Nigeria’s Innocent Chukwuma, a democracy activist and expert on judicial reform

Innocent’s advocacy for more responsible government and his courageous and innovative activism against the Nigerian military junta earned him friends and admirers across Africa and internationally.

He was also Africa’s leading expert on police and law enforcement reforms.

In a country where civil activists are seldom respected by the authorities, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buahari and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo led the lawsuit over Innocent’s death at the early age of 55.

Innocent’s energy and intelligence illuminated the rights movement in Nigeria from the moment he got there. On a bright morning in May 1991, a group of Nigerian police men marched into a family home in Oko-Oba, Agege, a crowded suburb of Lagos. They claimed they were looking for a dangerous predator.

When they left less than an hour later, they had killed an entire family: father, mother, and their six children.

A history of violence

The Oko-Oba massacre became a crime by the Nigerian police almost three decades before young activists took to the streets in the #EndSARS uprising in October 2020.

Public outrage over the Oko-Oba massacre forced the Nigerian government to compensate the extended family and agreed to a payout of around $ 1.9 million.

As an attorney for the Nigerian Civil Liberties Organization (CLO), I was involved in the negotiations that led to this settlement. Innocent, a young graduate at the time who was practicing at the CLO, expressed slight indignation that the police officers who had killed the family had no further consequences.

For him, the episode made human life in Nigeria cheaper. When Innocent joined CLO later in 1991, he was determined to convince the organization to take more ambitious views on how to prevent and mitigate police atrocities.


Innocent owed his father, a merchant from southeast Nigeria, who died in 1989 when Innocent was still a student, the inspiration for his civic advocacy and his passion for social justice.

In his senior year of school, Innocent led a student protest against the theft of their groceries by a joint venture between food business operators and school authorities. When Innocent was expelled, his father stepped in to inquire of the school authorities about his son’s crime.

After patiently listening to the Headmaster’s version of the events, the old man asked, “But did he lie?” His father’s intervention convinced school authorities to allow Innocent to take his final exams. This experience taught Innocent the first lessons in civic advocacy and the need to ask the questions that matter.

The questions that are important

Innocent spent his life asking questions that were important. At the University of Nigeria at Nsukka, Innocent became chairman of the student union parliament, key to this generation of credible student leaders.

The will competition between students and the university authorities and later with the Nigerian government extended his stay at the university by one year. In the end, he needed a court order to graduate.

After graduating with a degree in religion, Innocent joined CLO activists where he pioneered a police reform program. With Nigeria under military rule, he became an indispensable member of the team that helped build a coalition of diverse pro-democracy advocates for a united front called the Campaign for Democracy (CD).

A sense of strategy

After the military canceled the June 12, 1993 presidential election intended to return the country to civilian rule, Innocent’s strategic sense would prove critical. With most of the anti-military coalition leaders in exile or in prison, Innocent was one of the few people able to enter and exit the country, often across land borders, sometimes with the silent assistance of security officials to get news across To receive across continents.

As General Sani Abacha’s dictatorship grew more brutal in the mid-1990s, Innocent helped build cells of anti-military voices in Europe and North America, and turned to international institutions such as the Organization of African Unity (renamed the African Union), the United States Nations, the European Union and the Commonwealth.

All along, he called for pressure on the Nigerian military government while he managed to bypass prison and exile with his distinctive combination of organizational skill, courage, and wit – which made him friends around the world. In 1999, one year after the fall of the Abacha regime, Innocent won the 1999 Reebok International Human Rights Award.

Advocacy over Politics

When Abacha’s successor was handed over to an elected civilian government in May 1999, Innocent opted for political lobbying against partisan politics. With the proceeds from the Reebok Prize, he founded the Center for Law Enforcement Education in Nigeria, the CLEEN Foundation, as a think tank for responsible policing.

In 2001, he worked with President Olusegun Obasanjo’s government to reform Police Services Commission law, strengthen civilian oversight of the Nigerian police force, and combat indiscipline among the force.

To give civil society a place at the law enforcement reform table, Innocent launched the Nigerian Police Reform Network, a 46-member coalition that mobilizes support for police and law enforcement reform.

Police and rigging

To strengthen the Nigerian electoral system, Innocent focused on the way incumbent regimes used the police to forge votes.

In 2003, the Police Service Commission, under the technical direction of Innocent, issued guidelines regulating police behavior in elections. These have been included in a code of conduct and a guideline for security personnel in the electoral service in Nigeria. Separately, Innocent led a strictly independent coalition of election observers known as the Transition Monitoring Group.

When the mass violence crisis in Nigeria began in 2001, Innocent realized the need for a rigorous diagnosis of the problem. With the organization Mondiale Contre la Torture [World Organisation Against Torture]He is based in Brussels and has set up a team to investigate the issue in Nigeria.

Explosive report

Innocent’s hypothesis was that these were mostly government-sponsored murders. The subsequent report, published in 2002, was explosive.

The Obasanjo government ordered customs to confiscate the report when it landed in Nigeria as a banned import. As Nigeria today faces an even deeper crisis of mass atrocities, the report’s diagnosis almost two decades ago proved prescient.

In a country where building sustainable civic institutions is difficult and rare, Innocent has built the CLEEN Foundation into one of the most independent non-governmental advocacy groups in Nigeria.

A clean choice

When the Nigerian government needed a credible organization in 2020 to oversee its spending on corrupt loot returned from abroad, the CLEEN Foundation was a natural choice.

Innocent has mastered the tensions between the global and the local to see how they can complement and reinforce each other. In 2005, he took the lead by founding the African Policing Civilian Oversight Forum, a continental coalition of institutions calling for accountability and harm reduction for police atrocities.

In 2012, the Ford Foundation named Innocent as its regional representative for West Africa. There, Innocent silently transformed Ford’s operations with pioneering forays into areas such as art, political memory, and impact investing.

Innocent also served as vice chairman of the Impact Investors Foundation in Nigeria, whose members have provided a portfolio of over $ 4.7 billion in investments since 2015 to create jobs, empower communities, and develop skills and technology. He also headed the Resilience Fund of the Global Initiative against Cross-Border Organized Crime.

Promising horizons

Innocent withdrew from the Ford Foundation at the end of January 2021. He planned to go to Oxford University, where he had secured a scholarship to the Blavatnik School to write and teach his memoirs. He had also worked as a lecturer at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

Tragically, Innocent died a week before the next phase of his career began. In the last few years of his life, he built a professional institute, the Oluaka Institute of Technology, as a hub for the incubation of innovation and entrepreneurship. The death interrupted his plan to expand his mentoring of innovators. This project is now his legacy.

The innocent Chukwuma is survived by his wife Josephine and their three daughters Chidinma, Amarachi and Nkechi.

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