12.39 pm, Saturday, 3rd April, 2021. That was when I last spoke with my friend, Innocent Chukwuma. My calling him was prompted by the disturbing information I just then received from Dr. Chidi Odinkalu that Innocent was unwell and that his condition appeared to be serious. I was alarmed and wasn’t sure if he was able to speak but I tried, reluctantly. I was glad he took my call, and I asked him if he was fine. He said he wasn’t quite well and I told him I was concerned about the information I received about his condition and hospitalization. He responded in a shaky, distressed voice, betraying a man not in his normal state of wellness, and said ‘It’s actually a cause for concern, but, you know, we’re in the business of being optimistic’. I didn’t want to prolong the conversation because I didn’t want to keep him long on the phone. I asked him if I could come to see him in hospital. He said ‘that’s fine, you can come tomorrow… Chidinma (his first daughter) will send you the name of the hospital’.
I wished him well, asked him to remain strong, and I hung up.
By 9.48 pm on that same day, I received a call from his nephew who told me that the selfsame Innocent I spoke to, just few hours ago ‘is no more..’ it dawned on me afresh, how short and unpredictable life is. And how sure death is.
Innocent’s passing was sudden, speedy, shocking, tragic, untimely and devastatingly painful. Yet, he died a great man. He was good to me and to many others whose paths crossed with his. He left indelible marks. His fame grew global. His memory will forever live in my heart and in the hearts of many who cherish him.
I met Innocent Chukwuma for the first time sometime between 1987 and 1988 shortly after I gained admission into the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He was already in his second year in the department of Religion. What brought us together was our shared vision, passion and struggle as student union activists. It was later that I realized that he’s also from my home community, Mbaise and in fact, my maternal home. Ever since, we remained Comrades, brothers and friends. He impacted my life significantly.
Innocent was a brilliant student. His lecturers attested to the fact. Although he came from a poor background he was determined in his fight to defeat poverty and achieve great success early in life. By age 30, he won the prestigious Reebok Human Rights Award. In his success, he was humble and never distanced himself from his old friends. He was an activist par excellence, principled, passionate, courageous and ingenious. He was a visionary and strategic thinker, left-handed and extremely gifted. He was also compassionate and inspiring.
Innocent and I met Chima Ubani who was then the President of the students Union at UNN. Chima had been expelled, along with other leaders, arrested and charged to a military tribunal for leading a students protest against IMF economic policies. We also met Emma Ezeazu who was the President of the National Association of Nigeria Students (NANS). Emma was running his post graduate studies in history.
We all belonged to the Marxist Youth Movement (MYM) which was the dominant and most influential radical political platform through which student union leaders of that era were groomed and elected from. Radical lectures in the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) worked in solidarity with leaders of the movement and the students Union to organize weekend political education classes for students, especially members of the movement. This was why students Union leaders of that era were ideologically conscious, knowledgeable and visionary and patriotically and courageously challenged oppression and bad governance within the campuses, in the country and internationally. Students of our era were conscious and conversant with international affairs and worked in alliance with other democratic forces in the country and internationally. This explained, for example our interest and involvement in the liberation struggle of the south African people under the leadership of the African National Congress (ANC). That was also the era of the cold war. Students of that era read books.
Innocent was the speaker of the students Union house of representatives. He, alongside other radical student leaders in our time, provided courageous leadership. He was speaker when Nelson Mandela was released from prison and the University authorities decided to hold a freedom rally at the Ekpo refectory to celebrate Mandela’s freedom. Innocent Chukwuma and thirty eight other student leaders had been variously suspended, rusticated and expelled by the Vice Chancellor for their roles in mobilizing students to protest against anti student and anti people economic policies for which the umbrella national students body NANS had directed campuses across the country to commence mobilization for peaceful nationwide protests.
Something dramatic happened. Innocent was presiding over a house session to debate whether and when UNN should commence its own protest. Chima Ubani, although had eventually graduated after his travails in the hands of the university authorities and the military regime, visited Nsukka that period and attended the house session.
Debates raged passionately in the house with the progressive and reactionary factions sharply divided over if and when UNN should commence action. Some said we should wait for other campuses in the country to move first – some based their argument on the reasoning that UNN was one of the few federal institutions in the Southeast and therefore, we should not do anything capable of destroying the most significant federal presence in the east. But how could that be? We were not planning a violent protest. It was intense, prolonged and contentious.
Caught in between mainly two diametrically opposed positions, innocent brought his ingenuity as a student of religion and a quick-witted genius into play. In response to those who argued that we needed to wait to see other universities move first, innocent reminded them that key federal universities like Uniben, UNILAG, Unibad, and ABU had commenced mobilization or actual action and quoted the biblical part which said when you begin to hear rumours of war from the west and from the east and from the the north, then know that that is the sign that the time has come. And he ruled that UNN should provide leadership by commencing mobilisation for the national action.
Chima Ubani used to recall this story a lot about how Innocent resolved a knotty situation deploying what he described as biblical parabolical metaphorism.
It was following the action that ensued following the parliament’s decision to call out the students for the national protests that Innocent and 38 other union leaders were victims. Gani Fawehinmi offered free legal services to the victims student leaders to challenge their victimization in court. But while the legal action was still on, opportunity showed up for a political action to force the hands of the university authorities to reverse their illegal actions against the student leaders.
While the University authorities were planning the Nelson Mandela freedom rally, Innocent and others, including my humble self, held a meeting and planned the ‘hijack’ of the occasion to advance our demand for freedom for our victims leaders. We mobilized some movement members clandestinely, printed and handed them placards bearing different messages demanding for justice for our leaders.
On the day of the freedom rally, we positioned the students involved in the plan in different positions in the hall. As the vice chancellor picked up the microphone to address the mammoth crowd of students gathered in the hall, those bearing the placards simultaneously raised their placards from their different corners and we began to chant our solidarity song. Then the President of the students Union, accompanied by Innocent Chukwuma and others walked up to the rostrum and snatched the microphone from the vice chancellor with a clear message that you cannot unjustly suspend, rusticate and expel 39 of your students, deny them justice and at the same time purport to celebrate freedom.
There was commotion and panic and the VC was scurried away by the university security. Of course, there was no intention to harm anyone, just to send a hard message across to despots that injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere; injustice anywhere must be resisted and you cannot be celebrating freedom for Mandela when you have subjected your students to the same type of injustice that Mandela was subjected to by the racist regime in South Africa. If not for stubborn struggle, Mandela would not have regained his freedom.
Days after this courageous action, Chukwuma and his comrades were recalled by the university authorities.
I succeeded Innocent Chukwuma as the speaker of the students Union Parliament in 1991, the year he graduated.
Innocent joined the staff of the Civil Liberties Organization (CLO) during his national youth service in 1992. He was acting Executive Director while Abdul Oroh, the substantive ED was in jail during the dark days of military dictatorship.
Few months after I finished my youth service I joined Innocent in Lagos. I lived under his roof and care for one year before he employed me to work in his project, the Police Research Project. I count myself as one of Innocent’s legacies. Innocent recruited me into CLO upon my graduation and completion of my national service, just as Chima Ubani and Emma Ezeazu recruited him. My venturing into police reform was by virtue of my working under Innocent in the Police Research Project in CLO. He influenced my trajectory. I became the head of the project upon his exit to found CLEEN Foundation, where he broke new grounds in Police reform in Nigeria, winning awards.
It was while he was in CLEEN and I was in charge of Police project in the CLO that Innocent came up with the idea of a CSO consultative meeting on police reform. It was in that meeting in Abuja that the idea to set up a network on police reform to provide opportunity for civil society involvement in police reform came up. Innocent was to later invite me in 2008 while I was about concluding a democracy fellowship in Washington DC to come and build NOPRIN’s profile. I obliged him.
The story of my life and career trajectory cannot be told without a copious mention of innocent Chukwuma. I have lost a friend, a brother, a comrade, a boss and inspiration.
Innocent has played his part in the drama of life and taken his exit. Although the suddenness and speed of Innocent’s death sent shock waves, confusion and grief beyond Nigeria, it also throws up some lessons. The outpouring of grief and great testimonials about his life is comforting and a source of lesson to the living. What matters is what you will be remembered for, not how long you lived.
Innocent was a genius. He was a great soul. His type comes only once in a generation. I’m happy I was lucky to cross your path.
Good night Innocent