Solidarity April 05, 2021

Our loss of Innocent

Chris Stone
The Symposium on Strength and Solidarity for Human Rights

Innocent Chukwuma died on Saturday evening suddenly, unexpectedly, in the prime of his life, minutes before he was to begin treatment for leukemia that had been diagnosed a day earlier. With his death, the struggle for justice in Nigeria and worldwide has lost a great champion, the human rights project has lost a master craftsman, and those of us who labored alongside him have lost the truest of friends and the most generous of colleagues, a beloved brother to many movements.

I started working with Innocent in the 1990s, as he was starting the CLEEN Foundation and I was starting a decade as director of the Vera Institute of Justice. We’ve been partners ever since, collaborating on projects of justice reform and human rights from West Africa to South Asia and the Americas, and sharing laughter, family milestones, and bonds of trust.

It was from Innocent, a quarter century ago, that I learned to distinguish the demand side from the supply side in the struggle for rights and justice. As Nigeria’s military dictatorship gave way to civilian rule in the late 1990s, Innocent spoke about the need for a division of labor in civil society, with some organizations and movements making demands on the state while others worked with state reformers to supply greater justice. The Civil Liberties Organization, where he had served as deputy director, would work the demand side; Innocent’s new CLEEN Foundation would lead on the supply side.

Innocent founded the Centre for Law Enforcement Education of Nigeria (CLEEN) with the prize money that came with the 1996 Reebok Human Rights award, and CLEEN’s strength today is only one of the memorials to Innocent’s vision and skill. While the CLO and activists for rights demanded an end to police violence and impunity, CLEEN worked with would-be reformers within the police and state structures to demonstrate what democratic policing looked like. Police stations opened human rights desks, new rules were promulgated for the policing of elections, the Police Service Commission rediscovered its oversight powers—all with the crucial assistance of CLEEN. If democracy was ever to be real in Nigeria, it would need models of democratic practice that could be seen and touched, not just dreamed about. Innocent hired staff, mobilized volunteers, and enlisted partners to build these supply lines for the new democracy, all with the same quiet passion and commitment that had won him the admiration of his fellow radical activists at university.

Innocent not only created pockets of reform in a corrupt and brutal state, he devoted himself as well to Nigeria’s and the continent’s civil society, articulating and supporting the vital role of NGOs and social movements in real democratic practice. His early focus on strategy—the demand and supply sides—broadened to include teaching on coalition-building, fundraising, and leadership transitions. His vision for civil society, as for police reform, was long-term, and he devoted himself to the endurance of its organizations and movements. That work took him from CLEEN to the Ford Foundation, and to pan-African and global roles.

Three years ago, just after I left the Open Society Foundations, Innocent spoke to me about his discovery of Gramsci’s theories of civil society. Innocent told me he now realized that the conception of civil society promoted by Western states was inherently bound to those states and their continued hegemony. He hoped our next project could challenge that conception with Gramsci’s, and he sent me an article by Gramsci’s leading translator, Joseph Buttigieg (yes, father of Mayor Pete). What had excited Innocent was Buttigieg’s account of Gramsci’s strategy to work within civil society to disable the coercive apparatus of the state, gain access to political power, and create “the conditions that could give rise to a consensual society wherein no individual or group is reduced to a subaltern status.” It was Innocent’s university radicalism still fresh, still energetic, as relevant as ever, even in his 50s and even as he represented American philanthropy in West Africa.

In the 24 hours since his death, the tributes on social media have become a torrent. “Calm and humble in spirit, fierce in his advocacy and leadership in civil society,” reads one. “A great collaborator,” reads another. “One of the brightest.” “Encouraging, empowering, and validating the people coming behind his generation.” “Gentle and humane.” And countless more in that spirit.

We cannot match Innocent’s grace, genius, or ferocity in a cause, but we can take up his project. Innocent had planned to pause over these next two months and devote his time to a memoir he hoped to complete as a visiting fellow at Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government. He intended his memoir, like his work with the Symposium on Strength and Solidarity for Human Rights and so many more of his recent projects, as a gift to that next generation. He loved the spirit in the #EndSARS movement that asked his generation to stand back and support the leadership of Nigeria’s youth, as they claimed their place as leaders. We take up his work by acting in solidarity with those whose activism and leadership would allow his struggle to endure.