Every man's life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another. Ernest Hemingway
I got to hear of Innocent Chukwuma from Prof Okechukwu Ibeanu back in 2005 when I was on my Master’s Degree program in the Political Science Department at the University of Nigeria. Prof. Ibeanu had directed me to apply for a job at CLEEN Foundation as a Research Assistant. I addressed the letter to the Executive Director CLEAN Foundation, Abuja. Prof Ibeanu in his usually characteristic perceptive manner observed the wrong spelling in CLEAN rather than CLEEN, and jokingly scolded me. He not only corrected that error but asked me to visit CLEEN Foundation’s website. It was at that point that my interest in CLEEN Foundation grew, and I was naturally interested in knowing the brain behind the organisation that blazed the trail in the area of public safety. I was particularly interested in the research-driven programs being implemented by CLEEN and constantly visited CLEEN website whenever I had access to the internet.
I was hoping on getting the job until May 2006 when I got an offer to join National Defence College, Abuja, as a Research Fellow. By providence, I was now closer to CLEEN Foundation without being a staff.
I met Innocent Chukwuma for first and last time, I guess in early 2012 during a programme in Sheraton Hotel, Abuja. He made very short and deeply incisive remarks about police reform and issues of accountability in Nigeria. Having familiarized myself with his scholarly engagements over the years prior to that meeting, I found Innocent to be a very ebullient man, with profound knowledge in the area of policing in a global sense. His submissions were ingenious and precise. These made me to become more interested in the work of CLEEN Foundation, particularly in the broader area of security sector reform.
My professional encounter with his organisation date back in 2014 when I led the first major fieldwork on the evolving insurgency in the northeast, and has since them remained actively engaged with CLEEN Foundation. This goes to show how the organisation he founded has helped to positively shape the landscape of policing, public safety and human rights promotion. My services to his organisation have indeed enriched my thinking and scholarship, all thanks to his influence as a defender of human rights.
Our path only crossed again in 2017 when I was invited to join the very influential Igbo intelligentsia group, Nzuko Umunna- an Igbo sociocultural think tank group with members both at home and in the diaspora, and bonded by the desire for the development of Alaigbo and in effect Nigeria at large. Innocent until his death was a thought leader and very active in the group, offering strategic advice, reflections and visions on issues that touch on the interests of the Igbo. The depth of contributions is one that I am seriously missing, much as everyone in the group.
Unarguably, Innocent was one of the continent's most prominent civil society leaders and had dominated the civic space for more than 25 years. His remarkable feats in students’ unionism, pro-democracy struggle, campaign for police reform, youth mentoring and grant making through philanthropy have been well noted in the torrents of tributes. Despite his global achievements, national prominence, connections to the rich and powerful groups and individuals; Innocent was humane, selfless and self-effacing. He would not be tainted by the scandal of politics. He worked very closely with politicians and yet maintained the candour to speak truth to power in an unequivocal sense on critical issues afflicting Nigeria. He also carried the burden to transform the political landscape by showing commitment to mentorship programs for the young and emerging leaders in various spheres.
Innocent’s large heart and capacity to connect with everyone and encourage young and emerging scholars is phenomenal. A staff of CLEEN once told me that "Innocent sees you as a worthy partner of CLEEN Foundation and supports your scholarly input aimed at enriching our output in knowledge production". Such remote endorsement attest to his ideals which have influenced how I came to see him as a mentor without meeting him closely.
The events of the last few days in Nigeria, particularly the death of leading progressive thinkers including the quintessential innocent Chukwuma, have re-affirmed the ephemeral nature of life. Writing this tribute about Innocent also reminds us that great men are known not by the number of years they spent or even the profile of positions they occupied but by the very legacies they left behind that inspire people and society to greatness. Innocent Chukwuma is surely one of them in Nigeria.
My prayers are with Josephine and their lovely daughters.
Dr. Freedom C. Onuoha, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Political Science, UNN, and Consultant to CLEEN Foundation wrote from Nsukka.