Yemi Kale
Eye for detail: Yemi Kale scrutinises every line of data © Rahima Gambo

Late afternoon finds the windowless fifth-floor reception of the office of Nigeria’s top statistician in darkness. There has been no light since morning and “there’s no diesel for the generator”, explains a passing civil servant.

There are things that Yemi Kale, the statistician general, can control and things he cannot. “After five years, you get used to this,” the 41-year-old economist says of the unreliability of the power supply in the headquarters of the National Bureau of Statistics of Nigeria.

In spite of suffering such critical gaps in workplace infrastructure, the government agency on his watch has delivered a rare feat in Nigeria: a public service that is praised by citizens.

On the NBS website, data and reports are easily accessible — and are from last month, not last year or older. On Twitter, Nigerians praise the agency for clear infographics distributed on the social platform and Facebook, even when data delivered — such as on youth unemployment rates — are grim.

In 2014 Mr Kale made global headlines when he announced that Nigeria was Africa’s biggest economy. Giving more weight to then-booming sectors such as telecoms and banking provided a more accurate picture of the economy — and showed it was 89 per cent bigger than previously measured.

Since oil prices plummeted in mid-2014, Mr Kale has consistently been the bearer of bad news. But the reputation of the statistics agency has improved so much during his tenure that the data are, perhaps for the first time in the country’s history, seen as critical to economic planning and governance.

For decades, Mr Kale says, the government “developed huge plans, policies and projects without looking at the numbers”. He says his early years as chief statistician from 2011 were spent tidying up a messy situation. For a long time, work was either “not done properly or not done at all”, he recalls. A culture of fear prevailed and numbers that did not make the government “look good” were not published. Gradually that has changed.

The institution still remains creaky at times. Ensuring it performs its core task — collecting and publishing economic data for a country of around 180m people who speak more than 250 languages — “can be a nightmare,” he says, adding: “I think that’s what attracts me to the job.”

Initially, a big part of his time was spent coaxing civil servants, who were accustomed to inactivity, to do their jobs — be it travelling to rural villages to survey farmers and petty traders or fixing the elevator at headquarters. This entailed creating systems that ended certain standard practices such as making up figures instead of travelling to remote areas.

Mr Kale says he personally does the final check on “every single line of data” after it is gathered and crunched by his staff of 4,000 because it is his “neck on the line” every time figures are released.

Under the previous administration of Goodluck Jonathan, when oil prices were high and money was flowing freely in and out of state coffers, Mr Kale says he was frequently grilled by “very big bosses” who were unhappy with statistics that revealed inconvenient truths about failing government initiatives, including a job creation scheme. “I broke [our figures] down and they just couldn’t find anything [wrong]. They said, ‘OK, you got away with this one — but the day you get these numbers wrong, you’re more or less dead.’”

In late August, he revealed that Nigeria had sunk into recession with what he called the “horrible figures” on economic output in the second quarter. The data reflected a reality his office had been grappling with all summer.

The statistics had been hotly anticipated as businesses, foreign investors and analysts looked for an official gauge of the extent of the damage to the economy of a spate of militant attacks in the oil producing delta that have cut production to near 30-year lows.

Mr Kale’s announcement in mid-August that the release of GDP data would be delayed briefly caused concern among investors and analysts that the government was dragging its feet on revealing the state of the crisis.

But there was a more straightforward reason. “We just didn’t get the money to do the work,” he says. “We pushed to get the funds, and I argued that the whole world was waiting to find out whether Nigeria was in a recession or not.

“We were delayed. It was a difficult period but we got it sorted out. We got the numbers,” he says. Despite the challenges, Mr Kale has developed a knack of bringing light to Nigeria’s economy — whether there is electricity in his office or not.

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