When someone calls and asks if you are sitting down, you know that you are about to get news that will shake you profoundly. This was the call I received on the night of April 3, 2021, from my friend and former colleague at the Ford Foundation’s Office for West Africa Dabesaki Mac Ikeminjinma. The news he gave me that day was that our former boss, Innocent Chukwuma had passed on.
This information shook me to my core, and I am still shaking a month after this call. I was with Innocent a week before his passing, along with some other friends and former Ford Foundation colleagues. Innocent had forwarded me an invitation to a small get-together organized by our mutual friend, Kelechi Nwosu and his team at TBWA/Concept Unit. On that Saturday morning, Innocent called to make sure that I will attend, and his call
made me do the dreaded drive from the Island to the Mainland in Lagos. I am so glad that he called me that day because I might not have attended that gathering if he did not. I had a chance to see him that day, and for the first time in the 8+ years I had known him, I got an opportunity to tell him how I felt about him. Not knowing that this was going to be the last time I will see him.
I first heard about Innocent Chukwuma the day he was announced as the new Regional Director for the Ford Foundation’s Office for West Africa. I was one of the very few people in the development sector in Nigeria that did not know about Innocent as I did not spend a lot of my growing up years in Nigeria. When his appointment was announced, I quickly sought as much information as I could find about him, and I was struck by his profile and what he had accomplished at such a young age. When I finally met Innocent, I was surprised that such a well-accomplished person could be accessible and easy to be with. As we all know, influential people in Nigeria can become too self-important. Innocent was so far from that. His openness and simple mien were so apparent as soon as you met him. So was his sense of humor and intellect. For the eight years we worked together at the Ford
Foundation, I always looked forward to discussing issues of national significance with Innocent because he truly “got” Nigeria.
While working together at Ford Foundation, Innocent and I had a relationship beyond that of a boss and his subordinate. He became a friend and a teacher. And although he was barely a year older than me, he also became my big brother. I always looked forward to walking into his office or him coming to mine to take a handful of “groundnuts” from the ready supply I always had and our just chatting about stuff. He was a person of
extraordinary intellect and could make a lot of sense talking about anything. But he did it in such a way that you never felt inferior talking to him, despite your lack of knowledge on that subject.
Where Innocent excelled was in matters that sought to make life better for others. He was a fearless advocate against any form of injustice. And many times he always ended his comments about social injustice with the Ibo phrase ‘Ozoemena” which means “May this never happen again” And he lived his life to make sure that those things that demeaned human beings never happened again. Many projects we supported at the Ford Foundation
came from Innocent’s commitment to using his position at the Foundation to improve the lives of many ordinary Nigerians. His other passion was making the civil society sector in Nigeria stronger and grooming young people who were willing to step in the gap and work for a better Nigeria. He spoke about this often, and he practiced it. So many young CSO actors in Nigeria today that knew Innocent will always talk about how he took so much of
his time to speak and mentor them. He did that because he genuinely believed that the change we sought in Nigeria was better led by young people, just like he had led that change as a young person.
It’s been a month since Innocent passed on. I am still struggling to come to grips with the fact that my friend and brother is no more. That I will no longer see his name light up on my phone when he calls and that I will no longer hear him say “Na-so-oh, my brother” I still struggle to come to grips with the fact that we have lost a genuinely patriotic Nigerian who spent his every waking moment seeking for ways to make the nation better.
My heart goes out to Innocent’s wife and North Star, Josephine, and their three amazing girls Chidinma, Amarachi, and Nkechi. They were his life, and he proudly wore that fact on his sleeves. And I can’t even begin to imagine what the last month must have been for them or what the next few weeks will be like as they send him home. I pray that the Lord will give them strength to bear this loss and that they will be comforted by the fact that he accomplished so much in his 55 years on earth that he is now resting from all his struggles. Innocent is gone, but his memory will live on.
Goodbye, my friend and my brother, Innocent Chukwuma.