Innocent Chukwuma – A Force For Good

Like my friend, Bob Arnot, I had trouble finding a landing place for this tribute primarily because so many individuals have written about the remarkable life and work of Innocent Chukwuma, one of Africa’s most committed criminal justice reform advocates. Innocent was like the proverbial elephant whose description depended on your interaction with it.

I met Innocent shortly after joining Human Rights Law Service (HURILAWS) in 2003. He was the leader of the police reform movement. Since I was working in the field of criminal justice, it was only a matter of time before I encountered the leader. His organization, CLEEN Foundation was steering the ship on what he described as the “inside approach” to police reform and he enjoyed discussing how we might make the police better from within the institution.

I have remained in the criminal justice field since our initial meeting so our paths crossed many more times until his untimely passing on April 3. When we started working on the Guidelines on Conditions of Arrest, Police Custody and Pretrial Detention in Africa with colleagues and partners across Africa, I remember there was a lot of skepticism about how impactful the guidelines could be for policing institutions across the continent. Innocent’s wisdom and counsel was instrumental in convincing skeptics to give it a chance. As a trusted ally of policing institutions within and beyond Nigeria, Innocent was regarded as an “insider” so whatever he said was taken seriously.

Innocent’s biggest legacy is his investment in people. Several of his high-performing former staff have written about his remarkable penchant for spotting and nurturing great talents. What really struck me about Innocent was his commitment to succession planning. When I learned he had turned over CLEEN Foundation to one of his staff so he could go and teach a course at Harvard University, I reached out to ask why he did that in a sector where very little was said or done about succession planning.

In his characteristic humor, Innocent said: “well, we have to empower the younger generation because no one lives forever.” I was pleasantly surprised to hear this so I pushed further. “Might you consider sharing your insights about succession planning with your generation of leaders in the NGO sector”? He agreed. The jury is not out on the outcome of those discussions but it is fair to say that Innocent left a fitting legacy for the NGO movement by building an organization which experienced a post-founder era in the founder’s life time. I hope we can find many more organizations like CLEEN foundation in the coming months and years.
Thank you, Innocent, for living your values and “dying empty.” You fought a good fight and won. Posterity will be kind to you. Rest, big brother, rest.