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Muslims cry foul over population figures

A recent protest by the Coalition of Muslim Organisations about Ghana's population statistics concerning religion highlights the age-old fear that Islam is playing second fiddle to Christianity, and points to the difficulties of gathering statistics in Ghana.
Amos Safo

The divisive and potentially explosive issue of which religion has the largest number of followers in Ghana is causing sleepless nights for the country's government.

On January 9, 2002 Ghanaians woke up to a rare press conference called by the Coalition of Muslim Organisations. The group rejected the final figures of the 2000 Population and Housing Census released by the Statistical Service of Ghana, saying that the figures for the number of Muslims in Ghana was under-reported.

According to the census figures, out of Ghana's 18.8 million people, Muslims constitute 2.9 million, representing a mere 15.6 per cent, while Christians make up 69 per cent of the population.

According to Sheikh Seebaway Zakaria, a spokesperson for the Coalition of Muslim Organisations, the final figures contained serious flaws and as a result could not be used as reliable data for planning and projecting the country's development agenda.

"The coalition considers the 2.9 Muslim population as an under statement of the strength of Islam in the country', Sheikh Seebaway said. He appealed to the government to withdraw the report.

The coalition cited statistics obtained from the website of the US government's Central Intelligence Agency to prove its point. According to CIA statistics, the population of Muslims in the country stands at 30 per cent of the population, while Christians comprise 34 per cent, and followers of traditional African religion, 38 per cent.

The coalition also referred to the Religious Bodies Registration Law 1989, which requires all religious bodies to register with the National Commission on Culture. That legislation puts the Muslim population at 45 per cent. The coalition said that the above figures clearly conflict with the information contained in the 2000 census report.

The coalition said that from its own estimation, Ghana's population should be around 21,357,304 and not the 18.8 million that the Statistical Service had reported.

The coalition further stated that even if adherents of traditional African religion do not form the majority in rural areas, it still defies statistical logic that they account for only 8.5 percent of Ghana's population, considering the fact that many Ghanaians live in rural areas.

Another survey that broke population down along religious lines also came under heavy fire from the Coalition of Muslim Organisations. The Ghana Living Standards Survey reported that the size of the Muslim population remained static at 14 per cent of the total population, while the Christian population experienced a "quantum leap" from 53 per cent in 1973 to 64 per cent in 1992, according to Sheikh Seebaway.

The survey, released in 2000, was sponsored by the World Bank and conducted by the Statistical Service of Ghana.

Sheikh Seebaway said the survey failed to reflect the fact that Muslim men on average have several wives and thus have many children. "Does the Statistical Service want Ghanaians to believe that the population of Ghanaian Muslims has stagnated at 14 per cent mark for 20 years?" he said.

"When it suits our adversaries, they accuse us of giving birth indiscriminately, but they turn around to short-charge and defraud us when our increasing numbers have the potential of turning into a seeming advantage," said Sheikh Seebaway.

In a swift counterattack one day after the coalition's press conference, the Census Secretariat said the final results of the 2000 Population and Housing Census were accurate.

Dr Kwaku Twum-Baah, spokesperson for the Census Secretariat, stated that the report was a true reflection of the number of people living in Ghana, and that the Statistical Service of Ghana stood by the results.

Reacting to the coalition's demands to withdraw the census results, Twum-Baah said the secretariat would do no such thing. He said that, although no census in the world is 100 per cent accurate, the secretariat undertook a careful exercise to ensure that the results reflected the true picture of the number and proportion of people in the country.

Twum-Baah questioned the coalition's claim that the population of Ghana is more than 21 million. He explained that with Ghana's current growth rate of 2.6 per cent, which is the lowest in Africa, and a projection that the growth rate will continue to decline, Ghana's population would not go beyond 24 million by 2010.

Describing as "misleading" the coalition's rejection of the census results without any scientific basis, Twum-Baah said: "The coalition has no basis to reject the figures because it is impossible for the country to have a population of 21.3 million."

The government statistician challenged CIA numbers that put the Muslim population at 45 per cent and called on the coalition to come with evidence to support that figure. He also questioned the group's claim that census data under the legislation put the Muslim population at 45 per cent, saying that there was no statistics on Muslims in the 1984 census.

The complaints by the Coalition of Muslim Organisations brings to the forefront the difficulties of gathering statistics in Ghana. From 1984 to 2000 when the census was taken, national planning had been based on provisional figures. Basic statistics such as births and deaths are hard to gather because there are no registration centres in many parts of the country.

The coalition's claim that the Muslim population has been underestimated in an attempt to deny them development cannot be taken lightly. Many Muslim communities, popularly called "Zongos," are the most deprived, lacking basic amenities especially education. The lack of education has become a serious drawback for human development of the Zongos.

Some social commentators have suggested that it is not so much Muslims' fear of being marginalised in a Christian-dominated country, but that the age-old fear of Islam playing second fiddle to Christianity could be at play once more.

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