We don’t need to depend on donors to develop our statistical system –NSA President

President of the Nigerian Statistical Association (NSA), Dr Mohammed Tumala, is passionate about how Nigeria could explore the huge opportunities inherent in accurate, timely and well produced statistical information for effective planning and implementation of public-private sector policies for rapid transformation of the country. In this interview with TOLA AKINMUTIMI, the statistician and financial expert bares his mind on how to move the nation’s statistical system forward. Excerpts.

What is the association out to do in terms of its roles in national development?

Well, the Nigerian Statistical Association is a professional association and as you know, the profession plays a very great role in public service, in business and in almost everything we do in life. The association was established in 1976, like any other association to promote ethical practice of statistics. The awareness is low but the numbers you collect from people in relationship between a statistician and the provider of information, you can liken it to a relationship between a medical doctor and his or her patient. While a medical doctor protects the integrity of the medical condition of the patient, the statistician has access to the social, medical, economic and all conditions of human beings.

As you know, we gather information from age, marital status, your sex behaviour, your income, expenditure and what you spend it on. Many nations have observed that there is the need to protect the integrity of such information. The role of the association is to actually enhance that promotion by really providing a working environment where professional ethics is being promoted. That is essentially the objective of the Nigerian Statistical Association.

As a stakeholder in the Nigerian statistical system, recent developments indicate that government, through the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) and stakeholders are determined to enhance the quality of Nigerian statistics system. Is there any collaboration between your association and government on this agenda?

We cannot separate the association from government and government from the association because most of our members are actually public sector workers and as you know, the association played a very great role in establishing the Nigerian statistical system which eventually got legally backed up by the 2007 Statistics Act. As part of that Act, the President of the Nigerian Statistical Association is a member of the Governing Board of the National Bureau of Statistics that drives the system. So, we are really so much interrelated. Secondly, in national statistics you may collect statistics for individuals, you may collect statistics from organisations and so on, but 80 per cent of national statistics comes as result of public sector records. So, for an effective practice of the statistics profession that inter relationship has to be there such that you cannot actually separate governance and the practice of statistics.

Based on the increasing awareness on the need for government to encourage evidenced-based information in developmental programmes, do you foresee a change of attitude in using statistics as a tool for national development?

Sure! The use of statistics is a culture. Unfortunately, it is a culture which did not properly evolve in the country. But of course recently, the country discovered that you need to do a lot of strategic planning, identify where you are, identify the needs of your people, identify what you need to do to move the people and your economy forward and to do that you need statistics, because it is only statistics that enables you to measure where you are and whether you are actually moving to where you want to be and so on.

Recently, there has been growing need for the use of statistics both in the public and the private sectors. As you are aware of, the recent reforms in governance also included a strategy to develop the statistical system and it also involves building capacity of organisations to be able to use statistics for planning and monitoring development. It is growing. I want to acknowledge that government is beginning to give statistics its rightful place. It is beginning to make budgetary provisions for the collation of data. Government is also beginning to ask for accountability in terms of measurable outcomes of whatever its agencies and ministries are doing. That in itself is actually the demonstration of the use of statistics.

I have read certain stories in a newspaper where in the National Assembly, somebody published which senator is productive, which senator is not productive based on the number of either motions or bills they sponsored or their contributions. That is a very good demonstration of the use of statistics, so we are beginning to appreciate statistics as it is.

One thing that has not actually been too clear to Nigerians by virtue of the technical issues involved is this GDP rebasing project. As an expert in statistics, could you in a lame man’s language tell Nigerians what this project is all about and its implications for Nigerians?

I will talk from two view points. May be I will talk about prices initially and I will want to connect it to practical, personal experience. Fifteen years down the line, if I am looking at my family expenditure, the dominant thing then was about food because relatively schools were available, I didn’t need to pay so much of school fees, public hospitals were available, I didn’t need to pay so much for treatment, rents were also a little bit low but now I am here in Abuja.

So, if I am looking at my family expenditure, there are many things that have come in, the GSM was not there then but now I have to buy recharge cards, school fees and my rent takes so much of my income and all these imply that there is a change. If you are looking at movement in prices, if you are comparing what I spend now with what I was spending 15 years ago, they cannot be compared. Now for GDP, the economy is changing so also 15 years ago, communication was done in a different way. There is what we call baseline. It is the total output of an economy at a particular time. You measure the same thing subsequently and compute growth with respect to the baseline. But as the structure of the economy changes, the present activities are no more aligned to the activities in the baseline and I have given you a very practical example in communication sector where we have tremendous changes in activities. So, rebasing means let’s look at the economy again and shift our bases for comparison. We do not compare it with 1990 again, we want to shift and compare it with a more recent measure, and because statistics requires that you are consistent in measuring, you cannot change if you are not consistent, you cannot compare.

Now, to be able to establish a point from where consistency can begin, where you can bring in new variables, new activities and so on that were not there, you have to shift the baseline. So, that is what we call rebasing. Essentially, it is the same thing but the reference point will change, we’ll have a look at the economy again and see the structure and it is recommended that it is done maybe every five to 10 years but it is an expensive exercise. It is just like census. Though you can estimate and project population, maybe things could change, young men could decide not to get married again, maybe 10 years ago they were getting married at the age of 16, 18. So, they could delay marriage because they have other objectives in life. They want to be educated; they want to have established businesses and so on. The immediate effect of that is you may see a drop in things like birth rate; quality of life might shift and so on. So, that’s why you have to conduct census every 10 years to see where the population had shifted to in terms of its own structure so also is GDP and economy.

Findings indicate that some state government have not made their counterpart contributions to the state GDP computation project. What are the implications of this for timely completion of the project, especially when government had earlier targeted the end of 2nd quarter as the deadline?

Well, the GDP itself can be measured nationally but Nigeria is big. It is part of also understanding the structure. You are aware in terms of education, wealth and so on the different parts of the country are not on the same level. So, the computation of GDP at state level will enable you to identify your weakest link, if there is one part of the country that is moving in one direction, what are responsible for such a movement because developing, for instance, Kano State may not be on the same basis with developing Bayelsa because they are in two different locations and then their environment are different and the dominant economic activities are different.

Some states are more receptive to new projects than others. It is not state GDP or rebasing, you must have heard of international development initiatives that require counterpart funding at the state level, some states have gone far in providing their counterpart funding even beyond what is required while some states resist. So, it boils down to different styles of governance, different priorities for them and so on, but I think that with time, all states will come on board.

How do you think government could show more commitment in terms of funding of statistics to encourage more development partners to support the various projects?

At different times there are always opportunities for you to explore and bridge the gaps. Let me say that first of all I do not think we need money from development partners to develop anything in Nigeria, I think the country has the resources adequately for us to, in fact, be a model for African countries and other countries around the world. But this boils down to government setting priorities and making efficient use of resources available. One of the things that have been pointed out recently is as far back as either 1991 or 1990, the Education Trust Fund which is a kind of company tax, I think it was 0.5 per cent with the target of improving it to say 3 per cent over a period of time as was being speculated, was introduced and it came into being and today the fund has grown to a level that it can independently intervene in our tertiary institutions. It has started coming down to other level of education and so on. Government is not the only user of statistics. When you make policies, these policies affect businesses. You cannot set up a business where policies are not stable and are not investment- friendly and one of the things that make foreign investments inflow slow in Nigeria is the lack of information. So, imagine a Nigeria with information being available for you to take any decision then the sky will be the limit for our nation. I think with what has been done recently, the question is, why can’t we? Although it may initially be a burden on the business world but then they will also benefit from it, establish a fund for the development of Nigerian statistics. We need some level of independence because the statistical system will operate, at least to nurture it to a certain stage. For instance, in some countries information flows seamlessly.

If you are a businessman, you don’t need anybody to come to you to provide information, information flies on the IT highway. Before we get there, we need to develop the necessary infrastructure, we need the necessary capabilities we need the necessary orientation and so our initial investment in the system is going to be a little bit on the high side and annual budgetary allocation and the way they are being released may not be able to take us there. So, it will be a good idea if we can establish a fund that will specifically be for the development of the information system entirely in the country. I think there is another way and the assignment is also for us deploying some of the dormant, idle funds like the pension fund, unclaimed dividends and some others that are just lying there. All you need do is invest it and you can use the profit, the proceeds to intervene in so many key areas of the economy, including enhancing the quality of the nation’s statistical system. There are funds everywhere in the country we have not just put our thinking hats well but there are so many opportunities out there.

What you are saying in effect is that you foresee a future where the private public partnership arrangement will be relevant in improving the quality of the Nigerian Statistical System?

Definitely. You see, for businesses to thrive, they need information; businesses require more information than the public. You can afford to make mistakes in the public because you are not set up to make profit. You can possibly make political mistakes here and there. That is what it is. But then, the private sector cannot afford to do, they need information more than the public in terms of accurate information. It is to their benefit to promote the establishment of a virile statistical system everywhere they operate. Secondly, they also provide the information. For instance, they are supposed to provide credible financial statements of their companies. Apart from funding, they should also strive hard to provide credible information because if decisions and policies are made based on what they have given and they are defective, then they will pay back; their businesses would suffer, because, of course, they say garbage in garbage out. So, the private sector has that role to play, provide credible information, provide the support required to enable the system grow.

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