By Samson Itodo
Writing this tribute is painful because I had intended to celebrate Innocent Chukwuma with a eulogy when he left Ford Foundation as Regional Director for West Africa in December 2020, but life got in the way and I kept pushing it. The plan was to recognize his pioneering efforts in Nigeria’s civic space and his contributions to entrenching democracy in Nigeria, including his fervent support for civic organizations and young emerging leaders before his glorious exit on April 3, 2021. For many people in my generation who did not know him well, Innocent was my friend, brother, and mentor, and his death cuts so deep. Iroko, as many call him, had a significant influence on my life and career. He cleared the path for many people like me to follow. He was a leader of thought who bestrode several sectors and works of life in his activism, leaving imprints of innovation, knowledge, and impactful results.
Innocent was intentional about investing in people, especially young people. I was 25 and fresh out of Law School when Innocent invited me to join a high-level Civil Society Panel on Police Reforms established by CLEEN Foundation to perform a diagnostics on policing in Nigeria and to proffer recommendations for repositioning the Nigerian Police. Ms. Ayo Obe, a former Chairperson of the Civil Liberties Organization (CLO), chaired the panel, which had other leading CSO voices and scholars as members. At that point, I had limited knowledge of police reforms, but I was passionate about human rights. Innocent had faith in me, and he availed me the opportunity to learn. Fascinated by the panel’s theory of change, I asked Innocent after one of our sessions why he was so interested in reforming an institution like the police, which seemed resistant to change and decimated beyond redemption? Without sounding pedantic, he responded, “I only see opportunities… we transform our institutions by engaging them’. My idea of activism and civil society was transformed from that day. Innocent was an unapologetic patriot who believed our democratic institutions could still work for the common good. This philosophy has shaped our work on elections, legislative engagement, and citizen participation at Yiaga Africa.
Innocent was a firm believer in young people and my generation. He stands out as one leader who cared so much about intergenerational transition. He made concerted efforts to bridge the gap between his generation of civic actors and emerging civic activists. His depth of knowledge on student unionism and Nigeria’s democracy struggle was unparalleled. I attribute my little knowledge of the internal dynamics that shaped the student movement during Nigeria’s dark days under the military to my one-to-one interactions with Innocent at various times. Having served as a student union leader in his days, he always lamented about the deplorable state of student union activism in Nigeria and his determination to fix it. His proposed memoir was to serve as a guide and tool for inspiration for my generation and the upcoming generation of civic activists. He never declined an invitation to speak to young people because he considers it an opportunity to pass the torch to the next generation. Inspired by Innocent, I launched a mentorship program in January 2020 to build a new cadre of young civic leaders.
In 2019, Innocent invited me to join the working group for the Symposium on Strength in Solidarity in Human Rights, a fascinating new project he kickstarted with Professor Chris Stone at the Columbia University, USA, to rebuild strength and solidarity in the field of human rights. This project saw us hosting meetings in New York and Jordan with other leaders of social movements across the world. On this particular trip, Innocent shared his fascination with social investing and impact bonds as a new way of financing development work. He counseled that I explore this emerging new area with my work at Yiaga Africa. He taught me many valuable lessons on being an effective leader in the public space and managing successes and failures. He told me of his triumphs and struggles, personal values and convictions, and how he has continued to stay focused on his work despite distractions and personal attacks from various quarters. These lessons remain indelibly written in my heart, and it continues to guide my work in the civic space.
Innocent was a firm believer in leadership transition as a catalyst for institutional growth. This manifested in the way he managed CLEEN Foundation, an organization he founded before joining the Ford Foundation as Regional Director in 2012. For Innocent, the best way to leave a lasting legacy as a civic leader is to invest in building institutions that outlive us. Nine years after his exit as Executive Director of CLEEN Foundation, the organization still plays a leading role in the field of criminal justice administration and democratic governance with the same degree of tenacity.
As collaborator-in-chief who abhorred silo-mentality, he facilitated collaborations to drive social and political change. I recall a dinner he hosted in New York with myself, Seun Onigbinde of BudgIT, Yemi Adamolekun of EiE Nigeria, and a few others to discuss pathways for addressing Nigeria’s dysfunctional political system. In 2019, he also facilitated a joint partnership between Ford Foundation, National Endowment for Democracy, and Yiaga Africa to mobilize international pressure for political reforms in Nigeria following the outcome of the 2019 general elections. Through his support, we hosted our first major event in Washington DC in October 2019.
It will be remiss of me, not to mention his unwavering support and dedication towards the Not Too Young to Run movement. A few months ago, he spent some time with the movement’s leadership to design scenarios for the 2023 elections. As a visionary, he painted a clear picture of the opportunities for young people to capture political power and transform Nigeria’s public governance space. He gave hope and sold the dream of the possibilities pervading our political space. He ignited our fire and passion for the Nigerian project and gave us a roadmap on how to get there. He was indeed a bridge-builder between the past and future generations, and it is on the shoulders of men like Innocent that movements like the Not Too Young to Run continue to thrive. We owe him a debt of gratitude.
I was looking forward to welcoming him to the Blavatnik School of Government here at the University of Oxford for his fellowship before the news of his untimely demise broke out. My heart goes out to his lovely wife, Aunty Josephine, and his daughters for this irreparable loss.
Innocent was a man of the people and a man for the people. The world has lost a humanist, an intellectual, and a decent man. His legacy is forever etched in our hearts, and his immortality will be reflected in our continuous fight against injustice and inequality.
Adieu, my brother and mentor! Rest in power and strength!
Samson Itodo is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. He serves as the Executive Director of Yiaga Africa and the Convener of the Not Too Young To Run movement. He tweets @DSamsonItodo