How to believe that Nigeria’s prominent civil society leader, Innocent C. Chukwuma, is gone at 56! Among other important unfinished business–he still had a lot to give–was the conversation he began with me only six weeks ago concerning an important family matter hanging in the balance!
I first met Innocent during his Civil Liberties Organization (CLO) days when the organization was home to many of us who subscribed to a just and egalitarian country. My good friend Abdul Oroh was one of the activists at the helm and many other comrades who have since moved on to found their own organizations worked under the same CLO umbrella. Among them were friends on the Environmental Rights Action (ERA) wing—chiefly Nnimmo Bassey and Oronto Douglas.
Over the years as we pursued our individual dreams in different countries, Innocent and I didn’t see or communicate much. Innocent had founded CLEEN Foundation in1998 initially with an office somewhere near Alade market in Ikeja Lagos, to promote police accountability through public engagement. He made significant progress, winning significant MacArthur Foundation grants for his work, and rising to the position of Director of Ford Foundation’s West Africa office from 2013 to 2021. The physical distance between us notwithstanding (as I lived in Canada), we had kept a tab on each other, and indeed I basked with pride in Innocent’s consistency and successes as a civil rights activist in a country that overstretches even the most patient optimist and patriot.
Then, only late this February, on the 20th to be precise, the long silence between Innocent and changed. I received a note from him, and he followed through with a phone call. After speaking with him, he introduced the last of his three daughters, Nkechi, and his beloved wife, Josephine who is also a human rights activist. I spoke with them and looked forward to a new chapter of better communication, only to wake up on Easter day in Hamilton (where we were spending the Easter weekend with Kika) to a Whatsapp message by our mutual friend Abdul Mahmud announcing the demise of Innocent!
Quiet and unassuming but incredibly effective as a civil society leader, the outpouring of tributes testifies to Innocent’s short but purposeful life. Among the prestigious honors he received within his 56 years life span were a prestigious MacArthur Foundation Award for Creative and Effective Institutions, the Reebok International Human Rights Award, and visiting lectureship at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
Now, his request of February 20th in that fateful phone conversation with me feels like a debt I owe him and Josephine and the family.
May his soul rest in peace, and may God grant his family the fortitude to deal the loss.
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