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In Innocent’s death, Nigeria has lost a worthy ambassador

By Ikechukwu Amaechi

Whenever a friend calls to announce the sudden death of another, the tendency is to be in denial as the mind intuitively refuses to process the information.

That was exactly what happened when Eze Anaba, Editor of Vanguard, called at 11.53 pm on Saturday to announce the demise of Innocent Chukwuma.

“Ikechukwu, Innocent Chukwuma is dead,” Eze intoned gravely. I told him to stop the silly, reckless joke. But there was this mournful tinge in his voice that panicked me even as I told myself it was not possible.

Who told you, I asked, praying fervently that he would tell me it was an April Fool’s joke on April 3. “I am not joking. Chidi just informed me of the tragedy,” Eze insisted.

Of course, Prof Chidi Odinkalu, former Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) should know. Innocent, Chidi told Eze, had been diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia during the week and was admitted into hospital on Friday.

Odinkalu called him at 12.39 pm that Saturday when he heard about the disturbing diagnosis. Innocent admitted that his condition was serious but being an incurable optimist, he was hopeful.

“It is really a cause for concern, but you know, we are in the business of being optimistic,” he told Odinkalu. A few hours later, he was gone. Like a candle in the wind.

I wept!

But how could this be possible? How could Innocent die? I was with him precisely a week to that day. He had invited me to a send-forth party organised in his honour by TBWA Concept at an eatery in Ikeja GRA, Lagos to mark his voluntary exit from Ford Foundation where he was the Regional Director for West Africa for eight years.

That was the first time we were meeting in more than a year. The last time was during Emeka Ihedioha’s inauguration as the governor of Imo State in May 2019. Despite his very tight schedule, I invited him to moderate the inauguration lecture, which committee I was privileged to chair.

After the lecture, we went to Rockview Hotel in Owerri to have a chat. He hinted me that he didn’t intend to serve out his term with Ford Foundation. Sooner than later, he would leave Ford for some other things, he said, without elaborating.

COVID-19 pandemic made it impossible for us to meet throughout 2020 but we spoke often on the phone.

He called last month when I had a public spat with my former colleague, Oguwike Nwachuku, to plead for a truce. I gave him my word. He was glad. That was Innocent for you – an unapologetic peacemaker.

Incidentally, I met him through Oguwike. As Deputy Editor of Daily Independent, I interviewed Tom Ikimi in 2004. That was the very first interview he granted any journalist after his stint as Foreign Affairs Minister in the turbulent Sani Abacha junta. It was an explosive interview.

Despite his initial reluctance, I got Ikimi to talk, and when he started talking, no holds were barred. He was ebullient and combative. Having absorbed so many blows, the former minister saw the interview as an opportunity to fight back.

He mentioned names, gave details of behind the scene maneuverings that led to Nigeria’s pariah status in the comity of nations. It was comprehensive.

So impressed was Innocent with the quality of the interview that he told Oguwike he wanted to see me. And we met. That was the beginning of a relationship that death rudely terminated last Saturday.

But that was the essential Innocent. If he spotted a talent, he made an acquaintance. His was a life dedicated to discovering and nurturing talent. He believed that the only way to turn around Nigeria’s dire circumstances was to harness the deserts of talents and convert them into an oasis of possibilities. And what a great job he did of that.

When we spoke on the phone last month, he reminded me of that interview and to use his words, “that interview cut it for me.”

But that was quintessential Innocent, a man who not only embodied excellence, but also acknowledged it in anyone else. He freely gave of himself – time, material resources and talent – to any cause he considered worthy.

A man of prodigious intellect, his ideas were profound. He was ideological without necessarily being doctrinaire and dogmatic. Despite the enviable height he attained with a global reach, he was an epitome of humility, always accessible. There were no airs about him. It won’t be an exaggeration to say he had no enemy.

Innocent was a global citizen in the truest sense. He related well with the rich and mighty as well as the hoi-polloi. His lifelong project was to make Nigeria a better place for all where common good trumped prevalent narcissism.

Innocent was a man of ideas. Without being necessarily polemical, he readily engaged on the ideas turf. In the years I made his acquaintance, he became a resource person of sorts for me. If I had an idea I needed to fine-tune, Innocent was the person to do the tweaking. And he was too happy to do just that.

When Ihedioha appointed me chairman of the inauguration lecture committee, I reasoned that the greatest challenge he faced was the economy. Imo State was in ruins and if the incoming governor would make any headway, then it would be, in the lingo of former U.S. President Bill Clinton, the Economy, Stupid!

I flew back to Lagos, and went in search of Innocent. He agreed with me on the choice of topic and quickly drew up a list of three possible guest lecturers before settling for Prof Benedict Oramah, President of Afreximbank.

He said while the lecture itself was important, the lecturer was even more so. The government, he argued, would need such multilateral institutions as Afreximbank to leverage funds that would dig the state out of a deep economic hole.

I agreed. But there was a snag. I didn’t have Oramah’s contacts. Innocent had and volunteered to contact him. He did and Oramah agreed to deliver the lecture, though a rescheduled appointment with the president of a West African country made it impossible for him to attend. But he sent in an apology letter and promised to see Ihedioha at the earliest possible time.

Again, that was the essential Innocent – a patriot par excellence whose impact was multi-dimensional and breathtaking.

He was a Nigerian flag-waver in every sense. He believed in Nigeria and its potential greatness. But he was a realist who did not believe that the way to exhibit his patriotism was to live in denial.

He agonized deeply over the country’s existential challenges. But at the same time, he was an incurable optimist who believed in Nigeria’s ultimate renaissance. He would rather proffer solutions and work towards realising his set goals than resign to fate and despair.

In whatever he did, Innocent aspired for the best. He believed in young people and mentored so many. For him, life had no meaning unless it was lived in the service of others.

He wanted a strong, virile democratic Nigeria with institutions that worked. He was strong-willed and focused. Nigeria was his passion, and his engagements in life from the human rights fraternity to the civil society space and philanthropy were all aimed at making Nigeria a better place for all.

Innocent would rather see the cup as half-full rather than half-empty. He never gave up on the institutions of state. He preferred they were reformed. That was the idea behind the establishment of CLEEN Foundation, the pioneer criminal justice reform organisation in Nigeria.

He invested in not only building people but institutions. His ability to network was beyond compare. He was an effective, impassioned leader in the public space.

He was to have left for Oxford University last Tuesday to tidy up his memoirs before coming back to Nigeria to face the future.

Innocent was a restless soul. He behaved like someone who had the premonition that he didn’t have all the time in the world to make the difference and was, therefore, in a hurry.

I told him on March 27 that whatever he decided to do after voluntarily quitting Ford Foundation won’t be his last, but almost everyone who spoke at that event agreed that the country needed his incredible talents in the public space. He smiled and joke in his inimitable style.

I walked him to his car at the end of the event and we agreed to see in his house before his trip. How could I have known that we were saying our final goodbyes, that he would soon journey into eternity.

The avalanche of tributes from across the globe attests to the fact that Innocent touched lives in most fundamental ways. That in itself is a consolation. His legacy is indelible.

But this is one death that rankles. The heavens don’t need another saint to make the difference. Innocent is needed here on earth where his saintly disposition was making all the difference. Longevity, we were promised, is a reward for a pious life.

So, what has changed? Innocent deserves to live not die. May his memory be a blessing to all.

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