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Tribute to Innocent Chukwuma

Even God knows he is Innocent

‘I do not need sympathy, I need support’ – Innocent Chukwuma

Though I never heard him make this statement in person, Okechukwu Nwanguma, who introduced us, credits it to Innocent Chukwuma. It was his refrain during the hard and trying days of student activism and evading security manhunt. The statement captures a good part of his outlook to life.

I met Innocent in early 2010. Our first discussion centered around two things: blending research with practical advocacy and having more development focused presence in South East Nigeria. He was deeply passionate about both. I had just completed my master’s from South Africa, and he took me onboard in the CLEEN Abuja office. At work, he taught by doing. He would point to articles on new ideas regarding our work and to opportunities to expand thought about our thematic areas in writing. He believed that research should inform our work, and our work should inspire us to develop our ideas in writing. He often said that people may forget the events you organize but they would rarely forget the things you write. You only have to look at the catalogue of publications from CLEEN to see how he followed through on this idea.

 

We were both from Imo state (South East, Nigeria) and shared concerns about security and development in the region. To boost CLEEN’s work there, he opened the Owerri office. Given the prevailing security concerns and the recent establishment of the Ebube Agu/Eastern Security Network (ESN) in the South East, that move seemed rather prophetic. But like someone who has worked on security long enough in Nigeria would know, Innocent was convinced that investments in education and employment were the best means of addressing the insecurity challenge. Establishing the Oluaka (Igbo word for handwork) Institute was his next step in that direction. 

 

Innocent Chukwuma had a calm about him. He understood that we were all different and was not hesitant in celebrating that difference. Yet, he was very deliberate about forging common bonds. When I managed the Nigeria Anti-Corruption Fund for TrustAfrica, which was supported by Ford, MacArthur and OSIWA, he once asked me why I was not getting along too well with someone. I was shocked because he knew the person could be unnecessarily difficult. He told me find common grounds and build on it. He seemed to guide his relationships by the Igbo philosophy of ‘biri kam biri’ (live and let live), with no chip on his shoulder. 

 

Innocent believed in balance. His standards of humanity and sense of humor matched his work ethic. His last name ‘Chukwuma’ literally means ‘God knows’. He would often joke that even God knows that he is Innocent. His light shone brilliantly. He not only allowed us to enjoy its warmth but helped us fan ours to flame. He genuinely cared. Innocent Chukwuma was exceptional in everything he did. He shared his incredible life with us all and is sorely missed. 

Goodnight boss. Our prayers are with your wife, Josephine, and your daughters. Your goodness and legacy certainly outlive you!