Goodnight my friend: Tribute to Innocent Chukwuma
Nothing could have prepared Bisi and I for the shocking news of Innocent Chukwuma’s passing, which we received on the morning of April 4, 2021. We were at our country home engaging different grassroots stakeholder groups over the Easter holidays, and the only way I could get through the packed schedule for the day without betraying emotions publicly was to succumb completely to the allure of denial – the momentary coping mechanism that defers dealing with painful realities but does not take the sting away.
Only the day before, we learnt of Yinka Odumakin’s passing. It seemed like both legends of the struggle had agreed to serve us their untimely exits back to back, so we could deal with the agony in one season. Pain tugged at our hearts as we tried to conacentrate. In between meetings we managed to speak with our sister, his widow Josephine on phone. Since then, I have remained in denial – even after visiting our dear departed friend’s home to commiserate with the family. I am yet to come to terms with the reality of the huge loss, which makes penning a fitting tribute in his honour especially difficult.
How could Inno be dead? My mind keeps going back to our last engagement on our polity and the fragility of our democracy despite all the work that has been put into the Nigeria project so far. I keep asking myself if he had a premonition this was about to happen? Was he sending a message when he kept encouraging me to hold firm to the ideals and values that we fought for at the barricades, even now that I am in public office?
In life, Innocent fought a good fight and had a long winning streak of phenomenal successes as one of the most iconic leaders of civil society out of Africa, before he succumbed to his last fight. He was exceptional – a sagely intellectual, a dogged activist and development practitioner, a prodigious administrator, and a patriotic nation builder. Above all he was my friend – as he was to many people.
That for me was what was most remarkable about Inno – his ability to build genuine bonds of friendship with so many people from so many different backgrounds in the course of his work. Every engagement with Innocent left you with the impression that he was not only deeply passionate about collaborating with you on projects and programmes, but he was first interested in you as a human being. His, “Oga Kayode, how are you?” was genuine, and demanding of an honest response about how I as his friend was coping with the vicissitudes of life.
It is not surprising therefore, that Innocent Chukwuma had one of the widest networks in the public and civic sectors in Africa. He was trusted by individuals, governments, development agencies, and global non-profits – and he never failed. He got international recognition early, with the award of the Reebok Human Rights prize. As someone who is from that movement myself, I can attest to the fact that his knowledge of the workings of civil society was stellar, and he had this obsession for birthing ideas, nurturing them to the point they can thrive, handing them over to competent successors, and moving on. One of his finest legacies is the CLEEN Foundation, which he set up in 1998 – one of the first African CSOs to focus on public safety, security, and accessible justice in West Africa. CLEEN Foundation was the first African nongovernmental organisation to receive the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. Amongst other achievements, Innocent was the foremost authority on police reforms in the country and was a good team player an an irrepressible Coalition builders. He was active with us when we established the African Security Sector Network (ASSN) and also played a central role in the work of the reputable polling body – Afrobarometer – with CLEEN serving as its Nigerian base.
Indeed, there is hardly any civil society organization in West Africa that did not feel Innocent’s impact, and by extension millions of lives that were impacted by their programmes. Long before he became the Regional Director for the West Africa Office of Ford Foundation, he championed several civil society projects including serving as a consultant for DFID in 2008 to design one of its development interventions projects in Nigeria. As a director of the Ford Foundation office for West Africa, Inno facilitated partnership with the MacArthur Foundation and the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) to support President Muhammadu Buhari administration’s anti-corruption agenda, especially the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC). The support received from these donor agencies accelerated the work of PACAC and the anti-corruption drive of the present administration.
As an institution builder, Innocent was instrumental to the establishment of several activist institutions and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) in Africa. He was the Head, Police Research Project (January 1992 – June 1994), Director of the International Advocacy Program (February 1994 – December 1997), and Acting Executive Director (July 1995 – December 1996) at the Civil Liberties Organisation, unarguably Nigeria’s first human rights organization, where he mobilised intergovernmental organisations to sanction military regimes in Nigeria, especially those of Generals Babangida and Abacha dictatorships.
This was a period when human rights were severely trampled upon by the military juntas. Inno also served in various capacities on boards and advisory bodies of international policing and criminal justice organisations, including: Chairperson, Transition Monitoring Group (July 2005 – June 2007); Lead Consultant, Voluntary Policing Sector, DFID’s Justice for All Programme (J4A) in Nigeria (April 2011- December 2012); Board Member, the International Centre for the Prevention of Crime (ICPC); Board Member, African Policing Civilian Oversight Forum (APCOF); Board Member, Open Society Global Criminal Justice Fund; and Member, Africa Advisory Council of Human Rights Watch. He was also the chair of the Altus Global Alliance, a global network of nonprofits.
Innocent was gregarious and boisterous, yet patient and gentle all at once. He was infectiously witty, and at the same time deeply caring about people. He was irreverent of power structures when the occasion demanded, but also knew how to court the powers that be and mobilise stakeholders towards achieving any developmental objective. That did not mean that such individuals would not attract his criticism in the course of time if they deviated from doing what was right. Not for him the lazy intellectualism of cloistered academics. He was very much at home lecturing in the hallowed precincts of some of the most prestigious institutions in the world, as he was mobilizing against wrong actions by governments at home.
He was always in search of solutions in a variety of ways. When I met him, he was a young activist growing under the wings of Olisa Agbakoba and Ayo Obe, but in no distant period, he soon became a legend in Nigeria’s democratic struggle – indeed a phenomenon. At the time, Nigeria was in deep with state sponsored intimidation of people like Innocent who consistently spoke truth to power.
As the years went by, and his ideas and methods evolved, he never abandoned the vision of a genuinely democratic, free, and just Nigeria. The fearless activist and selfless leader that Inno was, a significant feature of his legacy would be his courage of conviction and the clarity of his ideas through which he brilliantly and lucidly laid out line upon line, precept upon precept, what he was convinced were the imperatives for fixing Nigeria.
The greatest tribute we can pay this Nigerian exemplar is to continue in his ways by building institutions and structures that will uplift lives and serve the purpose of our time and beyond. It was Nelson Mandela who once said, “There can be no greater gift than that of giving one’s time and energy to help others without expecting anything in return”. Inno not only thought hard and theorised about how to make a fundamental difference in the lives of ordinary people, he for the most part had his hand on the plough and never looked back. For the devout Christian that he was, what blessedness for him to go home in a blaze of glory during Easter. Bisi and I commiserate with our sister, Josephine and the girls, and the rest of the family. Inno has fought a good fight, kept the faith and finished the race well.
Nigeria has been shortchanged by the loss of this consistent advocate of justice and equity. But the struggle must continue, as he would have wanted. Africa has lost a gem; indeed, one of the brightest in our firmament – I have lost my friend.
Adieu Inno. Goodnight!
• Fayemi, Governor, Ekiti State,Chairman, Nigeria Governors Forum.