When great souls die,
the air around us becomes light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly see with a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
gnaws on kind words unsaid,
promised walks never taken.
Like many friends, comrades and associates of Innocent Chukwuma; I received the cold message from my former colleague by 12:33am on Sunday morning about the shocking exit of a man considered by many as an iroko tree and a big masquerade in the organized civil society and democracy struggle in Nigeria. My initial contact with Innocent was sometimes in June 2015.
I had applied to CLEEN Foundation for an advertised role. One afternoon, I received a call from a strange number and had a brief interaction with him as he asked about my previous work experience. He told me that my experience did not match the role I applied for and advised me to consider the position of Senior Program Officer.
I gladly accepted the advice, was subsequently invited for a formal interview and offered the position in CLEEN. The summarized interactions would mark the beginning of an extremely impactful relationship I have had with Innocent in the last six years.
Innocent represents many things to the diverse individuals and groups he has worked with from his days as a courageous student union activist in the pro-democracy struggle at the University of Nigeria; to his adventure in the human rights movement and the Civil Liberty Organisation where he possibly developed strong interest in police reform- a cause that led him to establish CLEEN Foundation in 1998 and a field where he would later emerge as a global thought leader, who is widely respected and sought after.
Innocent typified an exceptional breed of change agents imbued with the character, audacity, selflessness, humility and intellectual inspiration to transform a system and lead the society in an upward trajectory. Few stories would suffice to narrate these traits which Innocent was known for.
Raised from a very humble beginning in Imo state. Innocent would pass as a typical child that would have been advised and warned by parents to face his study alone and “stay away from trouble”. However, he chose an alternative path to fight for the rights of the common man right from his secondary school days as a house prefect. He once narrated a story about how he led a protest against the school authority at the Holy Ghost College, Umuahia over poor meals served to the students.
The heroic act led to his suspension with other students who participated in that protest. This and other daring experiences would later forge him as a gallant human rights activist with many confrontations with military dictators and their brutal state agents. Innocent risked his life many times and suffered wanton harassment alongside other critical voices as they fought steely against dictatorship in the grotesque days of military rule in Nigeria.
Highly urbane, cosmopolitan and nationalistic in his intellectual devotion to state building in Nigeria; Innocent’s enduring impacts would be felt in his broader contributions to police reform in Nigeria and his unalloyed commitment to youth development in the country.
I often consider him as the dean of police studies due to his sheer contributions to knowledge production in police research and practice in Nigeria. One only needs to engage him for a few minutes to perceive his depth of knowledge on the subject.
I recall two vivid examples that gave credence to this assertion. One of my learned friends who is also an emerging scholar in the field of criminal justice once confided in me that he found out from his literature review that “Innocent and Professor Alemika have permanently defined the research agenda on police research in Nigeria”. Another more profound instance came when I was approached by a senior police officer to seek my advice on his research topic for a strategic course at the National Defense College in Abuja. Having discussed the topic with me; I advised him to seek an audience with Innocent and interview him.
I graciously obliged him his contact and he travelled to Lagos to meet Innocent. The senior officer returned to Abuja and came to recount his experience to me at the CLEEN Office in Abuja. In summary, he noted Innocent was recommending books and research papers on police and policing to him at the maximum of five minutes intervals in the course of the interview.
He said, ‘Wole, I concluded Innocent knows policing more than me- even as a police officer”. The senior officer would later retire as a Deputy Inspector General of Police. This account attests to Innocent’s profound intellectual exertion on diverse subjects ranging from policing to security, human rights and democracy.
Innocent also made a significant impact in youth development in Nigeria. Virtually all of us who have had opportunities to be trained by him in many ways had contact with him mostly in our twenties and early thirties. Innocent knew what everyone would need to succeed in the global development profession and encouraged us individually.
My Ph.D. research benefitted immensely from such a generous scheme he put in place in CLEEN Foundation. On his twitter handle, Innocent prides himself as a lifelong learner and specialist in identifying gaps and opportunities to solving wicked problems! He piloted this idea and demonstrated how to innovate for radically greater social goods in the society.
He challenged bad governance as a human rights activist, and also established Oluaka Academy- a social enterprise and world class centre for innovation, business incubation, skills and enterprise development with a mission to support development of technologies for solving social problems, growth of small businesses and vocational skills in partnership with private, public and social sectors.
Innocent left indelible footprints on the sand of time and many would continue to benefit from the shades of trees he planted. He maintained national impact and global relevance. From Southern America to the Middle East, Western countries, Africa and Asia, he maintained strong alliances with other human rights activists and scholars. In many instances, when I have interacted with him, I found out that the intelligentsia I have probably read about are close allies whom he called friends and regularly compared notes with.
The enigma around this aura is that most people who admire him have not even met him! But they all have great stories to share about him. Sometimes mentioning his name in international fora automatically confers respect and honour on me.
I recall such experience I had in a meeting organized by the World Organisation Against Torture in Geneva in 2019 where I represented Nigeria in a working group meeting of human rights defenders. The Secretary General of the OMCT walked to me at the coffee stand and started a conversation about police brutality and human rights abuse in Nigeria.
We discussed extensively and he alluded to the profound respect he has for Innocent albeit they have not met before! Such is the latitude of his impact and the scope of his sphere of influence. Innocent personified humility and dignity. He was highly strategic and inspirational in his approach to life.
He was many things to some of us: a mentor, a senior friend and a comrade in the struggle for a better Nigeria. I will treasure the text message he sent to me on the 20th of December, 2020 as the last advice from a general. The text also came as an encouragement- an ideal he represented so well.
Innocent Chukwuma fought for a liberated and egalitarian Nigeria. The responsibility lies with us to pick the baton from him and complete the race he and his comrades started in their prime.
Rest in peace and power, Innocent Chukwuma- our departed hero!
Wole Ojewale, PhD- a former Assistant Program Manager at CLEEN Foundation wrote from Abuja. He tweets via @woleojewale