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A TYRANNICAL BUREAU OF STATISTICS?

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Reliable statistical information is one of the most difficult things to come across in Nigeria, a bane of the development process, for without proper data, planning becomes difficult. This is so despite the existence of a National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), a government agency that obviously takes itself seriously and which claims to provide useful statistical data. Nonetheless, anyone who has had to make use of data in Nigeria would readily note that a big problem has been the integrity of published statistical data. Often, NBS data conflict with similar data provided by the World Health Organization, the World Bank, The African Development Bank (AFDB), the Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU) or local financial intelligence firms on growth processes in Nigeria and sub-Saharan Africa such that the average researcher is thrown into confusion.

The simple test that I often apply when statisticians and economists quote abstract figures as evidence of growth therefore, is to look at the environment and ask: is there improved prosperity? Has the price of garri gone up or down? Is the unemployment queue shorter or longer? Is the real sector growing or declining? Has there been an improvement in the country’s trade balances? How reliable is the statistics being quoted when measured against aggregate indices? I resolved long ago that only Nigerian statisticians and economists understand the figures they advertise, for when we are told that China has overtaken Japan as the second largest economy in the world and that by 2030, it may be the biggest economy in the world, the evidence is so real, even the Americans and the Japanese can see it. In Nigeria, not even the population statistics we quote is universally accepted.

This subject engaged my attention afresh with the publication on Wednesday July 21, 2010 in the Punch newspaper at page 71 and on Friday, July 23 in The Guardian at page 10, of an advertorial by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) titled "References to Nigeria’s Official Statistics". It is a curious piece laden with threats, undue arrogance and such intimation of tyranny that is at variance with democratic culture. The NBS in the advertorial objects to two stories published in BusinessDay newspaper (16 -18 July) and ThisDay (July 14) titled respectively, "FG’s 7% growth report questioned" and "7.2% GDP growth doubtful-Rewane."

The BusinessDay story begins with the annual report by the National Bureau of Statistics in which it is claimed that the Nigerian economy has grown by 7.2% in the first quarter of 2010, with the caveat that experts disagree with this summation because in their view, "it is illogical for the economy to have grown by such magnitude when the components that drive the economy are looking downward." The experts quoted subsequently are Bismarck Rewane, "renowned economist and chief executive officer of Financial Derivatives Company (FDC)," Okechukwu Unegbu, "former President of the Chartered Institute of Bankers (CIBN)," and Thomson Okoli, "a manufacturer of polythene products." The ThisDay story quotes Bismarck Rewane at length and refers to his Monthly Economy Report for July 2010" – apparently a publication of the FDC.

For merely expressing a contrary opinion, questioning the integrity of its data, the NBS took on these gentlemen. It makes assertions and issues threats which can be closely questioned. The NBS advises the public to note that it is the "custodian of Nigeria Official Statistics conferred by statute, The Statistics Act, 2007." It then adds: "The National Bureau of Statistics notes with dismay, the behaviour of some senior citizens and corporate bodies in the challenge and miss use (sic) of Nigeria’s Official Statistical Information released by the Bureau.

All over the civilized world, National Statistics Offices release key macro economic and social indicators periodically for policy and informed debate." But the NBS is merely contradicting itself here, if it is actually interested in "debate" and "constructive engagement, collaboration, and cooperation" (as in paragraph 4), it would not have bothered to issue its abusive response, in which it further says it "wishes to chronicle the fact that Nigeria is one country where there is a very high level of ignorance among highly placed individuals who allow group or special interest to becloud their civility in challenging and misusing Nigeria official statistics". And here is the clincher, the threat of prosecution: "Henceforth, NBS will invoke the relevant sections of the enabling law of the Statistics Act 2007 which empowers the Bureau to prosecute anyone who releases data that is at variance with the Official statistics produced by NBS and who deliberately apply negative imputations and application of official statistics released by NBS…" The advert further contains statistics on "sectoral contribution and growth rate" for 2009 and 2010 first quarter.

That the NBS has to engage in this public somersault and display of intolerance is shameful, its exertions are insensitive and utterly self-contradictory. It is instructive that the NBS does not quote any specific section of The Statistics Act 2007 which empowers it to prosecute anyone that disagrees with it, for it does not have such powers. There are references to offences and penalties in the said Act, at Section 28 specifically but this deals only with release of unauthorized official statistics by government employees or failure to allow the Bureau access to needed statistics in the course of its work or the deliberate furnishing of false information to mislead it.

Section 25 deals with the responsibilities of "private Nigerian institutions" requiring such institutions seeking to conduct statistical surveys "on a national scale going beyond their market studies" to obtain the approval of the NBS. If such approval is not sought, there is no penalty indicated. And there is nothing in the Act which grants the NBS the kind of monopoly of wisdom which it claims in its advert under review, nor any clause which forbids public discussions of its reports. What the experts whose views riled the NBS have done is merely to express an opinion. We note with dismay that the NBS leadership is probably not aware that the right to hold and express an opinion is a Constitutional right, properly spelled out in Section 39 of the 1999 Constitution. It is an elementary fact that no statute can be superior to the Constitution.

To say that the NBS is lying with statistics in its latest report is "fair comment," and not a crime. Even decisions of court by learned Justices can be discussed by both laymen and experts alike who have an opinion to express and that does not constitute an offence either. One does not need to be an economist or a statistician to question the integrity of the statistics provided by the NBS in its report. The claims about growth in the agriculture sector is strange, the celebration of growth in merchandise trade, in the face of massive distortions in the real sector betrays poverty of analysis. The absolute growth rates in the statistical table suggest that in the first quarter of 2010, Nigeria’s GDP growth rate is higher than the sub-saharan average, and even much higher than the global GDP growth rate for the same period. It is noteworthy that the highest percentage growth rate is recorded in Telecommunication and Post, the only sector of the economy that appears to be growing consistently. What in real terms does that growth entail?

Claims of growth that are not borne out by empirical evidence amount to an exercise not in research but voodoo. 7.2% in the first quarter of 2010, at a time when the cost of living has risen, external debt increased, no growth has been recorded in terms of infrastructure, exports are low except in the extractive industry, the country is import-dependent, the people are groaning under the weight of excruciating poverty, and little value has been added to their lives. Positive GDP growth rates are meaningful only when they are sustainable, to the extent that they translate into real growth in terms of reduction in poverty and improved quality of life. The emphasis should be on quality, not abstract figures. In Nigeria, misleading statistical data is obviously responsible for the confusion in the management of monetary and fiscal policies and everything else; when statistical data is used to mask realities, the statistical office raises doubts about its own methodology and concerns about the likely politicization of its effort. This latter point has been borne out more graphically with regard to population census in Nigeria which till tomorrow is doubted, even if the "official custodians" claim the kind of righteousness that has been exhibited by the Bureau of Statistics.

Beyond statistics, the subsisting challenge is for the "official custodians" of Nigeria to direct more energy to the objective of good governance in order to reduce the economic inequalities, translated into social tension and national insecurity, which claims of economic growth are designed to deny. The National Bureau of Statistics, instead of throwing tantrums in response to criticisms should learn to be tolerant; "all over the civilized world", such criticisms are taken as wake up calls for a re-assessment of methodology rather than an excuse for the deployment of abuse and threats. Ironically, this same NBS announced this week that it made a mistake with the inflation rate for June 2010: 14.1% not the 10.3% it had previously announced- a frightening revelation indeed.

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