Rt Hon Elizabeth Onyene Ative is a member representing Onwode constituency in the Edo state House of Assembly. A former Speaker, Deputy Speaker and Former Chief Whip of the Assembly, she was also one-time President of the National Youth Council of Nigeria (NYCN). In this interview with ENE OSANG she talked about her doggedness in politics, challenges among others.
Could you take us through your journey into politics and leadership?
I started very early in life rendering services. I was a member of the Girls Guide, where we do a lot of training on building skills and preparing for leadership from that early stage of life.
Girls Guide is a member of the Youth Council so, from there I graduated into youth activism in the National Youth Council of Nigeria (NYCN) and I advanced to became chairman of the council in my state.
During my reign as chairman, I built a youth house in Edo state which I don’t think any other can be compared to. Today, it is a legacy and a place youths call theirs.
I also made belonging to voluntary youth organisation compulsory for all youths; this made all youths engaged and so no time for anyone to be involved in vices.
The entire Nigerian youths saw my project and they voted for me to be their National President.
During the holidays young people will be in the camps with the paramilitary, faith based organisations, Red Cross society and many others.
So, they were all occupied positively, that whenever they return from camp and are going back to school they are always enthusiastic to put the skills learnt from camp into practice.
So, we grew under that patriotism and desire to serve the country but I didn’t know I was being trained for politics.
I hold a first Degree in Health Education and Masters Degree in Anthropology, my area of specialty is social work. So, I became a Nurse, Staff Nurse, Staff Midwife, but I graduated from the NYCN to main politics in 1999.
When I contested for the Edo State House of Assembly, the leaders didn’t allow me go to the primaries because I was made to step down for Hon Samson Osagie.
The second time I wanted to contest in 2003, I was still asked to step down for same person and let him complete eight years.
Would you say you were asked to step because you are a woman?
Yes, it is because I am a woman. I know you can easily talk to a woman to step down because women are patient, I was patient. Again, that was the procedure at that time I stepped down. I worked with the party and after eight years I started campaigning again. Hon Osagie moved up to the National Assembly and in 2007 I won but unfortunately one and a half years into office I was asked to go home by the court.
I was not deterred, rather I went back to my people and celebrated the period I stayed in office and the people were amazed and encouraged me to go back.
I went back again, won and became their representative. I started a project, which is one of its kind in the country; free health care for all.
I had a mobile clinic with nurses, who were my colleagues in Midwifery and had retired but are not tired to work. I enrolled all of them including doctors, the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) was sending to me.
We moved from village to village, closing the gaps in healthcare service delivery because even the Primary Healthcare Centres were not functioning.
I started the Healthcare Protect and till today have not stopped and this made my people vote for me for the third time. I am yet to find another representative that started a free healthcare program and continued without break because it is expensive but I didn’t mind because my people needed it.
What is your experience as a woman in politics?
It has not been easy, in fact, I have been the only woman in the House for the past 10 years.
I am also, the only woman elected in the past 10 years on the platform Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) that cumulated into the All Progressive Congress (APC).
Being the only one shows that it has not been easy, even as I speak, I am fighting the battle of my life to create space for younger women because, if I chicken out of this battle those young women looking up to me will be disappointed and disappear.
I believe I will win the battle for a woman to become Deputy Speaker and even Speaker.
In fact, in the whole of South-south, even in APC there is no woman who has achieved this and when I became one it was not easy because they were scared of my background as an activist. So, by all means they didn’t want me in that position.
However, in that short period as the Speaker, I gave life to the House, made it so viable and recognised that even the governor was afraid of the House.
That security and autonomy, I took it by all means for the House because it was a time members could seat without any external influence in the House and because of that, some powers that be never liked it and so insisted I step down.
When they checked, there was no reason for me to be impeached because I didn’t commit any crime and my members were with me all through the time.
So, they brought the issue of zoning into it. In the state, we are categorised into Edo-north, Edo-east and Edo-central; and they said Edo-central was not taken care of and we were preparing for the election that will bring in Governor Obaseki.
So, they said if they did not take care of Edo-central they won’t vote for us.
They pleaded I should step down for the sake of the party, the pressure was much and I didn’t want the party to lose because of my personal interest.
So, I decided to swap and became Deputy Speaker while the Deputy became Speaker. Now the governor is from Edo-north, the deputy governor is from Edo-south while the Speaker is from Edo-central.
Do you still aspire to be the Speaker?
No, we have passed that stage; this is my third term. In fact, I should aspire to be in the House of Representatives or Senate because I had become Speaker and was not impeached.
You are resilient, would you say other women in politics have this quality?
No, they don’t because the strength I have is not acquired as a politician, it was built from youth days when I belonged to various voluntary youth organisations.
I went through life skills trainings before getting here but, today we discovered that women, who come into politics it is either through the slot of their husbands or through their father and so, they are not prepared for it. That is why any little breeze they are gone.
I am an advocate of the fact that young girls and boys as they grow should be exposed to clubs and voluntary youth organisations. The kind of training one gets is not stereotype kind of training but it prepares you for the challenges of the future and puts you on the track to think and work towards a destiny one would be happy when you look back. Unfortunately, that’s not the kind of youth activism we have today.
How would you describe politics in Nigeria?
Nigerian political terrain is muddy and it is even getting muddier by the day because of favouritism. It is expensive, lots of cults and so on. But, some of us who have refused to be part of these inequities are still surviving.
Women shouldn’t say because it is muddy, they will shy away. Rather I believe that we must struggle to be in it because the more the merrier.
For instance, women look up to me to save them when they are in trouble but when I am in trouble not one of these women will do anything, they will be calling to say “the Lord is your strength” but the men, when they are in trouble a lot of them rally round to ensure that no one hears it. That is why more women should join politics because the more the merrier.
APC government has been accused of not involving women in governance, as a member what is your take on it?
I agree that the APC is guilty of this accusation and should take responsibility because like I told you, I am the only woman but if there is a deliberate attempt on women inclusion it will happen. For example, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) of those days carried women along and they made it compulsory that in every three delegates there must be a woman.
APC only has women inclusion in their manifesto but implementation is a problem everywhere. The men in our party are very selfish, it is the truth, I stand to be challenged. They are not there for women. It is an area I am working hard on and I hope one day they will hear our voice.
Why do you want the women to be in governance?
Women should be in governance and leadership positions because it is the lack of women in government that has put us where we are today. Women are more focused, result oriented, calculated and even when they steal, they steal small but men are very guilty of all of these.
It has been proven by research that any nation that does not include women in elective and appointive positions is backward. You find that countries that have women as Speakers, Presidents today are growing.
Is there a possibility of female President in Nigeria?
Yes, a female president in Nigeria is possible. We have the population, all we need is leadership. If we get one or two women, who have the means and we support them it will happen.
South Africa, Rwanda have more women to offices we have rich women but it has not dawn on them to use their wealth to improve the lot of other women, that when they do that they are helping the nation. We need to mobilize ourselves if we must move forward.
Do you think that women in governance are adequately mentoring younger ones to take over from them?
For now, we don’t have adequate mentoring. However, some of us are working hard to groom younger women because the younger women are watching the intimidation and harassment we go through.
If I have the means, I will mentor young girls in the university because most women who come into politics are those who have worked and retired. If we have young women like the young men from NANs we will have more women ready to take over.
Secondly younger women are not supported by the society to go into politics but in countries Luke Jordan, the females engage in volunteering and activism and get better jobs before marriage.
We have to douse the old wife’s tales that young women listen to and help them get a career before marriage.
Younger women need to be mentored in politics and it would be helpful if CSO’s support this move. More women should be mentored so they can mentor others but this requires finance and this is the challenge.
Again, educated women should join politics because the more the merrier, because if we have 500 men and 500 women contesting there are more chances of the women winning positions. But if only a few are contesting positions against many men, chances are that only few or none will get the position.
2019 general elections are drawing near, what are the chances of women?
We will see more women support as we go. Yes, before now people talked about Sarah Jibrin and that has passed. If a credible woman who has been tested and trusted like Pauline Tallen comes out to contest, I bet you she won’t get just one vote.
UN Women should also engage more rural women in terms of poverty eradication because male politicians pay them more than the women to get their votes.
How do you feel seeing the NYCN being politicised?
I feel so sad, so bad in fact I have spent my hard-earned money to sponsor conferences and conventions to reintegrate the minds of the young people but I found out that they are difficult to manage.
If we begin to catch the youths now and train them from primary to secondary levels then we can begin to direct their minds, but the ones who are now men it is difficult to manage.
Don’t you think that early exposure to information technology may be a constraint in the grooming of the youths?
I think Lagos state is doing that and they are very close. Voluntary youth organisation programmes in schools is compulsory, where every Fridays young people go to various organisations. If we can do that, it will be very helpful in saving the upcoming youths.