Innocent was born on February 6th, 1966 at Queen Elizabeth Hospital Umuahia (now capital of Abia State) to the family of late Pa Dennis & Eileen Chukwuma of Umuodia village in Umuegwu-Mpam in Ahiazu local government area of Imo State. The fifth in a family of seven, Innocent had his primary education at St Stephen’s primary school; and secondary education at Holy Ghost College in Umuahia before proceeding to University of Nigeria, Nsukka campus for his undergraduate studies.
Like every child who grew up after the civil war, where every family had to start life with £20, regardless of how much they owned before the war, Innocent never had a childhood. He had to help from an early age in augmenting the family income through hawking and assisting his mother in trading. Helping his mother and putting a smile on her face daily, was Innocent’s joy. He did this in the mornings, and went to school in the afternoon. Through this, Innocent cut his tooth in entrepreneurship, which helped in later in life in being a serial social entrepreneur.
University Days & Student Activism
Innocent gained admission into UNN in 1986 to study Religion & Philosophy. In his second year he joined the radical student movement known as the Marxist Youth Movement, and through that joined students’ union politics and got elected Speaker of the UNN Student Union, as well as Senate President of the National Association of Nigerian Students, NANS. Watching late Chima Ubani, then the President of the Students Union Government, SUG speaking at Zik House, influenced his joining the student union activism. He was among the student leaders across Nigerian campuses that led the national anti-SAP (Structural Adjustment Programme) protest of 1988/89 which was the first organised national resistance against the World Bank/International Monetary Fund Structural Adjustment Programme that destroyed the social welfare movement in Nigeria.
As a result of the protest, Innocent and other student leaders from UNN were expelled and had to fight it out in court, to get re-instated in school. It was the late Gani Fawehinmi and Civil Liberties Organization, CLO that gave him free legal assistance, which got him back to school, and enable him graduate.
National Youth Service & CLO
On graduation, Innocent was posted to Monguno in Borno State for his National Youth Service, NYSC. He spent only a few months there, before deciding to relocate to Lagos, to join his friends and mentors in the students movement – Chima Ubani and Emma Ezeazu (both of blessed memory) – who at the time were working in Civil Liberties Organization, CLO, the foremost human rights organization in Nigeria. He got to Lagos and squatted with his friends at their two bed-room apartment in Fadeyi. He followed them to work daily, as a volunteer because he felt it was his way of saying thank you for the assistance rendered him. It was a year after that CLO employed him when they saw the report on police human rights abuses that he put together.
Innocent had thought his stay at CLO would be a brief stint. However he ended up working in CLO for six (6) years, rising from the position of an Assistant Programme Officer to Acting Executive Director before resigning in December 1997, to found CLEEN Foundation in January 1998.
While at CLO, Innocent was actively involved in various pro-democracy groups such as Campaign for Democracy, CD; Democratic Alliance, DA; Women in Nigeria, WIN etc. He was one of those who lobbied for sanctions against the military before the US Congress, the 1st Extraordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights in Kampala; the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, UNCHR etc.
The various international campaigns against the military, won him the prestigious Reebok Award in 1996. The award had a cash component of $25,000. Innocent when accepting the award, stated that it would be dedicated to setting up an organization that would focus on policing and law enforcement in Nigeria.