I cannot pretend to be of the Chukwuma breed that fought the military junta from campus to activism with badges and relics of what that generation of activists suffered or went through in birthing democracy.
Fate had thrown me quickly into mingling with these icons faster than I would imagine. I had successfully challenged the electoral Body compelling it to conduct LG elections as against simply appointing LG Chairmen by state Governors. In a rare show of government compliance with court judgments, OBJ ordered for and released funds for local government elections. At the next Annual General Meeting of the Transition Monitoring Group, TMG, the Chair, Festus Okoye, applauded my courage as a fresh member and immediately helped facilitate my election into the Coordinating Council (Board) of the TMG. I was on the same board with icons like Oby Nwankwo, of blessed memory, Innocent Chukwuma, Edet Ojo etc. Thus began the journey of my relationship with Innocent, who perhaps was not aware of how he impacted on me most, the ethos, values and expectations for an Activist and Development worker.
At meetings he was the most removed from emotions, strategic and very deliberate at planning. I listened and I learnt. Hanging out occasionally with him was some classroom as he would go into stories and lessons of what it takes to make a difference and survive in a civil society world gradually losing its identity in search of dwindling funds, in efforts at a better Nigeria. I recall as the next Chair of the TMG, he refused to accept funding from international bodies if the funding was to be warehoused by international organizations in Nigeria. He politely stated that TMG will not accept funding with strings.
I got closer to Innocent just before the 2007 elections. Angela Odah, the National Coordinator of TMG at the time, was leaving just before the elections. There was a need to get a trusted hand at the TMG secretariat. Alongside other Civil Society leaders, Innocent approached me to “midwife” the TMG during the elections and then step back post elections, for a substantive National Coordinator to be appointed. I accepted. Events were however to take an unexpected turn as per our mutual agreement and understanding. When the dust had settled, various CS leaders came to my room to make me understand what had happened. Innocent asked me to walk with him later that evening, and 20 minutes into our stroll, I was glad things turned out the way they did. That walk cemented our relationship and made me see Innocent as the raw, sensitive, jovial and down to earth person I had always known. Only this time, I could also sense the empathy and kindness he was imbued with.
Post our TMG years, we spoke and related often even though we lived in separate cities. When I was appointed member representing Human Rights groups on the Police Service Commission, PSC, Innocent called for a meeting during which he gave me invaluable insights into challenges of the police and policing from the CS perspective. He assured me of his ever-present assistance and emphasized that challenges would arise, but that it was equally an opportunity to contribute to that which affects Nigerians most: security. Perhaps only Dr. Otive Igbuzor has done as much in giving me deep insights into the workings of the PSC having once been a board member himself. I approached Innocent twice in his capacity as Foundation’s West Africa Regional Director to support the PSC in holding Strategic Planning Meeting, and to assist the Commissioners in the PSC supervise Police conduct in providing security during the 2019 elections, a request to which he gladly obliged on both occasions.
In the dying days of the #ENDSARS protests, I was invited on AIT to speak about the protests. I was happy to discover that Innocent was also on the panel via Zoom. As the interview progressed, I learnt as I listened to him. Every occasion with Innocent for me, was an opportunity to learn something new. Immediately after the interview he called while I was still on the AIT premises and discussed the NPF/PSC and the protest. We agreed to work together on quick wins to ensure the return of normalcy, and also to enhance citizens confidence in the Police. He rightly believed the PSC should be in the forefront of this.
My last official encounter with Innocent was post the COVID-19 lockdown. The Decriminalization of Petty Offences Forum in Africa was organizing a 3-day Regional Conference on the Impact of management of the pandemic by African governments. I was to facilitate Day 3 of the Forum under Lawyers Alert, alongside the Pan African Lawyers Union, PALU. Part of my task was to identify and secure Experts across Africa to speak. Naturally Innocent came to mind. We spoke, he had a prior engagement on the day, I explained the audience and that the request was very personal. He successfully pleaded with the other organizers to reschedule the earlier engagements, and spoke at the regional conference, in the way only Innocent can.
Weeks before his passing, we spoke and lamented on the activity-based activism taking root in West Africa with no time for reflections on impact. He sounded very passionate on this and I made a mental note to take the discussions forward with him, depending on his new assignment post Ford Foundation. How was I to know it was the last time I would hear the soothing, reassuring and laid-back voice of Innocent, dripping with all wisdom, experience and lessons he was all so ready to always share?
A week before his passing, he made a posting on Facebook, on Kidnappers calling on God to judge the person who had paid them ransom in fake currency. I laughed my eyes out. Typical jovial Innocent. I made a point of calling to banter but sadly did not.
Persons like Innocent walk this space only once in a while.
This was the Innocent I knew. I deliberately left out his monumental achievements across the globe and Africa, just so the world can see, how in all of this, he related to everyone around him from a place of humility, grace, sensitivity and understanding.
Rest on Great Man. The Lord is Happy to receive you home. We are sad to say goodbye, yet we remain comforted by the memories we have of you and the grace to have been part of your life. May the Lord, Maker of Your Soul, console Josephine and your daughters in the way only He can.
Adieu my Oga and friend.