The news came like a bolt from the blue. Nigeria’s jobless rate dropped from 33.3 per cent to 4.1 per cent in August, declared the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). It was a meteoric rise in employment that called for national celebration. Except that it was a lie, a total fabrication. Nothing changed in the depressing reality of unemployment in Nigeria. The sudden and sharp ‘drop’ in the jobless rate only came about because the NBS changed the methodology for measuring unemployment. It was a shameful statistical sleight of hand!
Every statistical body must crave public confidence and trust in the data it produces, based on the cardinal rule that data must be ethically sound and stand up to scrutiny. But the NBS breached this rule by producing jobs data that are utterly misleading, which erroneously suggest that Nigeria’s jobless rate magically or miraculously came tumbling down from 33.3 per cent to 4.1 per cent. But nothing magical or miraculous happened. It was a human contrivance. The NBS said the methodology that produced the new jobs data was “in line with international best practices”, saying it was a “methodology recommended” by the International Labour Organisation, ILO.
We will come to the ILO ‘methodology’ in a moment. But, first, it must be said unequivocally that the NBS’s thoughtless use of that ‘methodology’ produced a perverse outcome that defies reality and the lived experiences of most Nigerians. No serious statistical body can afford to lose reputation and trust with the public. Sadly, the NBS, which gained some credibility over the past ten years, after decades of domestic and international distrust of its data, now seems to be squandering that reputation. Truth is, judged by their responses on social media, Nigerians were alarmed and appalled by the new jobs data, with the NBS becoming the butt of all kinds of jokes!
In his response, Atedo Peterside, the respected founder of Stanbic IBTC Bank Plc and ANAP Foundation, tweeted: “South Africa’s unemployment rate is 32.6 per cent, we (Nigeria) have brought ours down to 4.1 per cent,” adding: “The only catch is that @NBS_Nigeria changed methodology/definition of unemployment.” He concluded sardonically: “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.” The NBS’s former CEO and Statistician-General of the Federation, Dr Yemi Kale, was scathing in his criticism. In a series of tweets, Dr Kale used the pejorative words “unintelligent lies” and “lying unintelligently with statistics” to describe the NBS’s new jobs data. The verdicts of public and expert opinions were truly damning!
But what’s really at issue here? Well, it’s about data ethics and the purpose of official statistics. In 2007, the British Parliament set the Office of National Statistics, ONS, a specific objective: to produce and publish official statistics “that serve the public good.” To serve the public good, official data must not only meet the standards of integrity and quality, but they must also be relevant to inform public policy or policy-making. Thus, the UK Statistical Authority’s first ethical principle is ensuring that “the use of data has clear benefits for users and serves the public good.” So, question: What public good does the NBS serve by artificially reducing Nigeria’s jobless rate from 33.3 percent to 4.1 percent simply by changing the methodology for measuring unemployment? Absolutely none!
But is the NBS pursuing a political agenda? This question is relevant because the so-called ILO ‘methodology’ is not new. It was introduced in the early 1990s, so why adopt it now?
Which brings us to the so-called ILO ‘methodology’. In 1990, the ILO introduced the Labour Force Survey approach to measuring employment and unemployment and adopted a methodology whereby anyone working “for at least one hour for pay or profit during the reference week” is deemed to be employed. It’s noteworthy that not every ILO member-country adopts the “one hour of work a week” methodology. This is not surprising. First, it’s utterly ludicrous to say that someone who works for just one hour a week is “employed”. Second, there’s the usual problem of global standard-setting, namely: Can one size fit all? Are apples being compared with apples or with oranges? For unless likes can be compared with likes, international standardisation is meaningless.
For instance, is working for one hour a week in Nigeria the same as working for one hour a week in the UK or the US? The hourly minimum wage is $11.37 (N8,600) in the UK and $7.25 (N5,487) in the US. In Nigeria, it’s N187 if you divide the N30,000 monthly minimum wage by 160 hours, based on the assumption that wage-earners work for the usual eight hours a day or 40 hours a week.
According to the ILO, the highest employment/economic class are workers living on above $5.50 per day in purchasing-power-parity (PPP) terms. But the World Population Review shows that while only 0.86 per cent live on less than $5.50 a day in the UK and 1.75 per cent in the US, it is 92.04 per cent in Nigeria. Indeed, over 90million Nigerians live on less than $1.90 (the extreme poverty class). So, how can anyone reasonably use “one hour of work a week” as a measure of employment in Nigeria? And how can any credible data put Nigeria’s unemployment rate at 4.1 per cent, suggesting that it is at par with the UK’s 4.2 per cent and US’s 3.4 per cent? Truth be told, the NBS’s jobs data simply lack integrity and analytical value, and do not serve any public good or any public policy purpose!
What about the poverty puzzle? Given the nexus between unemployment and poverty, how can Nigeria have just 4.1 per cent unemployment rate and also have 40 per cent poverty rate, with 133m or 63 per cent of its population being multidimensionally poor? Think about it. The US has a 3.4 per cent unemployment rate and 17.8 percent poverty rate. The UK has a 4.2 unemployment rate and 18.6 percent poverty rate. But Nigeria has “4.1 percent unemployment rate” and 40.1 percent poverty rate, as well as 63 per cent multidimensional poverty rate. So, how can Nigeria have such a low jobless rate and yet have such a high poverty rate? It defies common sense and reality.
The NBS says that 76.7 percent of Nigeria’s working-age population is self-employed, meaning that few Nigerians are in wage employment. But non-wage jobs, such as subsistence farming and petty “businesses”, are poverty jobs that provide poverty wages, evidenced by the fact that over 90 million Nigerians live on less than $1.90 a day. So, it’s utterly perverse, even iniquitous, to say that someone working for one hour a week in the non-wage or informal sector is “employed”.
But is the NBS pursuing a political agenda? This question is relevant because the so-called ILO ‘methodology’ is not new. It was introduced in the early 1990s, so why adopt it now? Before 2015, the NBS used 40 hours a week as a measure of employment. This was changed to 20 hours a week in 2015. Dr Kale said that during his ten years as head of the NBS, he “resisted” adopting the one-hour-a-week methodology “because it didn’t make sense.” So, why does it make sense to Adeyemi Adeniran, the current Statistician-General and CEO of the NBS? Sadly, with the Tinubu administration ‘capturing’ and muzzling critical state institutions, one can’t rule out political influences.
The NBS’s head of communications, Ibrahim Wakili, described Dr Kale as “the worst-ever Statistician-General in my 30 years of service.” But of those 30 years, it’s only in ten, under Kale’s leadership, that the NBS had a semblance of credibility. Apparently, the current NBS is more interested in playing politics than safeguarding that credibility. But if the NBS becomes a political tool, its tenuous reputation would be smashed to smithereens – destroyed irrecoverably!