By Sufuyan Ojeifo
In the early 50’s, two nagging issues tormented Elizabeth Ivase as Nigeria approached independence: what would be the fate of her minority Tiv ethnic group in the giant Northern Region dominated by the Hausa Fulani?
Secondly, as a woman, what would be her place in a society like the north which restricted women to the kitchen and the other room?
Two prominent national politicians came to her rescue. One was Joseph Tarka and the other was Gambo Sawaba.
Joseph Tarka was the leader of the United Middle Belt Congress (UMBC) which championed the dismemberment of the giant north to give the minority tribes a state of their own. Gambo Sawaba on the other hand led the crusade for the liberation of northern women.
Then, it was clear that the Northern People’s Congress (NPC), a conservative party would take over government when the colonial masters left. The party was in no hurry to change the status quo as it affected the rights of ethnic minorities or women in the north. Those who challenged the status quo invited the wrath of the colonial masters and the NPC.
Opposition leaders in those days saw hell. They were sometimes killed extra judiciary, often beaten in public and dragged to courts where rather grotesque sentences were handed down on them. Under this climate, it would have been much safer for Elizabeth Ivase to walk the path of least resistance by sticking to her job as a teacher as most of her contemporaries with her level of education did at the time. Instead, she decided to differ: she crossed the enemy line to join the opposition and by so doing stepped on explosive landmines.
Her leaders – Joseph Tarka and Gambo Sawaba- who should have come to her rescue in times of trouble were themselves always in trouble. Beatings, court appearances and unjust convictions were common to both. Gambo Sawaba a follower of Malam Aminu Kano’s NEPU in Zaria was always at the receiving end of the Native Authority, the Alkari courts and the Jamiyar Mahaukita – association of madmen – the militant wing of the NPC. She endured many persecutions in Zaria and when she went to Kano to spread the message of NEPU, she was arrested, imprisoned unjustly and taken to the Emir of Kano who banished her from Kano.
Joseph Tarka was no better off. He was once charged to court for ‘levying war against Her Majesty the Queen of England’- the first and only Nigerian to be so charged. Again he was charged in the treasonable felony case in which Chief Obafemi Awolowo and others were convicted in 1963. If the big opposition shots could be so roughly handled, one could imagine what their followers like Elizabeth Ivase went through. Many died in the process.
To Elizabeth Ivase, there was no going back. At the Willinks Commission on minorities in 1957, she engaged Abdul Ganiyu Abdul Razq in a heated argument when the man wanted to block her from making her representation to the commission. When you consider the fact that her adversary in this confrontation was not only the first northerner to be called to the English Bar but also the legal adviser to the all-powerful NPC that controlled power in the North, you will get an idea of the courage and gumption embodied in Elizabeth Ivase.
Mercifully, the struggle has paid off. Even before independence, society began to recognize the value and tenacity of Elizabeth Ivase. She was made a member of Board of Governors of Women Teachers College in Kabba, (1959 – 61) present day Kogi State.
All through the days of the NPC in the first republic, 1960-1966, she was at war and could not be given a chance to prove her worth.
With the military government, she was given a little chance. She became the first female member of the Gboko Town Council (1971-1973); the first female member of the Benue Plateau Scholarship Board; first and only female member of Benue Plateau Leaders of Thought, the Benue Plateau Thinking Group, (1973-1974); first female member of the Tiv Local Education Authority and first Tiv woman to be elevated to the position of Chief Education Officer.
But her ultimate dreams became a reality with the coming of the 2nd republic in 1979. For the first time in the history of Nigeria, the Constitution that ushered in that Republic agreed with Gambo Sawaba and Elizabeth Ivase that women in the North should be allowed to vote. In 1979, northern women voted – much to her relief. A major beneficiary of her struggle for universal adult suffrage for northern women is Senator Khariat Abdulrazaq Gwadabe, daughter to the ultra-conservative NPC lawyer Abdulrazaq who did all he could to stop Elizabeth Ivase from tabling a case for northern women at the Willinks Commission in 1957. Not only has she got a chance to vote today, she has been elected into the highest legislative body in the country – the Senate.
The government of Aper Aku appointed Elizabeth Ivase a Commissioner for Special Duties in 1979, the first woman to be made a Commissioner in Benue state. In that position, she conceived the Taraku Soya Oil mill and also the earth dam at Ahungwa that supplies the Industrial water that is used at Dangote cement in Yandev today. Later when she was transferred to the Ministry of Education, she spearheaded the establishment of Day Secondary Schools in the state to bring education closer to the people.
Now the big one: In February 1982, President Shehu Shagari in appreciation of all her achievements for women in Nigeria, particularly northern women appointed her into his cabinet as a Minister. She thus became the first woman from the North to hold a cabinet position at the Federal Level.
With the coming of the military in 1984, Mrs Ivase withdrew her participation in partisan politics, devoting most of her life to community, state and national causes. She has been a National Commissioner of INEC, a member of the panel that wrote the report for the setting up of the Benue State University – the first state owned university in the north; the first and so far the only Chairman of the Governing Council of the premier higher institution in Benue State, the Katsina Ala College of Education; the first chairman of Board of Trustees of Nigerian Association of Women Entrepreneurs; first and current President of Mzough u Kasev Tiv – Tiv wives Association World-wide.
In recognition of her services to her immediate community, state and nation she has received many awards: The Penda Ityo u Tiv – the heartbeat and Centre of Tiv Nation- an award from the Tiv Traditional Council; recipient of honorable Doctor of letters from Benue State University; a fellow of both the Leadership Institute of Nigeria and the Institute of Governance and Social Research; a recipient of the Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON). To crown it all, the President of Turkey conferred on her the Zubeye Hainum Merit Award and many more.
Elizabeth Ivase is a towering figure in the north and in Nigeria. Yet her humility is disarming. Three years ago at a time she was in ill health, she still attended the burial of my mother in my rather remote village. “Mama” I screamed in disbelief on seeing her. She is my mother in every sense of the word. Still when I call her Mama, I have a feeling that I’am debasing her real worth. Any foolish woman can be a mother anyway.
Given the chance, I will crown her the ‘First Lady of The North’. No woman alive today has done so much for the benefit of the northern woman.
Sadly, Elizabeth Ivase had her last breath on Saturday, July 13th by 4.Pm.