Nigeria excludes tribe, religion from census

Lagos, Nigeria - Nigeria will exclude religion and ethnicity from the questionnaire for a long-overdue census in Africa's most populous country in November, the organiser said on Monday, prompting boycott threats from interest groups.

Religion and ethnicity are potentially explosive issues in multi-ethnic, multi-religious Nigeria, where more than 11,000 people have died in sectarian and communal violence since it returned to democracy in 1999 after 15 years of military rule.

"Religion and ethnicity will not be included in the 2005 questionnaire, as was the case in 1991," National Population Commission chairman Samaila Makama said on national television.

Muslim and Christian groups, each claiming numerical superiority, and at least one major ethnic group, have threatened to boycott the census -- a potential blow to its credibility -- unless the government reviews its position.

"Christians will not get involved unless religion and ethnicity are brought back in," said Samuel Salifu, general secretary of the Christian Association of Nigeria.

In addition to the religious rivalry, censuses have been controversial since the 1960s in Nigeria because population is the yardstick used to decide political representation and to allocate state oil revenues.

The World Bank estimates Nigeria's population stood at 136 million in 2003, Africa's largest, but this was based on the last head count in 1991, the only credible census since independence from Britain in 1960.

The census is due to take place between Nov. 29 and Dec. 3, after a successful trial head count last week. It was originally slated for 2001, but was first deferred to 2002, then to 2003 when it was again postponed due to impending general elections.

Head counts in 1963 and 1973 were cancelled after wrangling over the figures among Nigeria's three main ethnic groups inflamed political and religious tensions in the oil exporting nation.

It was former military leader General Ibrahim Babangida who first decided to remove religion and ethnicity from the 1991 census questionnaire, a decision that produced Nigeria's most credible head count.

Makama said 34.5 billion ($266 million) would be spent on the 2005 census, with more than half the funds coming from the European Union and international agencies. The government will provide the balance.

The final results of the census are expected to be ready around mid-2006 and the government has said the figures would be used by the Independent National Electoral Commission in the delimitation of constituencies for the 2007 general elections.