By Omano Edigheji, PhD
The goal of life is not to die old but to die empty. I want you to die with nothing else to do. I want you to die because you have poured out all of your dreams, ideas, visions, books, music, inventions, publications, that you died empty. You died because there is nothing to keep you alive. You have done what you were born to do and that is the greatest service to humanity – Dr Myles Munroe
My brother, friend and comrade, Innocent Chukwuma, I never imagined I will be writing a tribute to you few weeks after our last phone conversation. During our last conversation in late January, your voice beamed with life as you shared with me your post-Ford Foundation aspirations. Part of your future aspirations was to use the opportunity of a fellowship you had been accepted into at Oxford to write your memoir. As you ponder about what might be the best way to approach collecting data for the memoir, you asked that I help check my library for materials that might be relevant to what you plan to write. In addition, you asked me to be ready to be interviewed specifically on our collective exploits as comrades, roommates and colleagues during the hey days of the struggle against military dictatorship in Nigeria.
During this conversation, we both went down memory lane and reminisced on our days as roommates in the Fadeyi area of Lagos while both working for the Civil Liberties Organization, CLO. You emphasized the need for a proper recollection of our roommate years because you wanted that to be fully reflected in the memoir as part of your formative years in Lagos. After our conversation, I went to bed that night reflecting on all that we did together in Lagos, and I made a promise to myself to share all the details I can remember with you whenever we meet.
But to my utter shock, I woke up in the morning of April 4th, 2021 to read a WhatsApp message from a mutual friend, Dr. Bheki Moyo, inquiring if it is true that you had passed away. I was frozen and confused. In that state of mind, I picked up the phone and called your soulmate and wife, Josephine Effah Chukwuma. The phone rang twice, but I ended the call before she could pick it up. I realized that she was not the right person to call to make such inquiry. I then called Abdul Oroh, the Executive Director of the CLO, while we both worked there. As Abdul confirmed the sad news to me, we both burst into tears. As I write this, I still cannot come to terms with the fact that the Inno that I knew is no longer with us on this earth.
Inno, as many of us fondly call you, we both came from the student’s movement to join the CLO almost at the same time. We were friends and comrades as students’ activists where many of us in that generation cut our activism teeth. As a student leader from the University of Jos and you from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, we had met at several meetings at the national level where the place of birth, ethnic origin, language, and tongue never mattered to any of us. What mattered was the idea of a prosperous Nigeria where all of us can aspire to become whatever we wanted to become in life. As such, it was easy for us to quickly bond together when we became colleagues. We joined the CLO as fresh university graduates full of ideas and optimism about the future of our generation and that of Nigeria. Thus, it was exciting for us when we joined the CLO where Olisa Agbakoba was president and Ayo Obe was Vice President. Beside the two legal icons, were Emma Ezeazu who was General Secretary, Chima Ubani, Head of Campaigns, Lanre Enhowa, Head of Research and Chidi Odinkalu, Head of Legal department.
One of the main issues we faced as young entrants to the CLO was where to live. At this time, Chima Ubani and Emma Ezeazu had a two-bedroom apartment in the Fadeyi area of Lagos. As it is with many comrades of that era, “my comrades rented apartment is also my own apartment”. So it was for myself and Inno, when, one day, without consulting Chima Ubani and Emma Ezeazu, we both showed up at their apartment with our bags, no questions asked, and it became our residence. Chima had two of his younger brothers with him and we basically “occupied” Ezeazu’s section of the apartment. Again, with no questions asked, Ezeazu perfectly understood that comrades would have to live, hence his decision to let us stay in his room while he temporarily moved to live with his Uncle in the Ikoyi area of Lagos. Such was the camaraderie of living as a comrade in Lagos and indeed Nigeria during this period. We were all our brother’s keepers, always protecting each other. That is how we ended up being roommates and slept in the same bed for two years.
Inno, your wittiness and sense of humor were unparalleled, which made me to question your “innocentness”, which we laughed at every time I did that (But you never let this go without a comic response). Sometimes you did drive all of us crazy but in a perfect way. Several times, I almost cracked my ribs from laughter. And of course, your intellectual depth was equal to none. In the tradition we grew up in as student’s leaders, reading and intellectual rigor was one of our benchmarks and you excelled in all of these characters by not only reading but doing so widely. There was never a dull moment in having intellectual and political conversations with you. In most cases, the conversations we had were about governance and development – of Nigeria, the African continent and the world in general. From our students’ days, we were committed to the anti-apartheid movement. So, the anti-apartheid struggle was one reoccurring theme in our discussion. While Chima, I and most of our comrades leaned towards the African National Congress (ANC), you supported the Pan African Congress (PAC). I recall how furious you were when we heard of the news of the killing of Chris Hani, leader of the military wing of the ANC and General Secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP), on April 10th, 1994. That day, we were downcast and furious. In many of our conversations, you never hid your disappointment about how the ANC is governing post-apartheid South Africa.
As colleagues and roommates, we sometimes treat our work as a continuation of everything we do, whether we were having dinner, sharing drinks or just having a light conversation. To us, work never ends. The discussion in the office will continue at home and our house became the engine room of the Campaign for Democracy (CD), especially when Chima Ubani, its Chief Strategist was living in the same apartment as us.
At the CLO, we shared one thing in common. We both looked for ways to add value to the human rights work of the organization. We brought some innovation into the work of the CLO. We were not content in issuing press releases condemning human rights violations or going to courts to seek redress for victims. While you were assigned to work on the police project, you realized you had to collaborate with the police to change the institution from within. On my part, I led the Membership and National Expansion programme. In that capacity, I was responsible for membership recruitment and establishment of branches throughout the country. Just like you, I realized that after we recruit members and issued them membership cards, the question became, what next?. In order to answer this critical question of what next, I birthed the Human Rights Education and Empowerment Program. A central component of this was the Church and Human Rights Program (because of this programme, Olisa Agbakoba won the Human Rights Prize of the German Association of Judges in 1993). When I initiated the program, being as witty as ever, you quipped, Edigheji, you never go to church, but you are now an agent of the church. Many of our other friends and comrades would tease me about working for the church. Sometimes, I would pick on you and respond with a wit that you are now working for the Nigerian Police Force. We all would laugh endlessly even at the seriousness of the kind of work we were all doing to make Nigeria a better place for all. More importantly, we both recognized that working from inside with these stakeholders—-the church and the police— would have meaningful impacts beyond the common approach of criticizing them from outside. Thus, while many highlighted human rights violations, and engaged in advocacy, you worked with the police to change the institution from within.
You were insightful, dogged, strategic, unassuming, disciplined, humbled, simplistic and programmatic – never taking extreme positions or engaging in grandstanding and seeking the limelight. Inno, you lived a simple lifestyle and was not given to extravagance. You worked quietly to advance the course you committed your life to. At the CLO, we worked on weekends, Christmas days and even new years’ eve. We required little supervision to carry out our work, a fact that Olisa Agbakoba and Ayo Obe will attest to. To us, human rights activism was not a career but a calling. Hence you were so passionate about your work, and was driven by the need to meet the deadlines you set for yourself. This was the same for most of us. It was no surprise that we find ourselves working throughout some nights in the office.
You crafted and implemented the police project based on your passion and knowledge, as well as establish the necessary relationships within the Force for the project to succeed. At the same time, you recognized early on the need for us to broaden our knowledge and acquire critical skills to enhance our human rights work. My brother, Inno, you championed the combination of passion with acquisition of critical skills for activism to have sustainable impacts. To you, activism must be combine with professionalism for human rights organisations to be successful. These were the qualities that subsequently led you to establish and run one of the most successful human rights organisations in the history of Nigeria, the CLEEN Foundation. This was you sowing and nurturing a seed to serve Nigerians and humanity. At the time you established it, I had left the CLO to South Africa for my Master’s degree but I kept abreast with developments at CLEEN.
Our time in the CLO was interesting, and we learned a lot from Olisa Agbakoba, Abdul Oroh, Emma Ezeazu and Chima Ubani. Olisa Agbakoba deserved much credit for assembling committed activists who changed the course of human rights advocacy in Nigeria. Agbakoba also taught us that human rights and pro-democracy was and continues to be a struggle against systematic issues; and should never be personal. As such, he advised us not to use abusive language in our press releases and reports. We were to tell the story and make our demands. The readers will get the gist. Also to Olisa’s credit, he ignored those that advised him not to recruit “communists” as staff of the CLO. Had he listened to them, Inno and a number of us who came from the students movement would not have worked at the organization. The CLO would have been poorer for it. At the time, one thing stood out in the human rights and pro-democracy movement: they were pan-Nigerian movements, without regards to religious and ethnic backgrounds of their staff and members.
CLO was the incubator and at some point, we all dispersed in different directions, but we never left each other. Inno, whenever you and I met or chatted on the phone, we never stopped teasing each other based on our lived experiences. One issue we usually throw banters at each other for is our experience in hands of the State Security Services during the campaign to actualize June 1993 presidential election. Following the annulment of the June 12 presidential election won by Chief M.K.O Abiola, by the military government of General Ibrahim Babangida, the Campaign for Democracy (CD) called for mass protests. The onus of mobilizing for the protests fell on people like you and I. In the process of mobilizing for the people, Lagos was divided into five zones, with you responsible for leading the mobilization in Apapa and I responsible for Lagos Island. For the one week leading to the protests, we mobilized day and night, and in my own case, our team in Lagos Island were accommodated in the homes of market women in Balogun market.
We only returned home on the third day of the protests, which is ten days after we left the house. We were exhausted after being in the streets for ten days. You returned with a wound in your hand. The wound came from a broken bottle used as a weapon against you by one of the angry protesters who wanted to set a trailer truck ablaze. But as the leader of the zone, you stopped them and in anger, a protester stabbed you with a bottle. Inno, you had the scar of that wound until your death. Just to be clear, the democracy that Nigeria enjoyed today came through the blood of Inno and countless others. It was not a gift from God or the work of politicians, who are its main beneficiaries today.
When we finally returned to the house after ten days in the street, you put on a movie, “Boyz n the Hoods” for us to relax. As we were watching the movie, there was a knock on the door. I opened the door and there were four men with guns standing outside the door. Their first question was, where is Chima Ubani? We both said we don’t know where he was. Then they asked both of us our names. Once we told them, they smiled and said with commanding voices, you are both under arrest. Of course, we wanted to know who they were, they said they were from the SSS. I told them ok, I have to pack – take my books, clothes and toothbrush and toothpaste. They refused. Being the pragmatist that you were, you were not ready to argue with them. That was how we were arrested and taken to the Shaginsha SSS headquarters in Lagos. While there, they left us at a seating room. We slept on the couch for the first night of our detention. Then the following morning, they brought some miserable food for us. I insisted that they have to get us toothbrush and toothpaste to brush our teeth before we eat. Again, Inno, you felt my demand was an exercise in futility. You kept your calm. My punishment for my demand was that the SSS kept me in solitary confinement for a week where I slept on the bare floor in a room with broken windows. Mosquitoes feasted on me. Inno, you were released a day earlier than I. Upon our release, we began to look for accommodation, knowing that the Fadeyi apartment was no longer safe for us. We both find separate accommodation and started living apart.
Inno, every time we met or chatted, I always teased you that you got me arrested for suggesting that we should watch a movie. You will jab back by saying, “Edigheji, your unreasonable demands in detention made the SSS to be more hostile to us”. You never called me by my first name, Omano. Only you and Olisa Agbakoba called me by my last name, even when we were all on first name terms at the CLO.
While I was away in South Africa, we kept in regular contact. We never left each other. On several occasions, whenever I am visiting Nigeria from South Africa, we will arrange for me to spend the night at your home. There is always food and red wine for me, even if it’s a late-night arrival, your soulmate, Josephine will join us briefly for discussion and she will laugh at our banters. Some nights we will stay up until 2:00am trying to catch up. And we had to wake up after few hours’ sleep for me to catch the first flight either to Abuja or Kaduna. Thank you for your hospitality and friendship.
Inno, you lived a happy life – a life full of gratitude. I will attribute this to two reasons, you married your soulmate, who stood with you through thick and thin; and you discovered your life purpose that you were so passionate about to fulfill. Luckily for you, your soulmate shared the same purpose and even had a stronger passion. Josephine was your pillar.
This brings me to the conversation we once had in your hotel room in Abuja. We were reflecting on our lives and what we need to do to live meaningful lives. It was then you told me a conversation you had with one of your closest family members. You said, she told you she “feared dying without living”. And you told me your response – empowering her to be herself and live a life of purpose. Inno, in your life, you lived a life of purpose. In the short time you lived in this world, you clearly identified your life purpose, fulfilled it and died empty, after given your all. Inno, like Apostle Paul, you fought the good fight. You finished the course and you kept the faith. Your integrity and dedication to humanity were unquestionable and unblemished. Using the platforms of civil society organisations and the Ford Foundation, you made a lasting impact on humanity. You were an institutional builder, a leader who uplifted others, a bridge builder and an effective networker. You fought for human rights and democracy in Nigeria. Your work contributed to the gradual transformation taking place in the Nigerian Police Force. Indeed, much more needs to be done to transform the police into a force to serve the Nigerian people; entrench democracy; and institutionalize a human rights culture in the country.
Inno, you played your part as a positive change agent to make Nigeria in particular and the world in general a better place. Your contribution to human rights and pro-democracy struggles and how you used the platform of the Ford Foundation to support causes that promote good governance, development, and social enterprise will not be forgotten.
The last time we met was in the company of Abdul Oroh in Abuja on December 8, 2020 after the public presentation of my new book, NIGERIA: DEMOCRACY WITHOUT DEVELOPMENT, HOW TO FIX IT. The book project was supported by you through the Ford Foundation. From your hotel, you suggested that we go to see Prof Ebere Onwudiwe, who happens to be a mutual friend. I am glad I yielded to your request to go with you to Prof Onwudiwe’s house because that was the last time I saw both of you. And I thank providence for the time we shared together on this planet. You made positive impact on my life, as a friend, brother and comrade. We trusted and confided in each other. It will remiss on my part not to acknowledge that you were a loving husband and a father. Everytime you talked about your family, there was that beam smile in your face. I am prouder of you for loving your girls.
My brother, Inno, I will sorely miss you. Your sudden death has left a void in our lives. And it certainly leaves a huge void in the lives of your soulmate, best friend and wife, Josephine Effah Chukwuma, and the pride of your life, your three wonderful, confident and loving daughters, Chidinma, Amarachi and Nkechi. May God strengthen and protect them.
Omano Edigheji, PhD is currently Special Adviser (Research and Documentation) to the Governor of Kaduna State. I write in my personal capacity.