Tribute to my dear brother and champion

I first heard about Innocent Chukwuma in 1999 during my summer internship with the Ford Foundation Office of West Africa. Dr. Akwasi Aidoo and Dr. Adhiambo Odaga spoke so highly of this fantastic social change agent and activist. When I eventually met him a few weeks before the summer ended, I was in awe as he recounted his struggles for democracy during the military regime and his passion for police reform. In 2002, I established LEAP Africa, and we became co-labourers in the Nigerian development landscape. We connected at Ford events and other civil society gatherings. With each encounter, I was struck by Innocent’s humility, brilliance, and passion for social change. I also met his amazing wife – Josephine Effa-Chukwuma, the founder of Project Alert and a globally recognized social entrepreneur. I was genuinely inspired by their partnership in life and parenting, friendship, and commitment to transforming Nigeria through their individual and collective efforts.

In 2008/2009, as the Ford Foundation was preparing for this 50th Anniversary in Nigeria, I profiled some of its leading grantees. I was delighted to reconnect with Innocent and interview him about the impact of the CLEEN Foundation. Learning more about his journey and work was fascinating. Our mutual respect began to grow, and we started dragging each other into different initiatives. I invited Innocent to participate in Ola Ndi Igbo in 2013, where he played a very prominent role in leading discussions about economic development and security in the Southeast.

When Innocent eventually took over the leadership of Ford Foundation as the Representative for the Office of West Africa, he provided tremendous support to LEAP Africa, Sahel Capital and the African Philanthropy Forum. He even hosted local philanthropists in the Ford Office when his dear friend, Chris Stone, visited the country. He supported the 2nd Ola Ndi Igbo gathering in 2015, which he credited with inspiring his creation of the Oluaka Institute. Innocent also formally hosted the launch of my book – “Social Innovation in Africa: a practical guide for scaling impact”, in the Ford Foundation auditorium in 2016.

In the same year, Innocent and I were in Kigali for the African Transformation Forum, organized by ACET. We spoke extensively about the impressive Kigali Genocide Memorial and the urgent need to create similar spaces in Nigeria during the conference. Innocent commissioned an initiative on Centers for Memory and Heritage and a book on the National War Museum in Umuahia.

Building on his passion and vision, and in partnership with other Nigerians, we established the Center for Memories (CFM) in Enugu in December 2017, with our first exhibition focused on “Igbo Contributions to Nigeria and the World.” Innocent brought one of his amazing daughters to Enugu for the launch, and I marvelled at their strong bond. He was indeed a devoted and engaged father!

In the days and weeks following the formal launch of CFM, we engaged in monthly calls on achieving the vision and objectives of the Centre. Innocent soon became my go-to person for any new idea on transforming Ala Igbo, Nigeria, and insights into the political climate and civil society’s role. He was a great thought leader and an outstanding champion! His response to any issue was always rooted in history, the global context, and a social justice perspective. We discussed a range of topics – from police and election reform to raising the next generation of civil society leaders to strategic philanthropy in Nigeria and impact investing! I reached out to Innocent during the COVID-19 lockdowns to plan for relief efforts in the Southeast and to sustain the momentum of the #EndSars Movement.

Late last year, when Africans in the United States National Basketball Association (NBA) wanted to learn more about engaging in their home countries, I called on Innocent once again. I watched online as Innocent awed the celebrities with his brilliant insights!

My last formal encounter with Innocent was during Sahel Consulting’s International Women’s Day celebration on March 8th 2021. When my team members asked why we would invite a man to serve as our keynote speaker, I boldly and proudly informed them that Innocent was the most authentic male champion in Nigeria. We could learn so much from his life’s example – as a husband, father, and advocate for so many women. Once again, he blew us all away with his brilliance, wisdom and humility. Thankfully, we have this fantastic lecture recorded to inspire future generations.

Africa has lost one of its brightest stars – a fantastic husband, father, brother, uncle, friend, thought-leader, visioner, change agent, and social entrepreneur! Innocent has left enormous shoes to fill in the African civil society, community development, impact investing and philanthropy landscapes! His life of service, passion, vision, generosity, humility, and brilliance will continue to challenge and inspire me!

My only consolation is that we got to celebrate him during the lovely, joint 50th birthday party with Josephine, five years ago and his send-off Zoom session organized by the Ford Foundation earlier this year. During his lifetime, he heard us tell the world how he had changed our lives!

I will continue to pray for Josephine, the three wonderful daughters and the entire family. We are here for you four amazing ladies, and we will try to continue to push forward many of the projects and plans that Innocent started! May His soul rest in perfect peace, Amen!