Innocent C Chukwuma (Photo Credit: Facebook)

Innocent led from behind without any compulsive interest in taking credit or seeking the limelight. He told me that the key to building partnerships and bringing people to work together is to be less interested in attribution or taking glory but rather to allow the people you work with stay in the light. To him, as long as the work got done, it didn’t matter who took the credit.

In 2016 I lost my father and my daughter within six months. That experience normalised death for me and made me believe that death could no longer hurt or shock me deeply. For five years, this held true. However, 2021 has been a harvest of painful losses but the loss of Innocent hit me at a very different level. I still stare at the message I sent to him hours before he died. A message that he read. I was waiting for a reply but rather got a message that he was gone. I stayed up that fateful night alone in my living room for about three hours, going from tears to anger and back to tears again. I knew that I had lost a dependable support base, a great friend, a patient mentor, and an elder brother.

I joined Human Rights Law Service (HURILAWS) as a fresh law graduate in 2003. At that time, Innocent’s name had already become synonymous with police reform in Nigeria and his organisation, CLEEN Foundation, was the leading NGO on issues related to policing. I admired him from afar. Our relationship got deeper when he assumed leadership of the Ford Foundation and became one of the closest partners and collaborators of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA). He also became a trusted friend and a remarkable role model. He was a shining light, an accomplished goal getter and an incurable feminist. In those years of great friendship, there was so much to learn from Innocent; lessons that hold special value for every leader but most especially for the NGO sector.

Innocent was genuinely interested in helping and building people. There was no drawback to his help. He simply wanted to help without demanding ‘undying’ loyalty or unreasonable expectations of eternal debt. He did not use his position of influence to manipulate loyalty or build a ‘personal army’. He understood the age long wisdom of giving without expectation. The outpouring of love for him was not coerced but borne out of genuine appreciation for a man who gave his all to build people and organisations. This attribute is sorely needed in the NGO sector and in our world today. On a personal level, during a particularly trying moment in my professional life, he was an indispensable support base. On one instance, he drove hours to come and see me just to be sure I was holding up okay. I remember vividly his words to me that day in Igbo: jidere ndia ofor. Loosely translated, this means that when you are in the right, your adversaries are fighting with a higher power and not just you. He ensured he approach every relationship with fairness. He often had the moral high ground.

Inno’s ability to treat people with politeness and decency, even when they were working against him or when he disagreed with them, was unbelievable… There were numerous instances of let down by friends or even outright betrayals. He always confronted such situations with measured understanding and a forgiving mien that was saintly and oftentimes infuriating to me.

Innocent led from behind without any compulsive interest in taking credit or seeking the limelight. He told me that the key to building partnerships and bringing people to work together is to be less interested in attribution or taking glory but rather to allow the people you work with stay in the light. To him, as long as the work got done, it didn’t matter who took the credit. He lived this principle everyday, sometimes to my chagrin. He would always respond to me that, “I am only interested in getting the job done”. Such level of uncommon selflessness and overpowering humility made him an effective leader. His ability to craft networks and partnerships was simply legendary.

Inno’s ability to treat people with politeness and decency, even when they were working against him or when he disagreed with them, was unbelievable. As a practice between us, whenever he told me, “check your Gmail”, I always knew that there was some difficult issue to deal with. On a particular day, he called in an unusually subdued manner and asked me to check my mail. There had been a petition by a group of people questioning his judgment, in the most vindictive and unhelpful manner. I was furious at the audacity of their unfairness and was already drafting a response in my head. He then informed me that he had already responded and shared the mail with me. It was the most polite and charitable mail I had ever read. There was no bitterness in it but an attempt to reason with folks who obviously had no interest in being reasonable. I disagreed with his response and told him so. He responded that we had a lot of work to do and we should not allow this kind of bitterness to distract or detract from the goal. To him, there was always some sense in avoiding needless conflict, especially where a polite word could assuage the situation. I was beyond words. That incident gave me a new insight into the character of Innocent and his fierce constitution to keep his eyes on the ball. There were numerous instances of let down by friends or even outright betrayals. He always confronted such situations with measured understanding and a forgiving mien that was saintly and oftentimes infuriating to me.

Innocent loved his roots and was very focused in developing Alaigbo, not at the expense of any other ethnic group, but as a tool of addressing social injustice and unlocking development. This influenced his founding of Oluaka Institute and also his quiet commitment and invaluable support for the establishment of Centre for Memories (Ncheta ndi Igbo). The Centre is fast becoming the repository of Igbo history, a tool for building Igbo consciousness and learning the best of our culture, and promoting the lessons from our history. The story of the Centre will not be complete without Innocent. He was also invested in Igbo leadership and the relationship of Igbos with the Nigeria state. Late last year, he brought me and Professor Ebere Onwudiwe into a small work group to think through how the relationship of Igbo political leadership with other parts of the country can be improved, to ensure equitable political participation and a constructive political relationship. We held late night brainstorming sessions in Professor Onwudiwe’s residence and started consultations with key Igbo leaders before the second wave of COVID-19 stalled our work and claimed the life of Professor Onwudiwe. Now Innocent has departed too. Realising that these two great men, who gave me a seat on their table of ideas, are both gone scares and hurts me beyond words.

I will miss those moments of rare insight into his life outside of the workplace. In Innocent, the world got a unique gift; his family got a phenomenal father; Nigeria got an exceptional activist and I got a brother and a friend. This really hurts!

With Innocent, it was about the mischievous jokes and good, humored jabs. It was not all about serious life lessons. We talked about fun things. He liked talking about cars or his foray into being a D.J. He called it his midlife crisis. We also talked about girls … our girls. We were both minorities in our homes – the only men in our households. We often traded stories of how we are outvoted or how we have to maintain the peace amongst our girls. It was fun watching him talk about what is obviously his life’s biggest joy – his family. These discussions bring out his feminist side. His desire to make sure that the workplace is safe for everybody, his intolerance of bullying and his consistent belief in equality and fairness for women all over the country. I will miss those moments of rare insight into his life outside of the workplace. In Innocent, the world got a unique gift; his family got a phenomenal father; Nigeria got an exceptional activist and I got a brother and a friend. This really hurts! After my father and daughter passed, I poured my pain out in poetry. For Innocent too, this is part of his:

There may be no nirvana beyond the sky but there is redemption for us in hearts that hold us dear
Hearts that envelop our memories with the fondest of tenderness
Hearts that see us as the reflection of the imagined power beyond the sky
The voice of the people is perhaps the biggest gift
That offers our memory the biggest price – ETERNITY.

Udo Jude Ilo heads the Nigeria Office of the Open Society for West Africa OSIWA. He tweets as @udoilo

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