Nigerian Numbers

Oct 10, 2015|Wale Lawal

Around an hour spent observing how Nigerians interact on the Internet always promises to give, before the end of one’s inquest, new meaning to the performance of Nigerian society. My port of entry into the Nigerian district of the global cyber-sphere is Twitter. I barely use Facebook, I quit Snapchat days after I joined, and I maintain a rather distant albeit active profile on Instagram. Twitter allows me to monitor social behaviour, and I focus almost entirely on Nigerians. There are around two million active Nigerians on Twitter, and one can, if needed, even narrow interest to tweets from or topics related to two cities, Abuja and Lagos. 

Modern civilisation trusts, reveres and, perhaps, even fetishizes numbers. On Twitter, numbers lend to a kind of virtual authority. Governance by numbers is evidenced by the positive feedback of retweets and followings. Statistically speaking, the more retweets a tweet gets the more likely it is that the same tweet will be retweeted by other users in the future. But, more importantly, the more retweets underneath a statement, the more inclined users feel to accept that statement as true or valid. One finds, for this reason, a growing number of users who attach to their profiles the caveat, “RTs are not endorsements”. 

Numbers operate authoritatively on the Internet and, by extension, imitation, or reverse imitation, in real life. Elections are not won by the faces of voters but by numbers; numbers make the world more governable and, for this reason, they are capable of gaining humanity’s trust. Hardly do we need to think of money in wads, bags or stacks, when such money, wealth at its most basic level, is already summarised, electronically, as simple numeric digits. You do not need to see the actual notes in your bank account to believe how much there is to your name. You simply need to trust the set of numbers you see, periodically, on a bank statement or across an ATM screen. Numbers determine purchasing power: this is the gospel of the Central Bank’s cashless economy. Quiet as it’s kept. 

The Ghosts of Numerical Nigeria 

In the early 1950s, Nigeria was among several African countries that were the landing sites of large-scale statistical “missions”. Earlier, in the 1930s, the economists, Simon Kuznets and Colin Clark, had each pioneered systems of national accounting in the United States and Britain, respectively. Estimating Nigeria’s national income, what would become one of the earliest official estimates of Nigeria’s GDP, was a task assigned to two statisticians, A. R. Prest and I. G. Stewart, remembered now for their infamous, radical approach to quantifying Nigerian economic activities; specifically, for including in their measurements, as a component of household economic activities, bride-prices. 

When, in 1960, Wolfgang F. Stopler, the American economist tasked with designing Nigeria’s first National Development Plan, arrived, he met a soon-to-be-independent country within which there existed, already, considerable statistical activity but not enough statistics to immediately feed into an economic plan. In fact, he would write about this period of his life in a book titled, Planning Without Facts. Perhaps Stopler’s most crucial observation during his time in Nigeria was that there also existed, partly as a result of the statistical deficit, a cognitive gap between the Nigerian macroeconomy and Nigerian reality. Stopler’s mission in Nigeria would take an evangelical turn, would require that he propagate among Nigerians, a new way of thinking about Nigeria – that is, thinking of Nigeria as not only one nation (as opposed to the three federations he met), but also as a macroeconomic unit. Reflecting in a diary he kept while in Nigeria, on some advice he had received about Nigeria, Stopler wrote: “Data simply do not exist... you will be accused of giving bad advice, or of being deliberately misleading.” 

Quantum Macroeconomics: New Nigerian Geography 

In On Exactitude in Science, Jorge Luis Borges writes about the struggle between a map and the reality the map has been drawn to capture. The cartographers of Borges’ maps, obsessed with accuracy, build a map that is the exact replica – dimensions notwithstanding – of the Empire it describes. The map, as one can imagine, is enormous, vast, and useless. National accounts operate like maps. They are quasi-cartographic in that they enable cognition and navigation of the macroeconomy. National accounts follow, therefore, a similar cartographic principle: in order to be useful, they are made to capture not all but select aspects, in this case, the measurable economic aspects, of reality. 

Using numbers, national accounts abstract from reality and generate new kinds of visibility: they allow us to visualise the macroeconomy, which otherwise goes unseen. National accounts can, however, also struggle with the reality they have been designed to capture. By 2014, it had become general knowledge that the accounting behind Nigeria’s national income was obsolete. The country was relying on numbers from a 1990 base year, which could no longer sufficiently portray its macroeconomic terrain – meaning analysts, investors, policymakers and students, had all been navigating the Nigerian economy blind. 

Interesting, too, were the reactions to the consequent GDP rebasing process, which the National Bureau of Statistics supervised. Rebasing saw, fundamentally, the replacement of 1990 with 2010 as the base year and, afterwards, a quantum leap of the Nigerian economy into becoming the largest economy in Africa. Public opinion echoed both domestic and international scepticism; there were perhaps more doubts expressed than congratulations on surpassing South Africa. World Bank Economist, Shantayanan Devarajan, had published, Africa’s Statistical Tragedy. I remember reading on Twitter, “The Nigerian economy has doubled in size overnight, but my pocket has not.” 

The Era of New Numbers 

I take to Twitter, once more. I perform a quick search that lands me on the user account of the Statistician General of the National Bureau of Statistics. His is one of the rare professional Twitter accounts that uniquely balance online formality with a dynamic personality. Not long after, I happen on a conversation between the Statistician General and another Twitter user, on Nigeria’s current unemployment figures. This exchange takes place several months after the Bureau announced revisions to the measurement of unemployment that have since seen the placement of underemployment at the fore of labour market issues. The Statistician finds himself explaining to a disbelieving interlocutor that unemployment figures have not been deliberately or politically understated, but that the numbers are simply what they are at just over six percent. Further along, I find that there are several conversations like this one. In each conversation, I sense that the tension arises between the participants because where the Bureau takes a descriptive standpoint, public opinion on Nigeria’s numbers is prescriptive. The Bureau says “the numbers are”, and the public responds, “but the numbers should be…” 

Governance by numbers requires trust; on Twitter, we trust certain numbers perhaps only because behind those numbers are people which have, over time, established some degree of credibility. In real life, our trust in numbers is derived from what faith we have in the institutions responsible for those numbers. In all places, credibility takes much longer to build, than it takes to be lost. Since the appointment of the current Statistician General in 2011, the Bureau has found itself on the steep route to rebuilding the credibility of Nigerian statistics; negotiating, on one hand, the rapidly changing macroeconomy and, on the other, a population that has grown sceptical of domestically produced numbers. Today, it is not so much the macroeconomy but, more, the numbers describing the macroeconomy that require evangelism; there is, to this end, a vibrant, new preacher in town. Follow him on Twitter: @sgyemikale.


Follow this Writer on Twitter @WalleLawal. Subscribe to read more articles here.