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Blown Out like a Candle In the Wind: A Tribute to Innocent Chukwuma

The death of Innocent Chukwuma hit the airwaves early on Easter Sunday, 4th April 2021. Coming after the sudden death of another illustrious activist, Yinka Odumakin on 2nd April, 2021, news of the death of Innocent the next day suggested that fate was being unfair to Nigeria taking away two patriotic and eminent Nigerian activists – Odumakin on Friday and Innocent on Saturday. The sun set for both in a most inauspicious time and prime, mid-50s.

 

I was a bit close to Innocent Chukwuma within the civil society and development agitation space. Long before Innocent became the Regional Director for West Africa Office of Ford Foundation our paths had crossed in a number of civil society projects including serving as joint consultants for DFID in 2008 to design one of its development intervention projects in Nigeria. More recently, Innocent as leader of the Ford Foundation office for West Africa, partnered with the MacArthur Foundation led by Kole Shettima and the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) led by Jude Ilo to support the Buhari government anti-corruption agenda especially the work of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC) in which I served as Member/Executive Secretary from 2015 to 2019, before assuming my current position. Without that strategic funding support from the three notable donor agencies, PACAC and indeed the lift up of the government’s anti-corruption drive would have remained a theoretical idea for quite some time. 

That Innocent was eventually ambushed by unexpected leukemia a health challenge that sneaked behind global focus and attention to COVID-19 is indicative of the providential and domineering hand of fate in the affairs of men. Just this January 2021, he finished strong at Ford Foundation as immediate past Regional Director and had concluded plans to proceed to Oxford in the UK for a fellowship program. Indeed, his former position at Ford Foundation is yet to be filled by a substantive director before the cold hands of death snatched him.

In celebration of that milestone service at Ford Foundation, a memorable virtual send-forth was organised for him Friday 29th January 2021. The event revealed that he was a man associated with many firsts having being part of Civil Liberties Organisation unarguably Nigeria’s first human rights organization, from there he set up CLEEN Foundation one of the first African CSOs to focus on security, public safety and justice. CLEEN led the advocacy for community policing that has now become one of the inevitable solutions to Nigeria’s current security challenges. He used his gift, knowledge and leverage within the civil society space to lift and mentor a number of other activists and organizations often working behind the scene but nevertheless ensuring impact with his eyes on the ultimate goal of democratic sustainability and the development agenda.

Most recently, the Ford Foundation provided support to the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) to advance its prevention work around illicit financial flows and associated corruption and money laundering and strengthen its capacity to investigate and prosecute allegations of sexual harassment as abuse of power especially in the public service and tertiary institutions.

While eulogies will not resurrect the dead, contributions to national development will remain indelible and undeniable. We can only be remembered by what we have done. This ought to, in the minimum, motivate the living to carefully number our days so we may daily apply our hearts to wisdom. Innocent has left footprints in the sands of time especially here in Nigeria and in Africa. But, it has pleased God that service at Ford Foundation would be the terminal point of his earthly sojourn. Without notice, he suddenly reached his “Bus Stop” and disembarked! Fading away like the star of early morning and a lighted candle “mistakenly” left in the open and blown out by the wind. Who can question that? As the popular saying goes, “Quo sera sera” “What will be, will be.” For those left to mourn and reflect these mysteries, we ought to remind ourselves frequently – for whom does the bell toll? The answer as they say “is blowing in the wind”.

 

I extend my condolences to Josephine, the children, extended family, friends and colleagues especially in the civil society space. May God comfort all with words that human minds cannot fathom. 

Adieu, Innocent the son of Chukwuma dear friend and brother.

 

ON APRIL 7, 202111:59 AMIN 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 Ayo Obe’s tribute to Innocent Chukwumawithout 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. ALSO READ: Tribute to Odumakin and Chukwuma 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. Ayo Obe. 6th April 2021