By Prof. Bolaji Owasanoye SAN
The death of Innocent Chukwuma hit the airwaves early on Easter Sunday, 4th April 2021. Coming after the sudden death of another illustrious activist, Yinka Odumakin on 2nd April, 2021, news of the death of Innocent the next day suggested that fate was being unfair to Nigeria taking away two patriotic and eminent Nigerian activists – Odumakin on Friday and Innocent on Saturday. The sun set for both in a most inauspicious time and prime, mid-50s.
I was a bit close to Innocent Chukwuma within the civil society and development agitation space. Long before Innocent became the Regional Director for West Africa Office of Ford Foundation our paths had crossed in a number of civil society projects including serving as joint consultants for DFID in 2008 to design one of its development intervention projects in Nigeria. More recently, Innocent as leader of the Ford Foundation office for West Africa, partnered with the MacArthur Foundation led by Kole Shettima and the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) led by Jude Ilo to support the Buhari government anti-corruption agenda especially the work of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC) in which I served as Member/Executive Secretary from 2015 to 2019, before assuming my current position. Without that strategic funding support from the three notable donor agencies, PACAC and indeed the lift up of the government’s anti-corruption drive would have remained a theoretical idea for quite some time.
That Innocent was eventually ambushed by unexpected leukemia a health challenge that sneaked behind global focus and attention to COVID-19 is indicative of the providential and domineering hand of fate in the affairs of men. Just this January 2021, he finished strong at Ford Foundation as immediate past Regional Director and had concluded plans to proceed to Oxford in the UK for a fellowship program. Indeed, his former position at Ford Foundation is yet to be filled by a substantive director before the cold hands of death snatched him.
In celebration of that milestone service at Ford Foundation, a memorable virtual send-forth was organised for him Friday 29th January 2021. The event revealed that he was a man associated with many firsts having being part of Civil Liberties Organisation unarguably Nigeria’s first human rights organization, from there he set up CLEEN Foundation one of the first African CSOs to focus on security, public safety and justice. CLEEN led the advocacy for community policing that has now become one of the inevitable solutions to Nigeria’s current security challenges. He used his gift, knowledge and leverage within the civil society space to lift and mentor a number of other activists and organizations often working behind the scene but nevertheless ensuring impact with his eyes on the ultimate goal of democratic sustainability and the development agenda.
Most recently, the Ford Foundation provided support to the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) to advance its prevention work around illicit financial flows and associated corruption and money laundering and strengthen its capacity to investigate and prosecute allegations of sexual harassment as abuse of power especially in the public service and tertiary institutions.
While eulogies will not resurrect the dead, contributions to national development will remain indelible and undeniable. We can only be remembered by what we have done. This ought to, in the minimum, motivate the living to carefully number our days so we may daily apply our hearts to wisdom. Innocent has left footprints in the sands of time especially here in Nigeria and in Africa. But, it has pleased God that service at Ford Foundation would be the terminal point of his earthly sojourn. Without notice, he suddenly reached his “Bus Stop” and disembarked! Fading away like the star of early morning and a lighted candle “mistakenly” left in the open and blown out by the wind. Who can question that? As the popular saying goes, “Quo sera sera” “What will be, will be.” For those left to mourn and reflect these mysteries, we ought to remind ourselves frequently – for whom does the bell toll? The answer as they say “is blowing in the wind”.
I extend my condolences to Josephine, the children, extended family, friends and colleagues especially in the civil society space. May God comfort all with words that human minds cannot fathom.
Adieu, Innocent the son of Chukwuma dear friend and brother.
▪︎ Owasanoye is the Chairman, ICPC