I spent the last three years of secondary school being acquainted with and enamoured by a revolving door of Nigerian journalists, activists and lawyers – who stood up to the military, who fought for the rights of citizens, who put their lives, their jobs, their relationships on the lives for what they believed in.
Olisa Agbakoba, Clement Nwankwo, Kunle Ajibade, Dapo Olorunyomi, Ibim Semenitari, Joe Okei-Odumakin, Nosa Igiebor, Femi Falana… they and others were a roll call of names that I was awed by, that I was inspired by, that earned the respect of a young man in a country with so few heroes, and so much rot.
It wasn’t just the passion of their intervention, it was the systemic manner they chose to engage and dismantle an oppressive system, building sophisticated networks of people and institutions that continue to peck at the military and its order until its collapse.
One of these names that inspired me was Innocent Chukwuma.
I knew him first from his work with the inimitable Civil Liberties Organisation (oh, those were the days), which focused relentlessly on human rights. Working with a team of some of the brightest minds in the country, they focused on uncovering and publicizing human rights abuses by the Nigerian security forces.
His record of success is impressive. His research reportedly exposed a system of brutality and torture in the country’s criminal justice system, the outcry leading to the country’s first human rights training workshop to prevent police misconduct. In 1996, his effective lobby at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights lead to a resolution passed against the government of General Sani Abachi, condemning Nigeria’s abysmal human rights records.
This was the time when he began to receive both death and jail threats.
Like many of his peers, he didn’t stop. He went on to co-found the United Action of Democracy, which became the central tool for opposition o the military – as Nigeria’s pro-democracy political party. In 1997, he was back at the United Nations, pushing it to appoint a special human rights investigator for Nigeria.
By the time he went on to found his organization, the Center for Law Enforcement Education (CLEEN), focused on criminal justice reform, police brutality and civil rights, he had established his as a clear, effective voice against injustice, against abuse, and against what the country had become – with outcomes including a bouquet of sanctions against Abacha.
It is important to recount these histories (like I did at the passing of Tunji Braithwaite months ago) because in a country buffeted by corruption, leaders without principle and hypocrites, it can be difficult to remember that there are people who have walked these roads, and lived these lives and who have done that with courage, with dignity and with character.
It was an honour to finally meet this man I had admired so much from afar, in person last year – and to find an outstanding public life matched by a personal character defined by dignity, by decency, by warmth and then by a clarity of perspective and passion for his country, not yet tempered by years of engagement.
Last Friday, Innocent Chukwuma and his wife (whom he proposed to within 3 days of meeting) celebrated decades of marriage and a mutual 50th birthday. As he danced, and as friends and family said nothing but kind words, all I could think of was just how much Nigeria should celebrate a life like this.
All I could think about was what a remarkable life of impact this one man has lived. All I could think of was how he led over 50,000 election observers to the 2007 elections in Nigeria, delivering a blistering report that condemned what the whole world saw as the worst held polls since 1993.
That moment possibly delivered the energy that helped Nigeria make the bend towards credible, respectable elections, starting 2011 – and it won’t be too far-fetched to say it laid the foundations for the historic hand-over of power that came with 2015.
It is important to celebrate those who made our today possible. It is important to remember the sacrifices of heroes past and present.
It is important to celebrate those like Innocent Chukwuma. And to remind his country(wo)men of how far they have come, and what they represent. Because there are so few like him amongst us. There are so few that we can point to with pride.
So to him I say: happy birthday. May your country yet make you proud.