StatAfric: The Culture of Data and Measurement

Published on 3rd December 2019

Ali Mazrui describes the African from a triple heritage perspective of Semitic, Islam and Jewish influences. Haili Habtu in 1984 penned a journal article titled The Fallacy of a Triple Heritage Thesis: A Critique, thus dismantling the triple heritage thesis of Ali Mazrui.

That notwithstanding, and without relishing and indulging the intellectual mystics of Mazrui and Habtu, I am duty bound to borrow if only in optics and not content, the triple heritage terminology because of its verbal elegance.

I have borrowed the theme of a triple heritage, because I owe my being to three countries. These are namely my country of birth and formation of character, Lesotho; my well and source of intellectual strength, Ghana; and my stadia of naturalisation and praxis, South Africa. These African roots have propelled me to be here today to represent African views on this very auspicious occasion.

A day that would make us all proud as Africans that at last we have acknowledged that statecraft without numerical analysis remains hollow and delusional. I would be remiss if under the pretext of being overwhelmed by occasion I fail from the very beginning, to invoke and claim the omnipresence of my deeply respected friend, brother and protagonist, the departed Dr Rene Kuassi, who if alive would be smiles with an “evil and conniving” twinkle in his eye.

Upon independence Africa deployed the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) as a technical support arm for its development. It was under the ambitious and alert mind of Adedeji Adebayo that the Lagos Plan of Action would be crafted, assisted by the statecraft guru Kweku de Graff Johnson, who would head Statistics at UNECA. Together they challenged the structural reforms of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and proposed the Lagos Plan of Action in its stead.

The plan was far-sighted and foregrounded Agenda 2063 - the Africa we want and the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA). Under Adebayo and Johnson, there were joint sessions of the Association of African planners, statisticians and demographers. Planning as a profession was deliberate and tutored in Dakar at the African Institute for Economic Development and Planning.

With their disappearance from UNECA and the marauding structural adjustments programme, statistics collapsed at the UNECA in the late eighties and early nineties.

It was only 15 years later, in Younde, Cameroon, in November 2005, where African countries under the leadership of Afristat, gave consideration for a Unilateral Declaration of Independence from UNECA, because we all agreed that UNECA had betrayed Africa on matters statistics.

We were and are UNECA. The notion of rejecting ourselves from ourselves was inconceivable. I was given the nod to address this with my political principals in South Africa. The then Minister Trevor Manuel and the newly appointed executive secretary of UNECA, Abdoulayi Janneh, convened in January 2006, where we were given marching orders to revive statistics at UNECA. The African Symposium for Statistical Development (ASSD) was born. I had the honour to chair the ASSD up to my retirement.

Among the ASSD achievements was the revival and creation of the Centre for Statistics at the ECA, with its first director being Professor Ben Kyeregera, who within two years left a living legacy for African statistics.

Second, we had the highest ever participation in censuses in Africa. Third, we introduced the ISIbalo Young African Statisticians movement, who would undergird the African statisticians’ growth strategy; and fourth, we put the civil registration and vital statistics on the agenda and infused the two-yearly Ministerial Conference on Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (CRVS) ministerial meetings.

We had just restored statistics at UNECA African Development Bank (AfDB), which continued to play a crucial technical and funding role, and the ASSD was the catalyst for statistics when, alas, into the scene appeared Rene Kuasi, a character larger than life. The African Union was clear that it needed a lead role in statistics.

The Strategy for Harmonisation of Statistics in Africa, the (SHaSA) was born. Shasa is a KhoiSan word for deep fresh cooling water. So how appropriate and fitting was the acronym for the Lagos Plan of Action and Agenda 2063. These programmes can only succeed if they drink the SHaSA - the deep fresh cooling water that should quench the African thirst for development.

What then is our wish for the SHaSA and Statafric? The programme should optimise the Africa count programme in the 2020 Round of Censuses, it should propel and guard the CRVS jealously from being hijacked by nefarious interests, it should focus on measurement of poverty, and this from a multidimensional perspective.

Statafric should be the ears and eyes through which the technical work of national statisticians, the technical work through the ECA and the AfDB can reach the political leadership of Africa to implement Agenda 2063 and AfCFTA through the international comparisons programme.

May StatAfric be that institution that becomes the salt of African politics.

By Dr Pali Lehohla

Former Statistician-General of South Africa.

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