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Homage: Nigeria’s Innocent Chukwuma, voice of a generation

Chidi Anselm Odinkalu
By Chidi Anselm Odinkalu

Chair of Global Rights and currently working with the Open Society Foundation

Posted on Wednesday, 21 April 2021 21:28, updated on Thursday, 22 April 2021 12:56

All rights reserved.

Widely seen as the most influential strategist of his generation in Nigeria’s human rights movement, Innocent Chukwuma died on the eve of Easter Sunday on 3 April of causes connected to blood cancer.

Innocent’s advocacy for more accountable government, together with his brave and innovative activism against Nigeria’s military junta, earned him friends and admirers across Africa and internationally.

He was also Africa’s leading expert on police and law enforcement reform.

In a country in which civic activists are rarely respected by the authorities, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buahari and vice-president Yemi Osinbajo have led the lamentation of Innocent’s passing at the untimely age of 55.

Innocent’s energy and intelligence lit up the rights movement in Nigeria from the moment he joined it. One bright morning in May 1991, a squad of men from the Nigeria Police Force invaded a family home in Oko-Oba, Agege, a crowded suburb of Lagos. They claimed they were searching for a dangerous robber.

By the time they left, less than an hour later, they had killed an entire family: father, mother and their six children.

A history of violence

The Oko-Oba Massacre became a signature crime of Nigeria’s police – almost three decades before young activists took to the streets in the #EndSARS uprising in October 2020.

Public outrage over the Oko-Oba Massacre forced the Nigerian government to compensate the extended family, agreeing to a payout of about $1.9m.

As a lawyer with the Nigerian Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), I was involved in the negotiations that led to that settlement. Innocent, a young graduate at the time interning with the CLO, expressed quiet outrage that the police officers who killed the family faced no further consequences.

To him, the episode cheapened human life in Nigeria. When he joined the CLO staff later in 1991, Innocent was determined to convince the organisation to take a more ambitious view of how to prevent and mitigate police atrocities.

Civic advocacy

Innocent credited his father, a produce dealer from south-eastern Nigeria who died while Innocent was still an undergraduate in 1989, with the inspiration for his civic advocacy and passion for social justice.

In his final year in high school, Innocent led a protest of students against the theft of their food by a joint enterprise of the food contractors and school authorities. When Innocent was expelled, his father intervened to inquire from the school authorities what crime his son had committed.

After patiently listening to the school principal’s version of events, the old man asked the question: “But did he lie?” His father’s intervention persuaded the school authorities to allow Innocent to take his final examinations. That experience taught Innocent the first lessons in civic advocacy and the need to ask the questions that matter.

The questions that matter

Innocent spent his life asking questions that mattered. At the University of Nigeria Nsukka, Innocent became head of the student union parliament, key to that generation of credible student leaders.

The contest of wills between students and the university authorities, and later with the Nigerian government, prolonged his sojourn in university by a year. In the end, he needed a court order to graduate.

Upon graduation with a degree in religion, Innocent joined activists in the CLO, where he pioneered a police reform programme. With Nigeria under military rule, he became an indispensable member of the team that helped build a coalition of disparate pro-democracy champions into a united front called the Campaign for Democracy (CD).

A sense of strategy

After the military annulled the 12 June 1993 presidential elections, which were meant to have returned the country to civilian rule, Innocent’s sense of strategy would prove critical. With most leaders of the anti-military coalition exiled or in jail, Innocent was one of the few people able to go in and out of the country, often over land borders, sometimes with the quiet support of  security officers, to take messages across continents.

As the dictatorship of General Sani Abacha grew more brutal in the mid-1990s, Innocent helped to build cells of anti-military voices in Europe and North America, addressing international institutions including the Organisation of African Unity (renamed the African Union), the United Nations, the European Union and the Commonwealth.

All the time he was calling for pressure on Nigeria’s military government while managing to evade prison and exile with his trademark combination of organisational savvy, courage and wit – which found him friends across the world. In 1999, a year after the fall of the Abacha regime, Innocent won the Reebok International Human Rights Award in 1999.

Advocacy over politics

When Abacha’s successors handed over to an elected civilian government in May 1999, Innocent chose policy advocacy over partisan politics. With the proceeds from the Reebok award, he founded the Centre for Law Enforcement Education in Nigeria, the CLEEN Foundation, as a think tank on accountable policing.

In 2001, he worked with President Olusegun Obasanjo’s government to reform the Police Service Commission Act,  to boost civilian oversight of Nigeria’s police and tackle indiscipline in the force.

To give civil society a seat at the table of law enforcement reform, Innocent incubated the Network on Police Reform in Nigeria, a 46-member coalition that mobilises support for police and law enforcement reform.

Police and rigging

To strengthen Nigeria’s electoral system, Innocent focused on the way that incumbent regimes used the police to rig votes.

In 2003, with Innocent’s technical leadership, the Police Service Commission adopted guidelines to regulate police conduct in elections. These have been enacted into a Code of Conduct and Rules of Engagement for Security Personnel on Electoral Duty in Nigeria. Separately, Innocent led a stridently independent coalition of civic election monitors known as the Transition Monitoring Group.

When Nigeria’s crisis of mass violence began in 2001, Innocent identified a need for rigorous diagnosis of the problem. With the Organisation Mondiale Contre la Torture [World Organisation Against Torture], now based in Brussels, he convened a team to study the issue in Nigeria.

Explosive report

Innocent’s hypothesis was that these were mostly state-sponsored killings. The subsequent report, released in 2002, was explosive.

The Obasanjo government ordered the customs authorities to impound the report when it landed in Nigeria as a prohibited import. As Nigeria confronts a still deeper crisis of mass atrocities today, the report’s diagnosis nearly two decades ago has proved prescient.

In a country in which building sustainable civic institutions is difficult and rare, Innocent built the CLEEN Foundation into one of the most independent non-governmental advocacy bodies in Nigeria.

A CLEEN choice

In 2020, when the Nigerian government needed a credible organisation to monitor its spending of the corrupt loot repatriated from foreign countries, CLEEN Foundation was a natural choice.

Innocent navigated the tensions between the global and the local with an eye on how they could complement and reinforce one another. In 2005, he provided leadership by founding the African Policing Civilian Oversight Forum, a continental coalition for institutions calling for accountability and mitigation for police atrocities.

In 2012, the Ford Foundation appointed Innocent as its regional representative for West Africa. There, Innocent quietly transformed Ford’s operations, with seminal forays into such areas as art, political memory and impact investing.

Innocent was also the vice-chair of the Impact Investors Foundation of Nigeria, whose members channeled a portfolio of over $4.7bn in investments, creating jobs, strengthening communities and developing skills and technology since 2015. He also chaired the Resilience Fund of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime.

Promising horizons

At the end of January 2021, Innocent retired from Ford Foundation. He planned to proceed to Oxford University, where he had secured a fellowship at the Blavatnik School to write his memoirs and teach. He had also worked as a lecturer at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Tragically, Innocent died the week before he was to start on the next phase of his career. He spent the final years of his life building a vocational institute, Oluaka Institute of Technology, as a hub for incubation of innovation and entrepreneurship. Death interrupted his plan to expand his mentorship of innovators. That project now is his legacy.

Innocent Chukwuma is survived by his wife, Josephine, and three daughters, Chidinma, Amarachi and Nkechi.

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