06th April 2021
The passing away of Innocent Chukwuma on the evening of third April was tragic; only 55 years of age and moments before he started treatment for the Acute Myeloid Leukaemia that was diagnosed a day earlier. He was a human rights warrior with a difference – he believed in working alongside the government machinery creating resources, building trust and striving for citizen centric governance. His loss will be felt beyond the Nigerian and West African borders, civil society movement and his extensive circle of family and friends.
I first met Innocent in the late 1990s after he had started CLEEN foundation, alongside a handful of civil society leaders from different parts of the world to initiate a global project on justice reforms. I went on to work for more than a decade with him to promote international human rights standards within local contexts and cultural sensibilities. The police station visitors week was the flagship program of this initiative, one that Innocent had led before he joined the Ford foundation as West Africa Regional Representative in 2013. A project that would place the police station on the map of police reform with changes such as women’s desks and reception officers; citizen rights pasted in stations in local languages and open channels of communication between police stations as diverse as those in Ghana and New York.
It is this project that was the precursor of the Afro-Asian Association for Justice Development (AAAJD). It was Innocent’s commitment and vision that helped carve out the Afro-Asian partnership. In expanding the horizon of trust and solidarity networks that the two continents are steeped in, he saw an alternative approach in generating reform from local experiences by building bonds of sharing and learning from the grassroots collaborations between citizens, civil society and local government.
As I came to know Innocent, I found him to be a true democrat. He strived to put in practice Hannah Arendt’s understanding that power enables community, interdependence, identity and freedoms, in his quest for rights. He was able to create a community of human rights advocates and reformers across the domains of policy, academia, civil society, police leadership, oversight and legal practitioners from the platform of CLEEN Foundation. He explained when CLEEN foundation was evolving with limited resources he encouraged researchers to explore their ideas and ambitions in the different sectors of the human rights project. Staff at CLEEN worked on their projects but also gained experience and funds from journalism, teaching, completing degrees, interning in government projects – an approach which helped in the development of young leadership, an organic network of trust and understanding within civil society and government, while strengthening the span of CLEEN itself.
Innocent had a clarity of purpose, made more effective with a humane humour and charm that drew people to him. The incomplete work of Innocent now lies with those of us to that he brought together in spirit and vision.