Many who mourn Innocent Chukwuma today, will take comfort from the memories of the good times shared with him. His departure, at a very difficult time in Nigerian life, has left a vacuum, particularly among civil society compatriots and we hope that God in his mercy will fill this emptiness.
Our paths crossed, barely about two years ago, when I paid a visit to his office to discuss the programmes and activities of the Institute of Advanced Studies at Ile-Ife, Osun State, which began in 2017. It was at the urging of Olusegun Adeniyi, a former Fellow of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and Editorial Board Chairman of THISDAY Newspaper. As we sat down to talk, Innocent reminded me very quickly that, like himself, I had schooled at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. And like him, I also read Religion and was very actively involved in Student Union activities in the early 1970s. This coincidence led me almost to forget the purpose of my visit. While I was thinking about the sheer force of this introduction, he quickly added that my BA long essay, written in 1975, still lies in the department of religious studies library at Nsukka. We then sat down to talk about the programme I had wanted to discuss with him, and I was quite amazed that he knew about the annual Ife Summer Institute, had read about it, and indeed been following the progress of this scholarly endeavour and training offered to the younger scholars in the academy.
The monumental work and services that Innocent offered at the Ford Foundation, as director of its West African office, his leadership role in developing and enhancing several civil society groups will be his lasting legacy. Further, the provision of support to many fascinating initiatives which patrons like myself brought before him will remain in our memories for a long time. His tenure at the Ford Foundation opened up an exciting new chapter on several fronts. He stood for social justice in a country that is increasingly disintegrating, supporting numerous civic organisations, young and upcoming scholars and community workers and making necessary interventions in the important sector of Gender and Women’s Studies.
We were honoured to have Innocent speak at the opening session of the 2020 Summer Institute, Ile-Ife and serve as the guest of honor. Innocent shared the platform with the Vice-Chancellor of the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Professor Eyitope Ogunbodede and (now former) Chairman of First Bank, Nigeria, Dr Ibukun Awosika. For Ife Summer Institute’s 2020 participants, Innocent’s presence at the opening will continue to loom large in their memories as an unforgettable experience.
His remarks on that day demonstrated that education was one of his primary interests and quite close to his heart. The speech as reported by THISDAY newspaper recognised him as one of the very few transformative leaders the nation has ever had. That day, Innocent remarked that the Summer Institute realised that, since the World Bank and IMF-inspired structural adjustment programmes were implemented in Nigeria and the rest of Africa, the fortunes of public education in Nigeria had dwindled. By his estimation, every academic of African descent living outside of Africa complained about the quality of doctoral dissertations in Nigeria and by extension the academic research coming out of African universities. However, very few of them have done anything to remedy the situation.
When I told him about the summer initiative two years earlier, he said, “Prof. we want to support your work. It is only a matter of finding an appropriate framework and a robust approach to it that will align with our strategies and priorities at the Ford Foundation.” He understood how important the work of the Institute was, but more importantly he was vocal about what the Ford Foundation wanted to support that year. During our discussion, Innocent mentioned how impressed he was with the gender representation in the composition of the Fellows, and how the empowerment of women and girls aligned well with Ford’s strategic initiatives. It did not take much for him to make the connect