Innocent Chukwuma has left an indelible record in the history of Nigeria’s human rights and pro-democracy activism, and in showing the role that civil society can – and must play – in promoting and supporting good governance. He set a sterling example in the transparent and sustainable management of non-governmental organisations.
When I became President of the Civil Liberties Organisation in October 1995, its Executive Director, Abdul Oroh, along with Chima Ubani, were detained without trial and the office of the CLO was almost deserted as the organisation faced the wrath of the Abacha dictatorship for challenging its account of the phantom coup.
Innocent, who was then head of the CLO’s Police Project, was nominated as my first Acting Executive Director. In that role, he was a solid support and guide, in handling not only the difficult situation that we faced within Nigeria, but also in restoring staff morale and navigating the internal dynamics of the organisation.
And when – within a few weeks of my becoming CLO President – the Abacha regime executed the Ogoni Nine and the Ugandan government hosted a special session of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights in Kampala on that outrage, Innocent was there to encourage and advise as I took up my inevitable role as the spokesperson for the Nigerian Human Rights community at that forum.
Innocent used the award money of the Reebok Human Rights Prize (which he won in 1996) to establish the Centre for Law Enforcement Education – the CLEEN Foundation. I was a member of its Board for several years, so I write from first-hand knowledge of how excellently well it was.
It is a leader in the field of not just exposing and condemning abuses by the Nigeria Police Force, but continuing to offering suggestions and solutions about how to stop them and to make policing effective and service-oriented.
It was in pursuit of that principle that Innocent and CLEEN were there to support me when I was appointed to fill the slot for Nigerian Human Rights Organisations on the Police Service Commission. Unlike now, the Commission was chaired by someone who was never a police officer – Ochendo Simon Okeke – and he was open to the ideas that Innocent had to encourage the PSC to use its oversight powers, whether in creating a system for the public to communicate with the Commission, or devising a handbook for members of the security agencies who were on election duty.
Innocent was a fearless activist who was never afraid to call out abuses and failings by government, but he was also always about solutions. It was in that spirit that when in 2012, after yet another atrocity by the Nigeria Police Force, President Goodluck Jonathan established yet another panel on police reform, Innocent proposed that Civil Society should set up its own parallel Panel.
I was honoured to have been asked to chair that CSO Panel.
Many years earlier, he and Josephine Effah had done me just as great an honour when they invited me to chair their wedding reception. That union created one of the leading power couples of the Nigerian Human Rights movement. It was blessed with children, and thrived until the tragic events of the 3rd of April 2021. My heart goes out to Josephine and the children as I pray that they will be able to bear the loss.
I know that I am only one of the many in Nigeria, West Africa and beyond who can speak of the support and encouragement they had from Innocent. After he stepped down as Director of the Ford Foundation’s West Africa office, we were looking forward to his being able to take time to write his account of the Nigerian Human Rights movement and his role in it.
Now, we have to write that account – not just in words – but in deeds.
May he rest in peace and power.
6th April 2021
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