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
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 judicially, 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
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
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
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.
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 2018 by 4.Pm.