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Innocent Chukwuma, Nigerian activist, pivotal pro-democ...

Maverick Citizen


Innocent Chukwuma, Nigerian activist, pivotal pro-democracy campaigner and leading justice reform pioneer

Innocent Chukwuma, who died on the eve of Easter Sunday, on 3 April 2021, shortly after being diagnosed with leukaemia. (Photo: Leaders of Africa / Wikipedia)

Innocent Chukwuma died too soon. None the less, he led an exemplary and full life as a human rights activist. He was the pioneer of a police reform programme, founder of the Centre for Law Enforcement Education in Nigeria; he built a coalition for ensuring effective discipline and mitigation of police atrocities and started a hub for incubation of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Innocent Chukwuma, who died on the eve of Easter Sunday, on 3 April 2021, shortly after being diagnosed with leukaemia, was arguably the most influential strategist of his generation in Nigeria’s human rights movement and one of the pivotal advocates for more accountable government and the end of military rule in Africa’s most populous country. He was also Africa’s leading expert on police and law enforcement reform. 

Unusually for a country where civic activists are barely credited with any impact in life or thereafter, President Muhammadu Buhari, Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo and the foundation of former president Goodluck Jonathan have led the lamentation of his untimely passing at the age of 55. 

On a bright morning in May 1991, a squad of men from the Nigeria Police Force invaded a family home in Oko-Oba, Agege, a densely populated settlement on the outskirts of the commercial capital, Lagos, in search, they claimed, of a violent robber. When they left less than one hour later, they had killed an entire family of father, mother and six children. The Oko-Oba massacre became one of the police’s trademark crimes, nearly three decades before impunity for crimes of unlawful policing drove Nigeria’s young people into the #EndSARS uprising in October 2020.

Public outrage over the Oko-Oba massacre forced the Nigerian government to reach a settlement with the family, agreeing to a payout of about $1.91-million. I was involved in the negotiations as a lawyer with the Nigerian Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO). 

At the time Chukwuma, a young graduate interning with the CLO, expressed quiet outrage at the fact that there were no more serious consequences for the police officers who committed the killings. To him, the episode made human life seem cheap in Nigeria. On formally joining the staff of the CLO later in 1991, Chukwuma made it his mission to convince the organisation to take a more ambitious view of the need to prevent and mitigate police atrocities.

Chukwuma credited his father, a produce dealer from southeastern Nigeria, who died while he was still an undergraduate in 1989, with the inspiration for his consequential life in civic advocacy and social justice. 

As a prefect in his final year in high school, he led a protest of students against the theft of their food by a joint enterprise of the food contractors and school authorities. When he was expelled from the boarding house, his father intervened as his advocate to inquire from the school authorities what crime his son had committed. After patiently listening to the school principal’s version of the protest, the old man asked the question: “But did he lie?” His father’s intervention eventually persuaded the school authorities to allow him to take his final examinations, an experience which, he always testified, taught him the first lessons in civic advocacy and the need to always ask the questions that matter.

During his life of consequential advocacy, Chukwuma made a habit of asking questions that mattered and a virtue out of modelling answers to them. At the University of Nigeria, he emerged as a member of the last generation of credible student leadership in Nigeria, becoming the head of the student union parliament. Their contest of wills with the university authorities and later with the Nigerian government prolonged his sojourn in university by one year, at the end of which he needed a court order to graduate. 

Upon graduating with a degree in theology, he joined the ranks of activists in the CLO, where he pioneered a police reform programme. With Nigeria under military rule, he also became an indispensable member of the team that fostered the building of a coalition of Nigeria’s disparate pro-democracy champions into a united front called the Campaign for Democracy (CD). 

At the end of January 2021, Chukwuma retired from the Ford Foundation. He planned to proceed to Oxford University where he had secured a fellowship at the Blavatnik School of Government to write his memoirs and also do some teaching. In an earlier life, he had worked briefly as a lecturer at the Kennedy School of Government at the Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

As the advocacy against the military intensified after 24 June 1993, when the military cancelled the results of the 12 June 1993 presidential elections, which would have returned the country to civil rule, Chukwuma’s nose for effective strategy would prove critical. With most of the leading members of the anti-military coalition exiled or in jail, he was one of the few people able to move in and out of the country, often across borders, sometimes with the quiet support of friendly security services, to take messages across continents. 

As the brutal dictatorship of General Sani Abacha intensified in the mid-1990s, Chukwuma helped to build cells of effective anti-military voices in Europe and North America. He also addressed multilateral institutions across continents, including the now defunct Organisation of African Unity, the United Nations, the European Union and the Commonwealth, seeking effective pressure against Nigeria’s military government, all the while managing to evade prison or exile with an unusual combination of partnership building, courage and wit. 

For this work, Chukwuma won the Reebok International Human Rights Award in 1996.

When military rule ended in May 1999, Chukwuma chose policy over politics. With the proceeds from the Reebok award, he decided to found the Centre for Law Enforcement Education in Nigeria, CLEEN Foundation, as a think-tank on accountable policing. In 2001, he worked with the administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo to reform and re-enact the Police Service Commission Act, in order to ensure effective civilian oversight of the Nigeria Police Force and address deficits of discipline in the force. 

To give civil society a seat at the table of law enforcement reform, Chukwuma incubated the Network on Police Reform in Nigeria, NOPRIN, a 46-member coalition that aggregates advocacy to advance police and law enforcement reform in the country.

To guarantee the health of Nigeria’s electoral experiment, Chukwuma identified a need to address the tendency of incumbent regimes to use the police to rig elections. With his technical leadership, the Police Service Commission in 2003 adopted a set of guidelines to regulate police conduct in elections, which have subsequently been enacted into a code of conduct and rules of engagement for security personnel on electoral duty in Nigeria. Separately, Chukwuma led a vocal coalition of civic election monitors in Nigeria known as the Transition Monitoring Group, or TMG. 

When Nigeria’s crisis of mass violence began in 2001, Chukwuma identified a need for rigorous diagnosis of the problem. With the Geneva-based World Organisation against Torture, better known by its French acronym, OMCT, he convened a team to study the problem. His hypothesis was that these were state-sponsored killings. The report, released in 2002, was explosive. 

The reaction of the government was to instruct the customs authorities to impound the report on landing in Nigeria as a prohibited import. As Nigeria confronts a deeper crisis of mass atrocities today, his diagnosis nearly two decades ago has proved quite prescient. 

In a country in which civic institution building is rare, Chukwuma built CLEEN Foundation into perhaps the most independent non-government advocacy organisation in Nigeria. When, in 2020, the Nigerian government needed a credible organisation to monitor its spending of funds looted by Abacha and repatriated from foreign countries, CLEEN Foundation was a natural choice

Chukwuma navigated the tensions between the global and the local with an eye on how they could complement and reinforce one another. In 2005, he provided leadership in the foundation of the African Policing Civilian Oversight Forum, APCOF, a continental coalition of advocates for, and national institutions involved in, ensuring effective discipline and mitigation of police atrocities.

Seven years later, in 2012, the Ford Foundation appointed him as its regional representative for West Africa. In this role, Chukwuma quietly transformed the influence of Ford in the region, with seminal forays into such areas as art, political memory and impact investing. At the time of his death, he was the vice-chair of the Impact Investors Foundation (IIF) of Nigeria, whose members had channelled a portfolio of more than $4.7-billion in impact investment into the country over a five-year period beginning in 2015. He also chaired the Resilience Fund of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime.

At the end of January 2021, Chukwuma retired from the Ford Foundation. He planned to proceed to Oxford University where he had secured a fellowship at the Blavatnik School of Government to write his memoirs and also do some teaching. In an earlier life, he had worked briefly as a lecturer at the Kennedy School of Government at the Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

He had just begun emergency treatment for leukaemia, but died in the week before he was to begin his fellowship. 

Chukwuma spent the final years of his life building a vocational institute, Oluaka Institute of Technology, as a hub for incubation of innovation and entrepreneurship. Death has arrested his plan to retire into mentorship of innovators. That project now is his legacy.

Innocent Chukwuma was born on 26 February 1966. He is survived by his wife, Josephine, and three daughters – Chidinma, Amarachi and Nkechi. DM/MC 

Chidi Anselm Odinkalu is senior manager for Africa with the Open Society Justice Initiative.


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