Debunked: Harold Smith’s Lies About Nigeria’s Census

Harold Caught lying

Dec. 11, 2013

It is perhaps one of the most famously quoted references on the Nigerian blogosphere, particularly in ethnic squabbles. You probably heard or read it before if you are active on the Nigerian online community. Equivalent to the Holy Grail of anti-north Nigeria population dominance is a statement attributed to late controversial colonialist Harold Smith that goes something like this:

By Tunde Adekoya, as an alleged narrative by O. A. Olagbaiye, MBBS. FRCS; in the Vanguard of, Feb. 28, 2011:

‘Brothers and sisters; on Ben TV last Thursday, Harold Smith was on a program to reveal what went behind the scene before the independence. … Harold Smith confessed that the Census results were announced before they were counted. Despite seeing vast land with no human but cattle in the north, we still gave the north 55 million instead of 32 Million.’

The same account is also given on the Harold Smith memorial website.

Even late distinguished author Chinua Achebe referenced the Harold Smith ‘Holy Grail,’ in “There Was A Country” (Pg.  50), asserting that Harold was sent by Sir James Robertson ‘to oversee the rigging of Nigeria’s first election ‘so that its compliant friends in (Northern Nigeria) would win power, dominate the country, and serve British interests after independence.’

I proceed to debunk this claim on three premises.

Firstly, the population figures:

According to Harold’s Grail, in most sources, ‘he gave the north 55 million instead of 32 million.’ This is clearly incoherent information because the entire population of Nigeria at the time was 31.6 million, so there is absolutely no way a census could have given the north 55 million. So the Grail is debunked easily based on figures late Harold allegedly put forth. If he indeed quoted these figures, his old age state of mind may have been questionable. {}

Secondly, the timing of the event:

The census in question was the 1952-53 census. Nigeria conducted decennial censuses. It appears the 1953 census was about a year late, but this is the census referred to by Harold Smith. The problem with his account however was the fact that he said he was part of falsifying the census figures. But according to the Harold Smith memorial website, Genesis Nigeria and all other sources, Harold Smith was in school and then being a new father in London up until 1954 when he saw an advertisement for a Labour Officer position and applied and then travelled down to Nigeria with his lovely wife Carol, in 1955. He was 26 years old at the time.  If he literally did not even know of Nigeria till 1954, how could he have possibly been ‘sent by Sir James Robertson to falsify our 1952-53 census figures?’ Here again, we easily debunk the popular tale attributed to Harold Smith. Perhaps young Harold heard something. Perhaps he saw massive land and imagined something—the north landscape is more than double the size of the South. It is also possible that some people had a drink with old Harold and convinced or bribed him to sell a tale; but for certain, he was definitely not part of anything related to the 1952/3 census based on the record of when he entered Nigeria a full three years after.

Thirdly, the fact of coincident earlier censuses:

Research into Nigeria’s earlier censuses actually substantiates the 55-45% North-South ratio in the 1953 census that Harold claimed to have falsified. According to AllAfrica, Nigeria’s most credible census was that held in 1921. I quote:

‘The first attempt to know the Nigerian population was in 1921, which could be regarded as the best and the properly-controlled census in Nigeria. The most successful censuses after the first were those of 1931 and 1952/1953. These three censuses were conducted under and by the colonial administration.’

The 1921 census gave the Northern Province 10.26 million and the south, 8.37 million.

The 1931 census gave the north a total of 11.44 million and the south, 8.49 million.

If we check the ratio’s of these results of earlier censuses, it is approximately 55-45% for both. This is the same as the results of the 1953 census to which Harold’s Grail referred. Now, we do have reasons to distrust the British, but the claim that the falsification of ‘Harold and team’ was in preparation for a handover does not apply to the earlier censuses since these were well before a handover. It is however possible that the British always counted-up the north. But this thought is not supported by Harold’s allegations since for one, he was not there and two, he got the numbers all completely wrong as he is quoted.

This completes my submission on this all important issue. It is possible Harold Smith has been quoted out of date, context and reference; but if so, it is a shame that dignified Nigerians have blindly used such an obviously erroneous and preposterous tale to unfairly promote agenda and ethnic strife. The truth is a better and stronger tool to get all we want and desire.

Nigeria has many reasons for beef and grief, however in the national conversation, as we decide if and how to exist, coexist or not coexist, it is important we separate facts from malicious and ill intended fabrications and conspiracies which do not speak well of our national intelligence.

Population density can never be estimated by the brain or imagination and can only be verified by a true count. There are concentrated large mega cities and trade hobs in deserts as there are in tropics. If someone imagined that little Lagos today has a population of 30 million, looking at the map, many will refuse to believe. 30 million was the population of the entire Nigeria in 1953. Concentrations could have been possible in any of many major trade hobs and large cities.

We hope for a census we all can believe sometime in the future; and that it be a census for measuring and planning opportunity for the regions or nation(s), and not for promoting and propelling xenophobia.

Dr. Peregrino Brimah [Every Nigerian Do Something]
Email: [email protected] Twitter: @EveryNigerian