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Restructuring the Nigerian Federation: Challenges and Prospects

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By

Attahiru M. Jega, OFR

Professor, Department of Political Science, Bayero University, Kano, Nigeria

Delivered as the No. 4 in the Public Lecture Series of Nassarawa State University, Keffi, on Wednesday August 4, 2021, at 10am, Assembly Hall, Main Campus.

Introduction

One of the most topical issues in current discourses about the future of Nigeria as a country, and as a developing democracy, is on the nature and character of the Nigerian federal system, and what should be done about it. From 1914 when the British colonial rulers created Nigeria as an amalgam of various precolonial communities subjugated by colonizers, until 1951, when the MacPherson’s Constitution was introduced, Nigeria was administered as a unitary system, subdivided into provinces, further grouped into regions. Nigeria became a colonially created federation in 1954, under the Lyttleton’s Constitution, with a central or federal government headquartered in Lagos, and 3 regional governments: Eastern Regional government based in Enugu, Northern Regional government based in Kaduna and the Western Regional government based in Ibadan. After independence in 1960, following the Willinks Commission’s report which sought to address the fears of minorities, a fourth Region, the Mid-Western Region was created, with its government based in Benin City.

The colonially created Nigerian federation strove to function in accordance with the principles of federalism between 1954 and 1966, when the first military coup d’état happened. Both administrative and fiscal powers were fairly distributed between the centre, or federal government, and the component federating units, the regions. There was little if any real or perceived inequities and/or injustices, in the generation, allocation and distribution of collective revenues.

Military incursion into politics and its fairly long stay in power resulted in the distortion of the Nigerian federal arrangement, by splitting the 4 primary units in the federation into the 36 states that we currently have, and then increasingly centralizing power and concentrating resources in the hands of the federal government, perhaps more so than in any existing federation globally.

Additionally, poor leadership and bad governance in national politics, under civil democratic rule, especially at the federal level, further compounded and complicated the atrocities perpetrated on the Nigerian federal arrangement by the departed military rulers. Hence, presently, the Nigerian federation is truly at crossroads. Either it is urgently reformed and repositioned to satisfy the yearnings and aspirations of Nigerians for a federation based of the rule of law, justice, equity and equality of opportunity for all citizens, or it would be engulfed in perpetual instability and poor management of diversity, with the likely terrible possibility of dismemberment by the extremist agitations for new ‘nations’ to be curbed out of present-day Nigeria.

A key question crying to be answered is: How can the Nigerian federation be restructured, to make it efficient and effective in satisfying the needs and aspirations of its citizens, to substantively manage diversity, to forge unity and sense of belonging for and by all, and to bring about democratic and socioeconomic development beneficial to all citizens?

A first step in the right direction to addressing this pertinent question, is coming to terms with the challenges and prospects of restructuring the Nigerian federation. In this regard, we need to come to terms with the fact that restructuring is a necessary, though not a sufficient condition for Nigeria’s stability, governmental legitimacy, and development in all its ramifications (socio-economic, political and democratic).

Coming to terms with the concept of Federalism

Federalism is the principle, some would say a conceptual or institutional framework, which defines “the division of authority among national and subnational governments” in a given country (Rozell and Wilcox 2019). Such a country is referred to as a federation, or as operating a federal system. Regardless of whether the subnational governments were priory independent and came together voluntarily to form / create a federation, or federal system, or they were compelled by historical circumstances (such as colonization and conquest) and forced into such a union, the subnational governments have, by legal, constitutional arrangement, become the ‘federating units”, which have coordinate, or shared, responsibilities with the national government.

A major objective of a federal system is non-conflictual management of diversity and sharing of power and resources for stable societal progress and socioeconomic development. Both in law and in practice, most federations strive, and take care, to ensure equity and justice in the division of authority and resources among the federating units and in compliance with the rule of law, because doing this, nurtures conducive environment for peaceful coexistence, proactively blocks irredentist tendencies, and facilitate stable socioeconomic development, especially in the context of good, democratic, governance.

Thus, technically and substantively, Nigeria is a federation, and operates a federal system, presently with the states as the federating units. However, among the federations that currently exist in the world (according to Forum of Federations, about 25 countries, representing about 40{ea8c11308c9c5919903708965b7b7a67d75ff567d88a1bebc318ff793fd0b309} of the world population), Nigeria is one of the worst models of political accommodation of diversity, as well as power and resources sharing.

Of course, there are no perfect federations or for that matter “true federalism”. Every federation is a product of the dynamics of its historical evolution and inter-group (ethnic, religious, linguistic, cultural, etc.) relations. However, the better the framework/structure for management of diversity, power and resources sharing is in a federation, the more stable, peaceful and socioeconomically developed it would be. What accounts for the difference between better and poor/bad management of diversity in a federal system, i.e. the intervening variables, are: 1) elite consensus; and 2) good, democratic, governance. Without these, it can be said, a la Horowitz, that federalism would exacerbate rather than mitigate ethnic and religious conflicts. (1985, 603). And, regrettably, this is what we are seeing in the Nigerian federal system.

Therefore, for its stability, progress and development as a modern nation-state, Nigeria’s current federal structure needs refinement and improvement, or some form of what can be called restructuring. We need elite consensus to bring it about, and we need good democratic governance to nurture and entrench political accommodation of diversity, as well as equitable power and resources sharing. The near absence of the two intervening variables has obstructed the attainment of the aforementioned desirable objective of a federal system.

Contextual Analysis

Unlike most, relatively stable, federations, the efficacy of Nigeria’s federal system has been undermined, essentially by an imbalance, as well as inequities in the allocation of responsibilities, and distribution of power and resources, between the national and subnational units. This imbalance is a product of Nigeria’s colonial experience, subsequent post-colonial authoritarian military rule, and series of reckless, bad and essentially undemocratic acts in governance, especially in the 21 years of civil ‘democratic’ rule.

Although there is a general recognition among the elite that existing imbalance and inequities, which have characterized the operation of our federal system are destructive of the essence of the Nigerian federation because, among other things, they provide the canon-fodder for heightened ethno-religious mobilization and violence, the segment of the elite that has been dominant in politics and governance has, basically, refused to be receptive to the vociferous demands for reforms. This is essentially because, for the dominant elite, being in power and controlling governance institutions has been primarily for self-serving objectives and personal aggrandizement, rather than for serving the people and the nation selflessly or, at least, with an enlightened self-interest. Paradoxically, this segment of the elite has a stranglehold on political power, by shrouding and projecting their access to power as group (ethnic and religious) representation, rather than for the protection of selfish interests, which it actually is! By so doing, they continue to ‘divide and rule’ by effectively mobilizing ethno-religious identities to perpetuate themselves in power.

In the Nigerian Fourth Republic, that is, since 1999, there have been two major undertakings to generate elite, if not national, consensus on how to address outstanding, burning, national issues, including, primarily, the “national question” and the undesirable structure of the federation. For example, there was the “Political Reform Conference” (2005/6) under the Obasanjo presidency; and there was the “National Conference” (2014) under the Jonathan presidency. The Report of each these conferences contained many good, rich recommendations for addressing persistent national challenges. Regrettably, both have remained unconsidered/unimplemented by the dominant segment of the elite in governance.

As governance increasingly becomes poor and bad, as Nigerian politics slides backward from “democratic” to undemocratic / authoritarian modes of governance, and consequently as the country is plunged into uncontrolled ethno-religious violence and other forms of criminality, the demands for restructuring have become vociferous, with even extremist, irredentist demands for the dismemberment what is now known as Nigeria.

The way things are going, Nigerians in general and the elite in particular, need to engage with the issue of restructuring more seriously and purposefully and begin to address it. I say ‘begin to address it’ because, regrettably, things have been allowed to be so bad for so long that it would require concerted, systematic effort over a carefully defined time-frame, to be able to successfully, permanently solve the challenges, which bedevil Nigeria, especially those, which have given rise to the intense demands and agitations for ‘restructuring’.

To my mind, there is no doubt that, understood properly, without grand standing and brinkmanship, restructuring is necessary and the time to begin to concretely commence it is NOW. But there should be no doubt, also, that although restructuring is necessary, it is not a sufficient condition for stability, progress and socioeconomic development in Nigeria. It would have to be combined with good democratic governance predicated on justice, equity and equality of opportunity for all citizens, for it to yield dividends in meeting the needs and aspirations of Nigerians. The other dimensions of national challenges, such as insecurity; poverty; poor access to, and poor quality of, education; unemployment; and denial of equality of opportunity to women, the physically challenged and so-called settlers; all these cannot be effectively and urgently addressed, without good democratic governance, driven by selfless, focused and patriotic leaders.

Nigeria had in the past (e.g. under the 1954 Lyttleton Constitution; as well as subsequently the Independence and republican Constitutions of 1960 and 1963) practised a better federal arrangement than what we have now. The experience of the First Republic in 1960s is now being celebrated by some people as the period of “true federalism”, to which they would want to drag Nigeria back to. Better as that period may be perceived to be in comparison to what obtains now, we cannot move into the future by going back to the past. What the past offers are lessons on how to avoid its pitfalls as we move into the future. Rather than going back in time to the past, we should move into the future by reforming / restructuring Nigeria’s federal system drawing upon not only lessons from the past, but also and especially current good practices from other federal systems globally, in terms of how to infuse a fair distribution of power and resources between the national and subnational units, predicated on justice and equity; and how to protect and defend citizenship rights guaranteed by the constitution.

As I observed some years back, the challenge of restructuring in Nigeria is

on how to address the issue of restructuring the Nigerian federal system without upsetting the apple-chart; that is, how to add value to the structure and systemic efficacy of the federal arrangement, without unleashing instability occasioned by the mobilization of ethnic, regional and religious sentiments and identities” (Jega, 2017:1).

Given the preceding introduction and contextual analysis, how are we to proceed with restructuring: Why restructuring? What should restructuring entail?  how do we restructure? and when? I now turn these pertinent questions.

Why Demands for Restructuring?

There are continuous and vociferous demands for restructuring because of the following:

1. Heightened mobilization and politicization of ethnic, regional and religious identities by politicians generally and so-called opinion leaders especially.
2. Actual cases and illustrations, as well as deep rooted perceptions, of marginalization and inequities in the management of the affairs of the country by successive governments/ regimes at the federal level
3. Bad governance: driven by incompetent, inept, inefficient and self-serving leadership, at both federal, state and local government levels
4. Failure of governance to satisfy the needs and aspirations of citizens
5. Increasing devastating poverty and deteriorating socioeconomic conditions of the citizens
6. Political brinksmanship by some elite, especially politicians and/or ethno-religious ‘war lords’

What restructuring should entail

A review of the debates, discourses and advocacy on the subject matter suggests that to many, restructuring may mean any, a combination or all, of the following:

1. A return to “true federalism”; described as re-establishing the regional structure of the 1960-1966, with the division of powers and allocation of resources as defined in the independence and republican constitutions of that period
2. Creation of 6 regions, akin to the so-called 6 geo-political zones, to replace the current 36 states structure
3. A return to the 12 states structure of 1967 – 1976
4. ‘Resources control’, whether in a new regional structure or under the current states structure, granting the subnational units the absolute control of all resources under, or above, their geographical territories or in their territorial waters, even in the continental shelf
5. Equitable redistribution of power and resources from the federal government to the subnational governments/ units (i.e. from federal government to State governments, to LGAs)
6. Replacement of the federal system with a confederation
7. Opportunity for any subnational unit, or groupings of subnational units, to withdraw from the Nigerian federation and assert their sovereignty on the basis of an (essentially fabricated) ethnic identity
8. Creation of a total of 42 states, to equalize and bring to 7 the total number of states in each of the 6 geopolitical zones

After a critical evaluation of the benefits versus the costs of each of these notions of restructuring, I believe that the starting point of desirable and serious, even realistic and sustainable, restructuring, is no.5, namely, equitable redistribution of power and resources from the federal government to the subnational governments/ units (i.e. from federal government to State governments, and from states to LGAs).

Dismantling the current 36 States structure, and reconfiguring the states into pre-1966 regions, or into 6 geo-political regions, or even into 12 States of the 1976/77 period, is at worst an unrealistic, romantic, pipe-dream; and at best easier but virtually impossible to do. The social and political costs of such an undertaking would by far out-weigh the benefits. In many fundamental respects, creation of states by military regimes since 1967 has gone a long way to mitigate real and imagined/perceived marginalization of minorities; although given Nigeria’s complex diversity, the more states created, the more their economic viability is threatened; and the newer ‘majorities’ and ‘minorities’ emerged, with fresh demands by the ‘new minorities’ for their own states.

The challenges and tensions that would unfold in any attempt to regroup states into regions or into mega 12 states, given that their people have tasted relative autonomy, could only best be imagined. Relative autonomy once gained, is difficult if not near impossible to voluntarily surrender. If the major argument against the current 36 states structure is that many seem economically unviable, there are other better ways to address that and make them more viable. For example, improved, (or good democratic) governance, with efficient allocation and utilization of resources, with curtailed corruption, and with greater effort at internal revenue generation, would make virtually all the seemingly unviable states, viable and sustainable.

If, in addition to improved/good governance, more powers are taken away from the federal government, by sanitizing items on the Federal Legislative List and the Concurrent List, in line with global best practices, and given to the states, with commensurate additional allocation of resources, the states would not only be viable but would also move in the desirable direction of competitive federalism, in which they would try to out-do each other in the design and execution of beneficial, people-oriented programs and projects for the benefits of their residents.

Why Restructure?

What commends restructuring and makes it attractive are the expected benefits. The potential benefits of restructuring as conceptualized in this presentation, i.e. as de-concentration and redistribution of power and resources from the national to the subordinate units, are enormous and can be summarized as follows:

1. To bring about stability in the Nigerian federation, and make the environment amenable to accelerated socioeconomic development
2. To expand the scope of, as well as strengthen, unity in diversity
3. To ensure peaceful co-existence, with equity, justice and equality of opportunity for all citizens throughout the Nigeria
4. To make existing states and local governments more functional and more viable as governance entities
5. To protect and defend the rights of all citizens throughout Nigeria, by giving primacy to citizenship and residency rights over and above so-called ‘indigenes’ rights’
6. To create a sense of national belonging to all, as Nigerian citizens, regardless of communal and ethno-religious identities and/or chosen place of residence.
7. To eliminate or at least drastically reduce deep-seated mutual suspicions and fears, and perceptions marginalization amongst Nigerians, which have undermined national cohesion, unity and integration

If and when Nigeria is ‘restructured’ and managed well, along the lines as suggested, the benefits to the citizens of remaining together in one united country would by far out- weigh the costs of separation into smaller“sovereign” ethno-religious entities.

How to Restructure

The best way to restructure the Nigerian federation is to pursue systematic, incremental positive changes and avoid “once for all”, wholesale, undertakings, because they are time consuming, energy sapping, and constraining. The National Assembly’s efforts to do constitutional Amendments since 1999, “all at a go!”, consequently with little value addition, has lessons for us to draw from.

Specifically, the best way to go about it would be to:

1. Reduce powers and resources of the federal government specified in the Federal and Concurrent Legislative Lists in the 1999 Constitution as Amended)
2. Increase powers and resources of the state governments on the State Legislative List
3. Devolve powers and resources from the states to the local governments as administrative units within the states
4. Require the states to create “Development Areas”, as the lower level tier of administration at the grassroots level, below the LGAs
5. Accordingly, review the resources allocation / revenue sharing formula between federal and states (and local governments) taking into consideration the new sharing of power and responsibilities.

For example, what could be termed as the global best practices in federal systems is that, unlike what obtains in Nigeria, healthcare provisioning, education provisioning, agriculture, housing and urban development, are all state responsibilities, with the role of the federal government in these matters limited to setting standards, regulatory framework, and incentive structures in form of grants-in-aid and so on, to ensure balanced and even development throughout the country. In this context, there would be no need for behemoth Federal Ministries of education, health, housing and urban development, rural development, etc., controlling resources, which ordinarily should go to the states. Even the role of the federal government in roads and transportation could be limited to Highways, which promote inter-state commerce in the federation, while many of the so called “Trunk A” roads that are within states urban areas, or linking towns within the states, should be made the responsibility of the States.

The major responsibilities of the federal government should be limited to Inter-state Commerce, national banking, currencies, foreign relations, communications, aviation, seaports, foreign loans, armed forces and security services, postal services and telecommunications, mining and such. States should have a role in policing, which should be on the Concurrent Legislative List.

Given issues relating to capacity and competence, the handing over of these powers and responsibilities should be phased, in accordance with the imperatives of systematic, incremental positive changes.

When to Restructure

In accordance with the principle of “incremental positive changes,” a three-phased restructuring agenda, is proposed as follows:

1.Short term – 2021 to 2023

1.1 the federal government should set up a compact but broadly representative technical committee to review the reports of the Political Reform Conference and the National Conference and Synthesize and prioritize their recommendations for implementation in accordance with the 3 phases of short-, medium- and long term
1.2 Review the Federal Legislative List and begin the process of constitutional review together with the National Assembly with a view to transferring responsibilities, power and resources to states in the following subject matters: Basic education; primary and secondary healthcare; Agriculture and rural development; Police; Housing and Urban development; and appropriately adjusting the revenue sharing formula between federal and state governments. Although LGAs should be subsumed under the authority of the states, as is the best practice in federal systems globally, the states should be made to devolve some responsibilities and commensurate resources to LGAs to catalyse grassroots development. Indeed, the states should further decentralize the LGAs into Administrative/Development Areas
1.3 The federal government should systematically dismantle the behemoth MDAs, and set up smaller compact and focused departments; as well as set up a department of, or Agency for, Intergovernmental Relations, which should facilitate, coordinate, nurture and strengthen federal-state inter-relations
1.4 The federal and state governments should introduce governance reforms to improve efficiency and effectiveness of governance at all levels as well as drastically reduce the cost of governance. A lot can be done in this regard, within the extant legal framework, using executive orders and without the necessity of constitutional reforms. For example, frivolous foreign trips should be curtailed; our relatively liberal /generous estacodes and DTAs for legislatures and high public officials should be drastically reduced; “security votes” for chief executives should be reduced and expenditures from them made more transparent, with strict accountability standards. Also, entertainment and meeting expenditures of MDAs should be drastically reduced. Executives at both federal and state levels should pay for their own upkeep, as is the good practice globally, thereby reducing costs of running the Villa and governors’ lodges, or those of heads of legislative organs of government. The unethical humongous pensions of governors should be stopped; the number of PAs, SAs, SSAs, etc., as well as the number of vehicles in conveys of public officials should be reduced.
1.5 Other cost saving measures to reduce the cost of governance should include a consideration for reducing the size and composition of Legislative bodies at both federal and state levels.
1.6 Introduce and/or strengthen checks and balances that would curtail unrestrained use, misuse and abuse of power and resources in all the three arms of government. In this regard, in addition to Internal Audit Units, MDAs at both federal and state levels should establish relatively autonomous Inspectorate Units, with Inspectors Generalappointed and saddled with the responsibility of administrative audits to ensure administrative transparency and accountability, and monitor compliance with constitutional provisions, parliamentary Acts and extant rules and regulations.
1.7 Reposition the anti-corruption agencies and intensify the anti-corruption campaigns, especially at the states and local government levels.
1.8 All institutions of governance and public officials should be made to strictly comply with, and ensure respect for, the Rule of Law, with severe consequences for non-compliance.

2. Medium term – 2023 to 2027

Implement the prioritized recommendations of the technical committee, and hand over more responsibilities and resources to the states, which by then would have developed greater capacity and competence to shoulder these. Such powers relating to sea and airports; judiciary, pensions, Postal services and telecommunications, etc., can be handed over to the states

3. Long term – Beyond 2027

Pursue other pertinent constitutional and administrative reforms as may become necessary in order to keep improving the efficacy of the Nigerian federal system and governance processes.

If by this time redistribution of power and responsibilities to the states has not made them viable, or efficient and effective in the delivery of public goods to the citizens, then other measures, should be contemplated.

Challenges

In the present circumstances, as necessary and desirable as restructuring is, a number of challenges would have to be overcome to successfully bring it about. First, passion has been inflamed and allowed to circumscribe the discourse of restructuring, resulting in hardened antagonistic positions, which if this situation persists, would be make reconciliation and consensus building very difficult indeed, if not impossible. The perceptions of exclusion, marginalization and exploitation are so deep seated that they nurture and deepen divisions and illogical if not irrational agitations by extremist groups. In the circumstances, conversation, debate and dialogue are conducted at cross purposes, obstructive of accommodation of differing opinions and the pursuit of a rational and logical process of bringing about desirable restructuring of the Nigerian federation.

Second, in the governance sphere, at both the federal executive and legislative levels, the political will and competence seem lacking for the pursuit of credible and popularly acceptable procedures and processes of bringing about restructuring. The executive seems to take a back seat in the belief that it is purely a legislative matter, thereby failing to provide the requisite, proactive leadership for driving restructuring. On its part the legislature seem to take an overly legalistic posture, impatient with and indifferent to calls for transparent, inclusive and people-oriented strategies for achieving popularly acceptable restructuring.

Third, rather than prioritizing restructuring and focusing on addressing the key discernible challenges to power sharing and resources distribution/allocation amongst the federating units, the legislature pursues a comprehensive constitutional amendment process, with many contentious issues taken on board simultaneously. This makes the process time-consuming, overly contentious and susceptible to filibuster and likely derailment of the entire undertaking.

Fourth, leaving the very important business of restructuring until very close, i.e. 2 years, to the next general elections has its own challenges, given that Nigerian politicians tend to shy away from taking tough decisions in the national interest, especial on seemingly controversial issues, too close to general elections.

Prospects

In spite of the challenges, the prospects of are not as hopeless as some would assume them to be. Nigeria needs stability and increased legitimacy for elected officials in governance; needs good governance, better nurtured and deepened democratic development; and needs economic growth and socioeconomic development. For all these, better management of ethno-religious diversity on the basis of rule of law, justice, equity and equality of opportunity, is a necessary precondition. That is what a federal arrangement is meant to ensure, but is not what the current federal structure and practice of federalism in Nigeria provides. Rather, it ensures an asymmetrical and unequal distribution of power and allocation of resources between the national government and the subnational units, the states. Therefore, some form of restructuring before the next general elections in 2023 to reverse the trend and reposition Nigeria a viable and effective federation is necessary. One can say with little if any fear of contradiction that there is at least an elite consensus on the fact that the current Nigerian federal arrangement isn’t optimally working and needs improvement. Where consensus seems lacking is on the nature and extent of restructuring to be undertaken before the next general elections in 2023.

To my mind, the prospects would look brighter, if as suggested in the presentation, an agenda for restructuring is developed and agreed upon, on the basis of short-, medium- and long-terms, with the component of the short-term focused upon and addressed before 2023. After which, a priority preoccupation of the next incoming elected government should be implementation of the medium- and long-term aspects of the defined agenda.

Conclusion

Effort and energies need to be devoted to generating an elite, if not a national, consensus on the necessity of restructuring, defined as redistribution of power and resources from the federal to the state governments, to be commenced before the general elections in 2023. The embedded imbalance, inequities and perceived injustices in the current federal system in Nigeria have to be addressed as soon as possible to enable Nigeria and Nigerians to acquire the requisite stability and peaceful coexistence amenable to accelerated, sustainable socioeconomic development. The best strategy for success is the pursuit of a systematic, incremental positive changes through constitutional amendments, in phases, commencing with a review and sanitizing of the Federal and Concurrent Legislative lists, giving more powers and resources to the states, complemented by other reform measures to nurture and entrench good, democratic governance at all levels, from the federal to states and local governments. Elected officials in both the executive and legislative branches of government need to gather the courage and have the political will to work together, bringing along critical stakeholders from the civil society, to begin to actualize restructuring as advocated in this presentation before 2023. The necessity of redressing the imbalance and inequities embedded in the current federal system in Nigeria has been ignored for too long, and any further neglect may irreparably imperil the efficacy and viability of the Nigerian federation.

References

Horowitz, D. L.,1999. Ethnic Groups in Conflict. Berkeley: University of California Press.

JEGA, A. M., 2017. “Towards Restructuring of the Nigerian Federal System: Contribution to a Discussion”. Unpublished.

Jega, A. M. 2021a. “Restructuring in Nigeria: Why? How? When?”, presentation at the Trust Annual Dialogue, on Thursday, January 21, 2021, at the NAF Conference Centre and Suites, Gwarimpa Express Way, Kado, Abuja.

Jega, A. M., 2021b. “Federalism and Restructuring in Nigeria: Perspectives, Challenges and Prospects”,Lecture Delivered at the Nuhu Muhammadu Sanusi Auditorium, Federal University, Dutse, Jigawa State, April 7, 2021

Rozell, M. J. and C. Wilcox (2019). Federalism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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