Tribute to the Innocent Chukwuemeka Chukwuma: 1966-2021 By Chido Onumah

A year has passed since the passing of Innocent Chukwuma, my friend, brother and comrade. Looks like yesterday I got this devastating response from Professor Chidi Odinkalu saying, “We may have lost Innocent.” I had called in response to a deluge of WhatsApp messages from Chidi, which began with, “Good evening, sir. How are you? Family? Have you heard of Innocent…? »
Innocent Chukwuma, or Innoma as I called him, was 55 years old and was the former regional director (West Africa) of the Ford Foundation. He was full of life and ideas. His death was devastating in many ways. He has exhausted the ranks of civil society and human rights activists in Nigeria, which has suffered severe blows over the past two decades from the deaths of inveterate organizer and leading democracy activists, Chima Ubani, in 2005, to the accomplished scribe and principal private secretary. to former Edo State Governor, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, Olaitan Oyerinde in 2012, to lawyer and human rights activist, Bamidele Aturu, in 2014, to former President of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) and Executive Director of the Alliance for Credible Elections (ACE), Emma Ezeazu, in 2015, to Radical and Activist Communication Specialist, Dr. Yima Sen, in 2020, at the political activist and national publicity secretary of Afenifere, the pan-Yoruba socio-cultural group, Yinka Odumakin, April 3, 2021, and many others.

Innocent Chukwuma died on Saturday April 3, 2021, 24 hours after being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML), three days before he was due to attend Oxford University to begin writing his autobiography after eight years at the head of the Ford Foundation. , West Africa.
Innocent and I have had a long-standing friendship that began in the late 1980s as student activists – he at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and me at the University of Calabar. We both served at the same Orientation Camp in Maiduguri, Borno State for our NYSC and would later connect in Lagos after the service. As young men trying to find our feet in our various businesses – he worked at the Civil Liberties Organization (CLO), Nigeria’s leading human rights organization, while I was a journalist at TheNews – his apartment which he shared with two of his Mbaise relatives, Okey Nwaguma, the Executive Director of the Rule of Law and Accountability Advocacy Center (RULAAC) and Dr Geoffrey Anyanwu, was a weekend getaway for me.
In my friendship and collaboration with Innocent Chukwuma, which spanned more than three decades, what stuck with me, beyond the banter and social engagements, were the conversations we had about the future of Nigeria. These conversations started from what Innocent and I have in common: 1966, the year of our birth.
As with everything about him, it started out as a joke. He had teased me about being two months older than me. I ignored him. Then he got serious, reminding me that 1966, the year we were born, was a pivotal moment in the country’s history and political evolution. Of course, I knew that, but it was not something I had given deep thought to in terms of how a historical coincidence might trigger an attempt to confront the Nigerian malaise. Innocent had suggested the formation of a group, the “Class of 66”, to undertake this task.
On January 15, 1966, barely six years after independence, the country witnessed a military coup, which truncated the First Republic with the assassination of the country’s first Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Belewa, the Prime Minister of Western Nigeria, Chief Ladoke Akintola, and the Prime Minister of Northern Nigeria, Sir Ahmadu Bello, among other high profile victims. On July 29, 1966, there was another coup, which overthrew the government of General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, Nigeria’s first military head of state. He and his host in Ibadan, the first military governor of the Western Region, Lt. Col. Francis Adekunle Fajuyi, among others, were assassinated. The dire consequences of these two events spread and led to a civil war, which lasted from July 1967 to January 1970.

Fifty-two years later, the country has still not made a significant effort of national redemption. It is therefore not surprising that the leadership is rudderless and the country remains in a coma. Innocent people would be shocked to see what the country has become over the past year, a veritable killing field drenched in the blood of compatriots spilled daily by ruthless kidnappers, bandits and terrorists who took advantage of a bad unexampled governance to share coercive powers with the state and carve out their own territories in forests and highways.

Innocent Chukwuma, indeed, was many things to different people. One of his legacies is the Oluaka Institute in Imo State, a technology incubation village, which he established to bridge the technology gap and tackle youth unemployment.

As part of the year-one commemoration, Josephine Effah-Chukwuma, Innocent’s widow, and the CLEEN Foundation, the organization he founded in 1998 and led for many years before joining the Ford Foundation, lined up several activities worthy of a man who was at home with creative ideas and solutions. “Impact and Legacy. These are the two words that best define Innocent’s life on earth,” notes Joséphine Effah-Chukwuma. Anyone who knew Innocent or even met him for a few hours would agree.
On Thursday, April 7, in Abuja, there will be the official launch of a foundation in honor of Innocent Chukwuma, the Innocent Chukwuemeka Chukwuma Empowerment Foundation (ICCEF). This will be followed by the official launch of an academic chair and fellowship, the Innocent Chukwuma Chair and Fellowship for Social Impact (ICSICF) on Friday, May 13, the day he was laid to rest a year ago. The chair and fellowship are hosted by the Lagos Business School with support from the Ford Foundation. On that day there will be a reading of excerpts from Innocent’s biography written by Dr. Nduka Otiono, Associate Professor and Graduate Program Coordinator at the Institute of African Studies, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. This is done with the support of the Ford Foundation.
It is heartwarming that Josephine Effah-Chukwuma and her children, Chidinma, Amarachi and Nkechi, along with the CLEEN Foundation, Ford Foundation, friends and associates, have come together to remember and celebrate Innocent Chukwuemeka Chukwuma. He would be proud.
Really, #InnocentChukwumaLives!
​Onumah, co-host of @90MinutesAfrica, can be reached via @conumah