By Ambassador Godknows Boladei Igali
The city of Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, gathered on Tuesday,16th February, 2021, to celebrate the life and times of one of the country’s all-time amazon and great patriot, Honourable (Amb) Bolere Elizabeth Ketebu. When she passed exactly one month ago on 16th January 2021 at the age of 66, an avalanche of tears and lamentations came in overwhelming quantities from allover the country and around the world. But having passed the initial shock and sharp agony of her exit, all have come to appreciate more poignantly, her life of unusual achievements which was multifaceted.
Mrs. Ketebu was a Medical Doctor, a leading Public Health Consultant, a women mobilizer and influencer. She was also an avid Environmental Activist and a politician of high repute. Plus, she was a diplomat of a special genre and above all these, a mother, a grandmother, a wife and an exceptional family person. Born on 25th October, 1954, as one of twin daughters in the ‘eyimba’ city of Aba, in Nigeria’s Abia State, she lived her life to the fullest.
Many things in the effusive life of this woman trace back to her family origins. Firstly, she came from the town of Odi in Bayelsa State, which became ill-famed as a result of its assault and destruction in 1999 in the hands of men of the Nigerian Army. Unknown to many, Odi is one of the largest traditional cities of the Ijaw Ethnic Nationality, Nigeria’s fourth largest ethnic group. Beyond that, it was one of the first locations in Nigeria that opened its doors to western education and civilization. For that reason, it quickly produced some of the first set of well-educated people from that part of Nigeria who became part of the colonial and later Eastern Nigeria civil service. Apart from the fact that the town today boasts of producing three federal ministers (Dan Etete, Becky Ketebu-Igweh and Prof. Turner Isoun), in the past, it had also brought up people like Chief Joshua Babala Ketebu, the patriarch of the family.
Dr. Bolere was therefore raised in a family of national service and shared childhood shuttling between Aba, Port Harcourt and Enugu, the latter being the capital of the Eastern Region at the time where her father was in politics and service. He was an active Zikist, a ranking member of the National Council of Nigerians Citizens (NCNC) party.
Another factor that brought her broad outlook to life was the fact that her mother, Mrs Comfort Okhiaro Ketebu was from another cultural background, that is present Edo State. This multi-cultural home, in which they were nurtured happened at a time when prejudices of various types existed large as it concerned such cross-cultural families. For the Ketebu children, it turned out to be a great asset as it broadened their individual horizons and made them to see the strength of growing up in an atmosphere of competitiveness and courage. Added to this was the fact that their mother was herself a woman of sterner stuff who played leading roles in Young Women Christian Association (YWCA) and in the women’s wing of the NCNC.
Contemporaries of Pa Ketebu mentioned that his obsession with education and national service went beyond his children to the larger Odi community and was responsible for the existence today of a large number of professionals such as permanent secretaries both federal and state, members of the judiciary, military top brass and academia from the community. It was particularly intriguing that Pa Ketebu focused pointedly on Girl Child Education, which saw him prepare Dr. Bolere and her twin sister, a former minister, Bekere (Becky) Grace Ketebu-Igweh for greater national service ahead. Dr. Ketebu therefore started life with a good foundation appreciating the worth of self-realisation irrespective of the limitations that were placed on women and strove to become the best in her chosen areas. It also helped her realize and develop her potentials, quite early in life.
In all the schools that she and her siblings attended, they left a record of being on top. By the time she got to secondary education at Government Girls Secondary School, Harbour Road, Port Harcourt, they proved their mettle in taking all the laureates in this all girl’s school, which is now owned by the Methodist Church. In her final year, she rose to become the Head Girl. With the vicissitudes of life, which resulted in the early exit of Pa Ketebu, or the fact that Bolere did not deter her from pursuing education. Hence. her entry into the University of Lagos to study Medicine and successfully graduating as a Medical Doctor in 1980. After a fulfilling practice as a physician in the Rivers State Ministry of Health, she still decided to pursue knowledge and therefore passed her exams to become a Fellow of the West African College of Physicians. As if that was not enough, in 1987, she went on to acquire a Master’s Degree in Public Health and Community Medicine at the Nigerian Post Graduate Medical College, and later in the United States. The robust academic foundation led her to take up lecturership at the College of Medicine, University of Port Harcourt for some years.
With this training both as a clinician and as public health sector advocate, she was able to reach out to a lot of communities and became a champion of the fight against communicable and non-communicable diseases, maternal health, infant mortality, hunger and nutrition.
A greatly intriguing aspect of her life was the fact that her practice as a medical doctor brought her to deeper understanding of the realities of human development and existential conditions in Nigeria. This opened a new vista in her life. Amongst other things, it enamoured her to set up a Micro Finance Scheme for women groups around the country. This was with a view to enabling them access small and micro finances for cooperative and small scale economic pursuits. It also saw her establish and run a home for children who were abandoned or with special needs; passions that continued with her all through her life. These encouraged her into other areas of public service especially activism on women affairs and full-time politics.
She began therefore to become a champion of women mobilization and empowerment initially under the YWCA and National Council of Women Societies (NCWS) in old Rivers State. As such, mobilizing women around the country especially in Abuja and her home state of old Rivers became a routine. Beyond that, this saw her rise through the rungs on issues concerning women both in Nigeria and around the world. Finally, she became elected as President, National Council of Women Societies (NCWS) of Nigeria. Since 1959 when the NCWS was established, it has been the apex organization for the propagation and protection of women interests in Nigeria.
During her stewardship at NCWS, she undertook massive reforms that bother on the welfare of women as well as set up platforms for their empowerment all over the country. She instituted a Council of Elders, bringing onboard, as it were, the nation’s matriarchal heroines who are alive at any given time. It is for these, that later in life, she was elected Adviser, Habitat to the International Women Council (ICW) and later on a full member of the Board of ICW from 2003-2009. Still on women agenda which since Beijing in 1995 has become frontal in the global discourse, she became the coordinator of all the National Council of Women Societies in all of Africa and also chairperson of the United Nations Status of Women, (Project Five Zero On Girl Child Education).
On the political front, her involvement with women at different grassroots levels, brought her to national limelight as a leader of reckoning. She contested election at different levels and finally won a seat to represent what was then Yenagoa Federal constituency in the House of Representatives from 1992-1993. Thereafter, at various times she contested for governorship of Bayelsa State and between 2007 and 2009 also served as Secretary to the Bayelsa State Government. In the immediate past election for Bayelsa Central Senatorial seat in November 2020, she again contested.
Her public service record also saw her enter into the world of diplomacy in 2013 where she was appointed as Nigeria’s Ambassador to the Republic of Ireland. In that position, she stood out as one of Nigeria’s most outstanding envoys. This was particularly in the areas of economic and cultural diplomacy, both at her main base in Dublin and the Republic of Iceland where she was concurrently accredited to.
In other areas of public life, she was severally on the boards of several academic institutions. Including her alma mater, University of Lagos, so served as a member of the Governing Council. In other respects, she also sat on about 25 different boards, commissions and committees both at federal and state levels.
But life has not been a bed of roses at all times as many have come to know. In course of her service, Ambassador Ketebu was framed and made to go through some tough times with the law. During her service as President of NCWS, her exuberant moves in setting up empowerment schemes for women and countless programs was viewed by some with suspicion. This saw them rush to bring her before the law, and under the peril of adverse national media. Well, this is not peculiar to her as some of the greatest people in history, both in our country and elsewhere who have left their imprint in the sands of time went through similar experiences. What is important is that, by the end of the day she came out unscathed and completely vindicated.
Another coma, her celebrated marriage to debonair politician and now elder statesman, Chief Tonye Graham-Douglas, ended in a greatly publicised divorce; a typical scenario when big trees fall. But the five children, products of the marriage were raised jointly. Despite her active life, she was a greatly passionate and dutifully protective mother. Amongst her children are the award winning actress, Bikiya Graham-Douglas, author and publisher Ibiso Graham-Douglas and others who are all successful in their life pursuits. In all, she continued to maintain dignified respect and relationship with Chief Graham-Douglas, to the admiration of all. But at the time of her passing, she remarried to Dr. Collins Okehie.
For such a robust active life, it will be expected that recognitions came from all over the world. However, the greatest of these was the award of Officer of Order of the Niger (OON), one of the highest honours, which any Nigerian can receive. She was also a devoted Christian and was knighted in the Anglican Church. At various stages in life, she also put her hands into business and was quite successful in the areas in which she invested in.
Nigerian women even against all forms of cultural, occupation and institutional biases, have never taken the backbench of relegation. However many have always carved out a niche for themselves while combining the task of raising worthy families and unleashing the warmth of motherhood. There are several of them that continue to prove their ability in combining such rigours of the home front, which God has endowed on them, with the life of professional accomplishment.
Actually, what makes Dr. Ketebu stand out is the fact that she was not just a career woman, she was also an academic, a politician, public servant and an activist of spectacular worth. Yet, on every front, she left a mark. She typified what former American First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt said: “A woman is like a tea bag; you never know how strong it is until it’s in hot water”. Dr. Ketebu was strong and for all these, the nation will remember her for quite a long time to come and will celebrate her memory eternally. She has no doubt entered the pantheon of who-is-who, not only in the annals of womanhood in Nigeria, but will be remembered as a nation builder of distinct genre. She came, changed the world, and with such exceptional beauty, grace, talents and energy, just left peremptorily like a “candle in the wind”.
Doo muu binarau!!!
Ambassador Godknows Boladei Igali is a former Federal Permanent Secretary