Innocent Chukwuma in the radical student movement
Innocent Chukwuma

On May 23, 1986, a detachment of the mobile unit of the Nigeria Police Force invited to the campus of the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) by the then Vice-Chancellor, Professor Ango Abdullahi to quell a students’ protest, killed 4 female students and injured several others.

The tragic news of the brutal murder of the unarmed undergraduates led to a spontaneous protest by Nigerian students on many campuses. Instead of prosecuting the policemen who had carried out the dastardly act, the Ibrahim Babangida military junta took advantage of the tragedy to embark on a purge of the campuses of radicalism.

Thus, an Administrative Panel headed by General Emmanuel Abisoye (retd) was instituted to investigate the circumstances that led to the crisis and flush out lecturers who were “teaching what they were not paid to teach” at the ABU. As there was no evidence to justify the implementation of the dubious agenda the White paper issued on report of the panel by the junta was wishy washy.

In utter frustration, the junta proceeded to set up a judicial commission of inquiry headed by Mustapha Akanbi JCA (as he then was) to probe the immediate and remote causes of the nationwide protests.  The commission was also given a secret task to purge the universities of lecturers and students who had embraced “political extremism”.

The jejune memorandum of the junta submitted through the federal ministry of education had alleged that the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) had formed a triumvirate to carry out a revolution in Nigeria. Even though the commission sat and took evidence from scores of witnesses from not less than 10 campuses it found no evidence to substantiate the preposterous claim of the junta.

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However, the junta adopted a divide et impera policy by picking on the progressive student union of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka for annihilation.  The union president, Chima Ubani, and 8 other student leaders were charged with unlawful assembly and breach of the peace before the Chief Magistrate Court at Nsukka. The students pleaded not guilty to the 2-count charge and were ready for trial but the Magistrate adjourned the case for 3 months and ordered that the defendants be detained at the Nsukka prison.

The immediate past student union president, Emmanuel Ezeazu rushed to Lagos to request Comrade Alao Aka-Bashorun to defend the detained student leaders. After the briefing, I was assigned the responsibility to free the student leaders from unjust incarceration. No sooner had we secured bail for the detainees than they were summoned to appear before the Akanbi Judicial Commission.

The presence of Comrade Alao Aka-Bashorun at the inaugural sitting of the Commission on July 14, 1986 set the tone for the proceedings. In making a strong case for our clients he (Aka-Bashorun) pointedly reminded Justice Akanbi that he and the Vice-Chancellor,

Professor Chimere Ikoku (who was present in the hall) were once in the radical youth movement. As Comrade Aka-Bashorun had to rush back to Lagos to attend to other pressing engagements I took over the defence of the students at the panel of inquiry. A group of government-sponsored cultists and members of the scripture union had implicated the student leaders in their state-sponsored testimony. But in a very methodical manner, I led Chima in evidence.

To the delight of the members of the audience, he tore the evidence of the tainted witnesses into shreds. Thus, at the end the sitting the chairman of the panel, Justice Akanbi publicly disclosed that the panel members were so impressed with the quality of the evidence adduced by the students leaders.

Completely frustrated with the turn of events at the judicial commission the junta ensured that the student leaders were charged with sabotage before a Special Military Tribunal headed by Justice John Egbue.

The tribunal was specially directed to convict and sentence the defendants to life imprisonment.  In spite of the tight security mounted at the venue of the tribunal at Enugu, Innocent found his way into the courtroom. In a rather muted tone, he informed me of the grand plan of the students to march from Nsukka to Enugu to put an end to the trial.

According to him, the students’ Congress had resolved not to allow the UNN 9 to suffer the fate of the NEPA 11 (leaders of the electricity workers union who had been convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment by a Special Military Tribunal for leading a strike). With such vital information from Innocent, I walked into the court room with rare confidence and uncommon audacity.

As soon as the charge was read and my clients pleaded not guilty I asked for their bail. The prosecutor from the federal ministry of justice, Abuja opposed the oral motion.

I countered by saying that my clients were not served the charge until that morning. Hence, I could not have filed a written summons for bail. The Tribunal concurred with me, overruled the prosecutor and allowed me to argue the oral application. I moved the motion while the prosecutor vigorously opposed bail for the defendants.

At the end of our marathon submissions, the Tribunal stood down the matter to write its ruling and proceed with the trial. During the short break, Innocent whispered to me that the NANS had directed the generality of Nigerian students to protest the trial by making the country ungovernable for the junta.

When the Tribunal reconvened in the afternoon the ruling was arrested by the prosecutor who applied for the withdrawal of the charge. As I had no objection to the application the charge was struck out by the Tribunal while the defendants were discharged.

It was after we had left the Tribunal premises that I confirmed that the State Security Service had advised the junta to terminate the case due to level of nationwide mobilisation by the then vibrant NANS. Although the student leaders made a triumphant return to the Nsukka campus from Enugu, they were served with letters of expulsion by the university management. I informed my principal of the puerile reaction of the university management to the legal victory recorded by the student leaders.

Since I had not left Enugu, I was directed by Comrade Aka-Bashorun to approach the State High Court for legal redress for the expelled student leaders. I prepared and filed the processes and I was able to secure an order of interim injunction which allowed the student leaders to resume their studies pending the final determination of the substantive suit.

Despite the atmosphere of intimidation that permeated the campus, a few students led by Innocent identified with the plaintiffs and attended all the proceedings of the Court. The substantive suit was won by the plaintiffs as the court found that they were not accorded any fair hearing before they were expelled by the Vice-Chancellor.

Sequel to the exit of the tribe of radical students like Orlu Oguibe, Emma Ezeazu, China Ubani, Chidi Omeje, Kanu Harmony, Wale Adeoye, and Lanre Ehonwa Osaze, Innocent took over the leadership of the socialist movement. He also became the Speaker of the student union parliamentary body. For daring to lead the students to protest against the denial of students’ rights by the management Innocent and 33 other students were rusticated by the university in 1989.

The rustication was challenged at the Enugu State High Court by the chambers of the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi SAN. As the case was subjected to inordinate delay Innocent mobilised the students to stage one of the most successful demonstrations on the campus.  The university management had no choice but to recall him and his colleagues. Thus, he successfully graduated from the University in 1991.

With the exit of Innocent, the university authorities made sure that the students did not identify with any progressive cause. But a year later, Malachy Ugwumadu and Princewill Udofia emerged in the scene and set up branches of the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR)  and Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO) in the Nsukka and Enugu campuses of the institution.

During the 1996/1997 academic session, Ugwumadu and Udofia mobilized the entire students to protest against the payment of astronomical fees and charges imposed on them by the school management. When the university refused to budge both students approached the Federal High Court where Jiti Ogunye of our law firm at the material time obtained an injunction restraining the University from implementing the new fees. By 1998/9 when both students concluded their law degree programmes the university seized their degree certificates.

They got entangled in another legal battle against the university authorities to press for the release of the certificates. Not less than 9 other lawyers including the Late Wilson Durueke teamed up with us in successfully prosecuting the matter at the Federal High Court Enugu.

Like other student unions in the virile student union of the UNN has suffered prescription and suspension in the hands of authoritarian campus administrators. The disturbing development was reviewed by a number of former student leaders sometime last year. The review led to a virtual meeting which held on June 15, 2020 at the instance of Lanre Suraj of HEDA.

The sole agenda of the gathering was the description of the majority of the student unions in tertiary institutions in the country. I was privileged to have chaired the meeting. Innocent participated at the meeting and made profound suggestions that could lead to the restoration of the banned student unions. He was assigned the task of contacting and inviting other former student leaders to the next meeting of the forum.

Barely a week before his painful exit I had cause to remind Innocent of his assignment in preparation for a follow-up meeting scheduled to hold before the end of June this year. Regrettably, both Innocent and Yinka Odumakin will be surely missed at the forthcoming meeting.

No doubt, Innocent Chuwuma and Yinka have distinguished themselves as illustrious alumni of the University of Nigeria and Obafemi Awolowo University respectively. The authorities of both institutions have paid glowing tributes to them. But the greatest tribute that can be paid to them and other student leaders who have passed into eternity is to lift the ban on proscribed student unions and allow them to operate and thrive in an atmosphere of independence under the current democratic dispensation.

At the national level the example of Innocent and Yinka should challenge genuine progressive forces to unite, organize and mobilize the oppressed people of Nigeria to intensify the struggle for the socialist reconstruction of the country. A delay has become dangerous as the reactionary wing of the ruling class is determined to plunge the country into another civil war since it has lost the monopoly of violence to assorted armed gangs.

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