Nigeria’s Bureau of Statistics is changing the narrative around the economy – By Joachim MacEbong

JoachimMacEbongMost people agree that there needs to be much more data on the Nigerian economy and society and that this data needs to be more accessible. The problem comes when this data appears to be in conflict with certain strongly held views borne out in the form of anecdotes.

Unfortunately, stories and personal experience cannot take the place of painstaking research (research often revealing anecdotes to be divorced from reality.) Sometimes, they can confirm such anecdotes but point to a slightly different problem and broaden the conversation in the process.

The reaction to the new unemployment statistics recently released by Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) is an example of this. The reduction in the official unemployment rate by more than 75 percent drew sharp criticism from labour leaders and civil society with some describing it as “delusionary” and “politically motivated”. This mindset stems from a long-held distrust of official statistics – the reduction being interpreted simply as a means to make the government of the day look good. The tendency then is to put more faith in figures brought forward by the World Bank, IMF, and other international organisations.

It also highlights the need for public enlightenment on the meaning of economic indices and statistics.

This major change to Nigeria’s unemployment figure is a result of re-defining what “˜unemployment’ means: Nigeria has now reduced the mark for unemployment from less than 40 hours a week, to less than 20 hours or more a week. The reason given by Dr Yemi Kale, Nigeria’s Statistician-General and head of the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), is that the previous methodology of tagging anyone who works less than 40 hours a week as “˜unemployed’ was incompatible with Nigeria’s economic reality. The International Labour Organisation’s mark for unemployment as being one hour or less per week was also deemed as being unrepresentative of Nigeria’s reality.

The result is that the unemployment percentage of 24.3% has been split in two, with 6.4% of the labour force working 20 hours or less per week (and hence deemed unemployed) and another 17.9% deemed “˜underemployed’ because they work between 20 and 39 hours per week.

The work of the NBS has changed the narrative around unemployment in Nigeria by adding another data point by which the incoming APC government can be assessed: A decrease in the number of the unemployed and underemployed, and a corresponding increase in those in full employment.

Dr. Kale is the same man who supervised the rebasing of Nigeria’s economy in April of last year, leading to a near doubling of its size. Since taking office in August 2011 he has set about increasing the capacity of the NBS to meaningfully contribute to national policy-making through publishing accurate statistics on the economy.

It was a job he was well prepared for. Kale holds a PhD in Economics from the London School of Economics and was formerly head of research at what is now known as Stanbic IBTC, one of Nigeria’s leading banks. He also served as an adviser to then Minister of Finance and later to the Minister of National Planning, before taking up the role at the NBS.

In his personal capacity, through his Twitter feed – @Sgyemikale – Kale has taken it upon himself to educate Nigerians on the meaning of the new unemployment statistics and clear up other misconceptions. Statistics may be a public good, but when operating in an environment where many struggle with advanced numerical concepts, his engagement is invaluable.

Much has been made of the lack of accurate statistics about many countries in Africa, Nigeria included. Throughout his tenure, the NBS under Kale has tried to close this gap, with limited resources, in order to provide policymakers with a more accurate version of reality and lead to improved decision making.

As such, the new government will do well to enhance the capacity of the Bureau through increased funding, moving the country away from reliance on statistics from international agencies and setting an example for others on the continent. Currently, its budget for capital expenditure is less than $4 million.

Should the Buhari government embark on the significant reforms as it has promised there will be a need to track the effects of these reforms on poverty and unemployment. This will be difficult without a strong statistical bureau that has the capacity to publish detailed and accurate statistics. In doing so, it can set up the NBS as a model for the statistical offices in other African countries.

Joseph MacEbong is a freelance writer, commentator and political analyst. He lives in Lagos.

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