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IFRA training workshop: "CENSUS STORIES: Quantification, trust and the politics of counting people" by Dr. Gerardo Serra

Date: April 1st 2019

Place: IFRA-Nigeria's library

On April 1st 2019, Dr. Gerardo Serra hosted a 4 hours workshop themed on "CENSUS STORIES: Quantification, trust and the politics of counting people". The workshop focused on population census as a source for political and cultural history in Sub-Saharan Africa.

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Sunday Post (Lagos, 1964)

Dr. Gerardo Serra is a lecturer of Economic History at the University of Manchester. His work focuses on the history of economic thought, the economic history of colonial and postcolonial Africa, the history of Ghana, and the political economy of statistics. He is conducting a research programme on 'The Statistical Office, the Field and the Postcolonial State: A Social History of the 1960 Population Census of Ghana' and the workshop will draw upon findings of this programme. 

Population censuses offer data for the formulation and testing of hypotheses on issues as different as religion, fertility, labour markets, and health. The starting point of the workshop is that, hidden beneath the interminable lists of numbers, there is much more to population counting than meets the (statistical) eye. The aim of the workshop is to make the participants aware of the flexibility and richness of censuses as a historical source, and invite them to reflect on the ways in which censuses can be used to raise questions and tell stories about trust, state legitimacy and political culture  

The workshop was divided into three parts:

In the first part of the workshop, Dr. Serra provided an overview of how the census has been used by historians, philosophers and social scientists to explain issues as disparate as the nature of state formation, and the relationship between quantification and the making of social reality. Secondly, the talk looked at the ways in which historians of Sub-Saharan Africa have looked at population counting to illuminate issues of ethnicity and identity. Yet, it is argued that historians of Africa have maintained a fairly narrow view of what is ‘political’ about counting people. One of the main aims of the workshop was to explore how, far from being confined to the conceptual categories imposed by the statistical apparatus, the politics of census-taking could be understood more holistically. Drawing on his study of Ghana’s first postcolonial census (1960), Dr. Gerardo Serra explored through a concrete example how it is possible to unpack the making of statistical knowledge to find new ways of conceptualising what is political about counting people.   


Within Nigeria’s federal structure, the census has been at the centre of fierce struggles about parliamentary representation, taxation, provision of social services, and the creation of new states.  Because of this the Nigerian census, with the heated contestation that typically follows it, has been a powerful narrative trope and a political platform that has had a deep impact on the unfolding of the country’s history. In this section, the participants were asked to analyse a wide range of different primary sources related to population counting in 1960s Nigeria. These included politicians’ speeches (with a particular emphasis on the Sardauna of Sokoto and Michael Okpara), a selection of political cartoons from leading newspapers, pamphlets and the sentence of the Federal Court that put an end on the Eastern Region’s attempt to have the 1963 census declared null and void. 

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Children marching in support of the 1960 Population Census of Ghana

In the last part of the workshop, those attending the workshop have the option of becoming co-participants in the speaker’s research by filling a short survey, and share their own experiences with the census (in Nigeria or elsewhere). Specifically, the participants were asked to connect their life stories with broader reflections on the nature of the state, and to imagine and identify ways in which the census can contribute to their own research, thus tying together all the issues and perspectives raised in the workshop.  

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18 students, mainly PhD and Master students of UI participated in the events.  

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