World Population Day and Somalia’s Quest for Census

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Niyi Ojuolape

World Population Day is remembered and celebrated around the globe today. Generally, the commemoration draws our attention to the urgency and importance of population issues. Population count is central to human development. It determines where and how resources are allocated or distributed. It defines how these resources could be best utilised to meet the needs of people depending on who they are, where they live and what they do.

For us at UNFPA – the UN sexual and reproductive health agency, data and demographic information strongly matter. It is vital to deliver on our objectives effectively. Over the years, UNFPA has brought to bear its core competence in issues of data for population and development to sustain the narrative on rights and choices towards the lofty goal of creating a world of infinite possibilities. These possibilities become realisable when we recognise the usefulness of population and demographic data and harness it for crucial developmental needs.

On an encouraging note, a wave of population and housing censuses has swept through the African continent in the last five years. In North Africa, Egypt and Algeria held population censuses in 2017 and 2018, respectively. In East Africa, Kenya did so in 2019, and Rwanda had its fifth housing and population census in 2022. In West Africa, Ghana successfully conducted its sixth population census in 2021, and in Nigeria, talks about a 2023 population census are ongoing.

In Somalia, where I currently lead UNFPA’s country programme, the federal government has, with UNFPA’s support, announced plans to conduct a population and housing census in November 2024. This is a historic objective for Somalia, and the gains of seeing it through will be transformational. Remarkably, the census will be held 50 years after the country’s first and only successful census in 1974. The census will provide urgently needed information on population size and distribution in Somalia, and help identify the population most in need of services and where they live. Moreover, obtaining accurate data is central to democratic representation, national planning, protection of minority rights and other democratization agenda. Further, as Somalia grapples with climate-related challenges and displacement, the proposed census will enhance preventive and mitigation responses from government authorities and international relief efforts.

As part of our preparations for the census, a joint UNFPA and Somali government official delegation undertook a study tour of the Rwandan census experience in Kigali a few weeks back. Led by the Minister of Planning, the delegation comprised important Government officials whose offices will play a crucial role in the census process. Our objective on the visit was straightforward, and we achieved them. We wanted to understand their methods and what worked so well, how and why. We also wanted to be informed on the best tools for mobilising the required resources, sectors and actors to ensure success. It also enabled us to obtain information on the inter-ministerial and inter-agency collaborations vital to delivering a successful census. Rwanda provides a relatable case study for Somalia for several reasons. Apart from being the most recent country in Africa to hold a census, it also represents a veritable example of how post-conflict societies can set on the path to recovery.

Of the many lessons conveyed to us by Rwandan officials, one message particularly resonates with the delegation; the need to ensure that the census remained a top priority of the government. In my experience, a demonstrable commitment from the highest seat of government often helped galvanize local and international technical partners. It also creates the impetus for government funding and external resource mobilisation. Partnerships are also essential, and Somalia needs all the support it can get to prepare itself for the big occasion.

In light of the above, UNFPA has and will continue to support the Somali government as it prepares for the count. We recognise the need to harness the strength of a population by enabling people to live quality lives to the best of their abilities. Our mantra is anchored on supporting the 10-year-old girl in a world of 8 billion through a variety of means, mainly because this is fundamental to our mandate and how we view population and housing census. For Somalia, as it is in other places, the census will create the necessary conditions for the 10-year-old girl to thrive. That means becoming conscious of practices that keep women and girls out of school and limit their agency and ability to make decisions about their health and sexual and reproductive lives. When societies empower women and girls to exert autonomy over their lives and bodies, they and their families thrive. We are optimistic that the upcoming census will lead to a more inclusive Somalia, fully equipped to deal with whatever demographic changes the future holds.

That said, challenges are likely to arise along the way. Security remains a crucial worry due to locations where the government does not maintain complete control. However, technological solutions are being explored, with technical advisers, demographers and statisticians on hand to provide expert advice. Therefore, this special occasion of World Population Day should be a time for renewed commitment from the Somali government and all our partners to remain encouraged and committed to preparing for the census next year. Whatever the challenges this endeavour might entail, we are hopeful that we will, at the end of it all, be able to say: Veni, Vidi, Vici!

Ojuolape is the Country Representative of the United Nations Sexual and Reproductive Health Agency (UNFPA), Somßalia