He was my contemporary. We were in the trenches together. The struggle for a better Nigeria brought us together. We joined other patriots to wage a sustained battle against military authoritarianism. Our paths also crossed in our work to better the lots of the poor, the underprivileged and the underserved. But it was in our ongoing advocacy to reform the electoral process in Nigeria that I worked closely with Innocent Chukwuma. Working with him was sheer delight. His insights, methodical approach and emphasis on programme impact were the elixir I needed to take my work to a higher level. He became my mentor. He was warm, engaging and deeply compassionate.
Innocent Chukwuma was one of the student activists recruited by late Emma Ezeazu to give Civil Liberties Organization (CLO) the cutting edge in research and advocacy. Fresh from National Youth Service in Maiduguri, he was taken on board and guided by the iconic Emma Ezeazu to become an influential researcher/Advocate on Police Brutality and Security Reform. The experience and skills he acquired at CLO helped him in initiating Nigeria’s leading Police reform outfit, CLEEN Foundation.
Before I first met Innocent Chukwuma in the 90s, I heard stories of his commitment to the struggle for a better society, doggedness, gentility, humility and compassion from late Comrade Emma Nnamdi Ezeazu and Comrade Bashiru Olasupo. When we finally met in the then famous Civil Liberties Organization (CLO) office in the 90s, it was easy for us to connect. He had a unique way of communicating through storytelling, laughter and jokes. He effectively applied his unique communication skills in praising me when I did well and in rebuking me when I did not do well. He also shared his achievements with me as a way of challenging me to step up my game.
In 2015, Honourable Nkoyo Toyo initiated my movement to Abuja. She put a call to Innocent Chukwuma to get me into one of the leading and progressive NGOs so that I can further my contributions to building a better Nigerian society. Innocent invested his time, energy, skills and money to bring me to Alliance for Credible Elections (ACE-Nigeria).
On the 12th of August 2015, during my first Board meeting as General Secretary of Alliance for Credible Elections, Innocent Chukwuma in his opening remarks as the then Chairman of the Board of Trustees, told the story of the origin of ACE-Nigeria and the pioneering role of the inimitable Comrade Emma Ezeazu. He stated that ACE-Nigeria was a response to the palpable fear in Nigeria in 2006 that the government of former President Olusegun Obasanjo was not planning to hold general elections in 2007 and that the civil society needed to raise the ante of social pressure on the government and INEC to start making earnest preparations for the 2007 general elections. He added that ACE was formed to spearhead that pressure, and that he (Innocent Chukwuma) as the Chairman of Transition Monitoring Group (TMG) developed the concept that became Alliance for Credible Elections (ACE). He further stated that late Comrade Emma Ezeazu gave life to the organization to the extent that ACE-Nigeria became a threat to the powers that be. He challenged the leadership to work assiduously to keep the ACE vision alive and consolidate on its achievements.
Innocent Chukwuma made the growth and development of ACE-Nigeria his passion. He gave me full support at the level of the Board of ACE-Nigeria. He never treated my reports with levity or contempt. He always meticulously dealt with controversial issues and resolved them to the satisfaction of staff and members of the organization. He initiated in-house discussions on the vision and mission of ACE-NIGERIA, its strategic direction; activities, challenges and pathway to a better future. The critical self-appraisals unearthed some organizational weaknesses and he wasted no time in working to fix them.
He came to the Board Meeting held on the 26th of January 2020 well prepared. In response to my report to the Board, he stated that from the report of the General Secretary to the Board it is clear that ACE-Nigeria is not doing well in the area of fund raising, that there is urgent need to re-launch the brand, rebrand and reposition it in the form of Emma Ezeazu Centre for Credible Elections or Emma Ezeazu Centre for Accountable Governance or Emma Ezeazu Centre for Deepening Democracy. He further stated that democracy as it is practiced today in Nigeria is in dire need of structural change, that all the democratic institutions and systems have been weakened by the extremely powerful Executive and the respect for human rights is at its lowest, credibility of electoral succession politics is undermined at many levels. That bad governance and incompetent leadership are shrinking the civic space, turning the country to a failed state. That the country is in the same situation it was in 2006 that necessitated the birth of Alliance for Credible Elections (ACE-Nigeria). He went ahead to present the governance structure of the Centre, and asked ACE-Nigeria Secretariat to commence the registration of the Centre. Innocent thereafter resigned his membership of the Board of ACE-Nigeria and introduced me as a member to the Board and a signatory to ACE-Nigeria bank accounts and the Centre.
On the occasion of Innocent’s birthday (6th of February 2020), I told the acclaimed development strategist who had made so much impact as Regional Director of Ford Foundation that I have prayed to God to give him 100 years on earth, because of the impact he was making. Innocent responded that he had an agreement with God for 80 years. I told him that God will answer my prayer because I am special to Him and we took a bet. Now that you have abandoned 25 out of your 80 years, when next you come back, no more argument it is going to be 125 years dear brother, friend and comrade.
On the 24th of March 2021 I called Innocent to get a date for the Public Lecture and Official Launch of Emma Ezeazu Centre for Good Governance and Accountability. He told me to go ahead and pick a date, that he will be participating from Oxford University where he would spend some time writing his memoirs. He explained why he did not pick my call the previous day and that he will be leaving for Oxford University on the 5th of April 2021. Eight days later Innocent journeyed home to eternity, left the consulting firm he had just put together, abandoned going into politics and raising funds for it as we discussed on the 6th of February 2021, his birthday.
Innocent’s departure is indeed shattering. He was a special kind of person. His commitment to the advancement of fundamental rights and freedoms was total. He was a sound intellectual and a dogged field worker. His human touch and humility endeared him to many. His national and international networks were extensive. He belongs to the pantheon of iconic development workers who made huge impacts on their nations and internationally.
Dear brother, comrade, friend, the void you left would be very difficult to fill. The tears in my eyes may never dry up but I am consoled by the fact that you left worthy legacies. I thank you for everything you did for me. I thank you for the trust, the jokes, the laughter and the stories. I thank you for your friendship and brotherhood and I thank God who made it possible for our paths to cross on this side.
It is not night yet Innocent Chukwuma and I cannot say good night.
My joy is that it does not end here, see you on the other side.