed to work. We are supposed to have arrived at our E.A.s three days before today. We are supposed to be here 18th and today is 21st when the real enumeration has to take place. Up to today, as I am talking to you now, I do not even know where I am working."

Census director Abu Noah dismissed the protesters as gate crashers. He said though they were trained, they were not signed up as field workers.

"I got in touch with my controller and he had actually briefed me," he said. " And he said most of the people that are here, they were gate crashers at the initial stage of the training and at the end of the training, only a few of the gate crashers sailed through."

Asked to comment on the fact that most of the protesting field workers had identification cards issued by the commission, Mr. Noah could not provide a tangible response.

Independent census monitors have equally acknowledged that it had been a very difficult first day for the census in the capital city. Olu Wilson of the non-governmental organization, Life International Foundation, summed up her impressions.

"Things need to be cleaned up properly," she said. "Right now there is a lot of pandemonium going on, misinformation and those who have done things, they have not been given appropriate materials to work with and without that material and those people cannot go and do the counting. Those who have received their IDs have not been posted. So, all those things need to be looked into and make sure that at least by tomorrow, they would have gone into the act of doing the proper counting."

A clearer picture of day one of the census would emerge by the end of the day. Analysts say the authorities will have to work much faster and harder if they hope to achieve the credible census Nigerians have been yearning for.

Several previous censuses have ended in fiasco, after disputes among the main ethnic groups.

Concerns have been expressed that the credibility of the current census may be compromised by heightened political tension before elections next year.