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Tribute to a Trailblazer, a Friend, Confidant and Mentor

Inevitably, I am compelled to write this tribute because the sad news of Innocent’s sudden departure which shattered our Easter morning, has turned out to be a reality and not a mere dream. I had spoken to Innocent on the evening of March 29, 2021 and he was his usual ebullient self, with no sign of any infirmity. On the question of his next steps after leaving Ford Foundation, he informed me that he was leaving for Oxford next week to go and write his Biography. I told Innocent that this was a worthy venture as many aspects of the ‘struggle’ in Nigeria remains undocumented and needed to be documented for posterity-sake. Alas, death had other plans and all the dreams have now been made dust.
I met Innocent in 1997 in Enugu at a Seminar organized for Law students of Nigerian Universities by the Constitutional Rights Project, under the leadership of Clement Nwankwo in Enugu. Innocent had just won the Reebok Human Rights Award in the preceding year and was finalizing plans to establish the CLEEN Foundation, with a view to focusing on reform of the law enforcement sector in Nigeria and beyond. Innocent was indeed a trailblazer. At a time when groups felt that diversity of focus was the only way to guarantee funding for their organisations, Innocent made the plunge to focus on an area he had carved a niche for himself: law enforcement reform. His success is there for all to see and he rose steadily, reaching the pinnacle of his career with his recent tour of duty as the Regional Representative for Ford Foundation in West Africa.
Since my joining CRP in 1999, we have remained in touch and he was one of the leaders of the CSO Sector that I admired and looked up to. Through my sojourn with Global Rights, MacArthur Foundation and British Council’s Justice for All and ROLAC Programmes, we remained quite close and exchanged family visits. Innocent was a reservoir of knowledge and wisdom and you will always pick something from him each time you spent time with him. He had an infectious personality. His life was an open book and he lived by example.
It is difficult not to run into superlatives in attempting to describe or talk about Innocent Chukwuma. He was warm, calm, candid, critical, humane, ethical, respectful, empathetic and supportive. He was always ready to listen, advice and encourage the younger ones he came across. You only need to plot the trajectory of his mentees and former and current staff of CLEEN Foundation and other organisations he was associated with to realise the kind of impact Innocent had on the people around him.
Innocent was a family man and I can only imagine what his wife, Josephine and his daughters would be going through now. As we try to come to terms with the reality of Innocent’s sudden departure, it presents us with an opportunity for individual and collective reflection. We need to ask ourselves: what impact have we made, or are we making in our society? Can we do more? Are we striking a good work/life balance and spending enough time with our loved ones? What will be said of us if we were to depart today or tomorrow? These critical but reflective questions are necessary for a stock-taking exercise.
I have always asked Innocent how he feels with the state of our law enforcement reform despite the huge effort and resources that have been put into it. His response has always been that if perhaps we didn’t put in the effort, we may not be having this discussion freely. He would end it with ‘We shall never give up’. Can you imagine what the situation would be without any effort on our part?
As we bid Innocent farewell, we must collectively ensure that his ideals and legacy live on. We must not forget his family who were deprived of his constant presence as he labored to make his mark for the benefit of mankind.
Adieu Innocent Nwa Chukwuma
Di Josephine
Jee nke oma
We will miss you dearly
But your memory lives on
We will never forget you, NEVER.