Why Nigerian Statistics and Reality Hardly Add Up


A couple of days ago, I participated in a radio program through a phone call. Well…thanks to terrible network and three dropped calls, I was hardly on. Like Government corruption, nothing has been more frustrating and perpetual in the lives of Nigerians like dropped calls. Despite the rapid growth of the telecommunication sector, dropped calls has been a constant. Obviously, a visible disconnect exists between growth of the industry and its performance. Frankly, its symptomatic of a larger issue that exists in Nigeria – the numbers never add up. Our metrics say one thing and reality says another.

Why does this happen and why do we buy into it? First, because a time lag exists between when a policy is initiated and when it bears results. So we see the effort, but have to wait to see if it resulted in a failure or success. Humans are likely to time discount into the future – we place more importance on the present than we do on the future. Consequently, we’ve been conditioned to see action as result. Second, we find it easier to gloss over the statistics rather than what’s behind them – what really matters – people.

Behind these numbers exist real people whose lives are affected by the use and misuse of statistics. Ask yourself how the numbers directly relate to the welfare of people or the quality of service. So when it comes to the telecommunication industry, don’t simply focus on how much has been spent on infrastructure and how much profit they’ve made, focus on the rate of dropped calls and the quality of service.

When it comes to security, don’t simply focus on how much has been spent, focus on the soldiers that have been adequately equipped and how much progress has been made as a result of that. If the number of soldiers and civilians death and the number of internally displaced people keep rising, then something must be wrong with the metric chosen to indicate progress.

In education, don’t narrowly focus on the number of Almajiri schools or universities that have been built, pay closer attention to the number of children currently and permanently off the street as a result of those schools built or the number of strikes that keep these children out of school. Pay attention to Nigeria’s position as the country with the most out-of-school children. Is this number declining or is it rising?

In economic development, don’t narrowly focus on the growth rate, instead focus on the metrics that directly affect people – metrics like the poverty rate and unemployment rate. These give you a clearer depiction of the welfare of people.

With exams, we focus on the result of the exam, not the fact that you wrote the exam in record time or that you were filled with the spirit when you did – nothing but the result matters. The same expectation should be applied to policies – simply enacting a policy isn’t the goal, gaining measurable result from the policy is.

It’s election period and you’ll have a lot of numbers and statistics bandied around as indication of progress or success…or transformation. It’s important to look behind these numbers and find what truly counts. In the words of Albert Einstein: “Not everything counts that can be counted; and not everything that can be counted, counts”. If anything should count, it should be people.


  • kayode

    Great write-up and insightful one indeed, my analysis on the framework of this write borders on the fact that not only lay men commits the “fallacy of overlooking the secondary consequence of policy” even our so called researchers and academics do same. Read any write up or policy initiatives by Nigerian economist and you wonder why they focus on sunk cost rather the marginal effects of proposed policy, consequently they confuse “cause” for “effect”

    • “Focusing on the sunk cost rather than marginal effect” You put this better than I could have. It’s really a bad habit of celebrating way too early when no discernible outcome has been realised. Your comment was highly valuable. Thank you.

  • Anonymous

    In many ways you are right that we should focus on the results. But simply focusing on results may suggest that you are assuming a consequentialist doctrine – the end justifies the means – that is as appealing as it is flawed. For instance, exam results in public schools in Nigeria are statistics that cannot be taken as gospel. I went to one and I remember how ubiquitous exam malpractices were. So, if we simply focus on the results, we may sometimes miss out on those you argue we should focus on i.e. people.

    SO what’s the alternative? Your premises are in many ways correct but we do need to pay attention to the process, not merely celebrating headline stats. Like celebrating growth stats or the rapid rise of the telecoms sector, celebrating exam results is merely glossing over the stats.

    • Placing focus on the result is not mutually exclusive from looking at the process. They in fact compliment one another. The argument is not to solely focus on results, it is to -NOT-solely focus on the action as a metric of the result. Consequently, the process leads to the result and is equally important. Cheers.

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