NDERITU: When census results are reduced to a political contest

Tuesday September 10 2019

An enumerator collects details of a household

An enumerator collects details of a household during the census exercise in Nyalenda slums, Kisumu on August 24, 2019. PHOTO | ONDARI OGEGA | NMG 

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Population censuses have recently been in the news in Ethiopia and Kenya with the Kenyan one happening the last week of last month.

In Ethiopia, parliamentarians voted overwhelmingly for the postponement of the census due to security concerns centred on ethnic conflicts. The Ethiopian census results are important in demarcating constituencies before the 2020 national vote.

Censuses play many roles such as gathering social and economic data; informing planning policies such as on affirmative action for marginalised communities.

They also support research on social phenomena which explains the question in the Kenyan census on whether the interviewee shopped online.

In both Kenya and Ethiopia, ethnicity and politics are closely linked. Perspectives on ethnic inclusion or exclusion through the census lens are therefore important.

Many await census results keenly waiting to know two things; Which ethnic community ‘has the numbers’? Who has been overtaken by whom?
Ethnicity breeds many census controversies.


The 1994 census in Ethiopia was a key plank in the ethnic federalism that saw the country divided into regions along ethnic boundaries.

People, including those with parents from different ethnic groups complained of being forced to choose one ethnicity. Federal subsidies to the regions and allocation of seats in Ethiopia’s parliamentary chambers are partly based on population.

In the 2009 census, some Kenyan communities alleged they had been lumped under other communities. The Ndorobo, Terik, Njemps, Ogiek, Galjeel, Malakote and Wanyoyaya demanded their own ethnic codes.

Some people also declined to declare their ethnicities. In both countries, ethnic numbers translate into representation and therefore power and resources.

The census presents opportunities to, for instance, recognise marginalised and minority groups. However, it entrenches ethnicism for countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya, whose bane it is to mobilise politically on the “who has the numbers” basis.

Bloc voting

Where ethnic communities have a habit of bloc voting, one can, using the census results, discern which way an election will go. Elections therefore become additional ethnic censuses rather than democratic processes.

Politicians in the two countries believe voters are unlikely to change their ethnic voting patterns. When census results are out, those “with the numbers” will speak of having won not yet held elections.

The census, an important exercise is reduced to a political contest, communicating irrelevance to minority groups of their electoral participation.

Nomadic populations have a particularly contentious relationship with the census. When the Kenyan 2009 census results were released, figures from eight districts, all nomadic communities were held back as flawed.

Then Minister for Planning Wycliffe Oparanya said “the reported growth rate in the region was higher than the projected population. There had been increases in population not attributed to births from the locals.” Furious leaders of the nomadic communities said a plot had been hatched to marginalise them.

Social groups and ethnic communities are not natural phenomena. They are constructed by social processes that also create power relations. Defining differences and similarities in people lies at the heart of inclusion and exclusion practices and exists in all societies.

Censuses help to make sense of and create order out of information to enable better judgments, but political implications often take precedence and reinforce stereotypes and stigmatisation.

It is possible, through censuses to improve policies but not broader societal attitudes. For instance, censuses consistently report that nomadic communities are least likely to attend school.

Census findings on nomadic education can be changed by education policies conveying reduction of cultural distance between school and nomadic lifestyles.

Whichever way they go, we can count on the politicisation of the census results in Kenya and Ethiopia and raging disputes on the basis of ethnicity.

Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism, Mukami Kimathi: Mau Mau Freedom Fighter and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides. E-mail: [email protected]