April 8, 2021

TRIBUTE: Lessons from Innocent Chukwuma

Innocent Chukwuma in the radical student movement

Innocent Chukwuma

Innocent Chukwuma

Nengak Daniel Gondyi

“And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (The Bible, Revelation 21:4)

I knew Innocent Chukwuma for about eight years, but it feels like much longer. As we mourn his sudden demise, I draw comfort from some of the lessons he taught me and I thought to share some here. I first met him in July 2013 when I interviewed to join CLEEN Foundation – the organization he founded and at that time was a “mere” member of the board of directors. The said Board led by Professor E.E.O. Alemika took this interview rather seriously – and this unsettled me at first – after all, it is not often that Boards sat to interview staff. I thought the interview was difficult (I failed to remember what the acronym SMART stood for), but I got the job and so began my formal and informal education with Mr. Chukwuma.

In the months that followed, Innocent took a keen interest in my life and my work, for this, I am eternally grateful. He would later tell me that a 2013 article I wrote critiquing the work of civil societies first endeared me to him before we eventually met. He said I impressed him with my habit of having a pen and notebook and scribbling away whenever we met. The habit of having a notebook within reach is something I learned from Jibrin “Jibo” Ibrahim who could dictate the principles of a new project in a short encounter – but I digress.

Innocent emphasized an approach to work that combines continuous reading and learning with actual implementation as well as teaching. He saw the office as a school and partners, Board members, staff, and visitors are all students and faculty simultaneously. He would try to minimize his role in the scheme of things, but he was truly a professor of practice. He would occasionally invite me to his home and stuff me with good food and with good reading resources.

He loaned me books and journals (many of which I never heard of before then) and would later interrogate what I made of them in general and how they related to our context and our work. CLEEN Foundation had a subscription to a major journal repository and so not reading was a sin. Despite his increasingly busy schedule, Innocent read a lot and adapted his schedule to make sure he read; he said a drive from the Mainland to Banana Island (in Lagos) was enough to finish an audiobook.

Despite his interest in my colleagues and me, he allowed us the space to do our work – and to fail. It was not until I left CLEEN Foundation that he told me I missed opportunities to write peer-reviewed articles. To be honest, he did nudge me to write more than I was doing. Not just to write that paper based on the projects we were implementing, but to participate in the broader academic discourse around our work.

ALSO READ: Tribute: Yes, I’ve been hit, shaken to foundation, Innocent Chukwuma’s widow says

At that sober meeting, he referenced a seminar I had attended the Harvard University and asked, “why didn’t you summarize your thoughts and ask Harvard or someone else to publish them?” He reminded me of several ideas of mine – some of them shared casually over a meal – which he said he expected me to develop further. It did not occur to me, or I thought I was too busy with very important matters.

Innocent had a different approach to education; it is not that he was opposed to the formal classroom, but he thought life offered many more opportunities to learn than the classroom. He would reference his bachelors in religious studies and his eventual career-spanning criminal justice and project development and management. “The real education”, he said, “was in the university, not just in the class”. CLEEN Foundation consequently became another university a few of us were privileged to pass through.

In a way, the internal education in CLEEN Foundation was unavoidable as the organization was doing work for which training was not readily available in any school. For example, CLEEN Foundation published reports that public institutions sometimes found uncomfortable, yet CLEEN Foundation has firmly defined itself as a partner, working on the “supply-side” of justice and police reform. In 2014, following the publication of one of such reports, the media ran with the headline about the police being the most corrupt institution in the country. The Police were understandably upset – but Innocent had a model for handling such disruptions, and they do not teach that in class. I think it worked.

He took this love for learning differently a step further with the Oluaka Institute of Technology in Owerri. The institute combines training plumbers with something called “National Innovation Diploma”. He argued strongly that the future lies in artisanal learning and apprenticeship. I recall asking him if he thought youths would abandon blue-collar education for an apprenticeship. He said learning to code independently and in non-university programs has not lessened the desire for degrees in computer sciences, but at least it is showing people an alternative path to success. That alternative is what the Oluaka institute is trying to offer.

In my last telephone conversation with Innocent, we discussed the burden of displacement in North-East Nigeria. As always, Innocent had brilliant ideas to meaningfully engage the youths of the region whose education and livelihoods have been disrupted by conflict. I pray that this idea is developed and deployed.

I join other friends and associates in extending my condolences to Mrs. Josephine Effah-Chukwumahis wife and co-labourer in CLEEN Foundation, and to his children who shared their father with us, and to the many friends, relatives, and associates who are grieving. I will miss Innocent Chukwuma for his kind heart and willingness to share his ideas. I am one of the many young persons who had an encounter with him and became sharper, just as the Holy Bible promised that iron would sharpen iron. Thank you sir.

Nengak Daniel Gondyi previously worked as a Program Manager in CLEEN Foundation (2013 – 2015). He wrote from Maiduguri. Email: [email protected]

Vanguard News Nigeria