Innocent Chukwuma: Evergreen legacies that never fade
His death struck like lightning: swift, decisive and frightening. How can we humans disappear, like a loose kite in the sky, just like that, with all the knowledge, the wits, the future we all look at, like a far-off blistering star? If death was thoughtful enough, Inno should not have been the next victim.
If death had listed excellent people at the bottom of its roll call and villains on the top, Inno would have lived up to 100 years and disgusting rulers would have been consumed in rage. But death is nagging, unpredictable, indiscriminate, like the feeding habits of house flies: It sometimes takes the righteous, leaving behind the nasty and the cruel. Wicked and malicious beings scale the hurdle; they sometimes dwell long, even outliving the victims of their despotism.
Cockcrow on Sunday morning, the news filtered to me. Whenever missed calls flow consistently from a specific circle of friends and allies, I knew something from that end was wrong. We hardly get good news in Nigeria.
Following those answered calls, ‘We lost him’, Okey Nwaguma wrote, ironically on another platform set up to honour another departed comrade who died after a persistent battle with kidney-related ailment. Innocent had made tremendous contributions to save Leo Dibia from the frosty claws of death. Death took Leo. Months later, the same chilly hands caught Inno at 55.
Encounter with him began in 1986 at the prestigious University of Nigeria, Nsukka. At this moment, the flame of rebellion against military tyranny and class oppression was taking firm roots at UNN. The whirlwind was rekindled in 1984 when tiny, short, always emasculated but iron-cast Orlu (Olu) Oguibe seized the podium. Now a famous Professor in the United States, Olu lighted up UNN after decades of lull occasioned by the bitter civil war which lessons had imposed a mix of melancholy and conservatism on the UNN student population. The school authorities callously invoked the repression of the civil war images to cow and stillbirth potential resistance against orchestrated corruption and mismanagement at the school. The toilets were filled up with maggots; some of the hostels without water and the provision of academic tools was scanty. The school had left the Prince Alexandria auditorium as a relic, a true living memory of death and anguish brought by the deliberate bombing of UNN in 1968. Ojukwu had declared Biafra at the hall. It was in this desolate hall that I first met Inno in the summer of 1986 after he had attended the meeting of the radical left. Chima Ubani who was in Reggae Movement had already been initiated by the Central Working Committee of the movement.
The CWC was fashioned after the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic leadership, (USSR): politically tight-fisted, sectarian, revolutionary, and ideologically driven. It was made up of some of the finest students any generation could produce, not by academic standards alone as defined by the four walls, but by the special knowledge of linking university education with the past, present and future of the ordinary person on the street. The CWC was the highest organ and only thoroughly bred comrades could be admitted. The ideological rituals would take years. Ubani and Innocent were some of the few that had rare speedy admission into the fold. I recall a tall, handsome, poor but humble boy from a village setting. He had the composure of a thoroughly bred Igbo villager; raw, truthful, innocent yet with probingly suspicious eyes. His eyeballs were piercing, his intellect swift.
He was green and luscious in manners. At that time, recruits would be put through the tiny but loaded book, ‘ABC of Dialectical Materialism’ that cracked down the bourgeois myths of creation that had placed man at the mercy of their oppressors.
Within the shortest time, Innocent had been noticed by the commanding leadership of the movement. In character, he was honest, in manners, he was frank, in human relations, he was candid and ingenious. At this time, Nigeria was basking in the scorching heat of military repression. UNN has become a target giving the unusual gathering of stormy waters generated by Oguibe and then sustained by the Marxist Youth Movement, MYM.
The military had introduced the Structural Adjustment Programme, (SAP). The economy nosedived with a catastrophic impact on livelihood. Worst still in 1986, students of Ahmadu Bello had been killed spurring national outcry. Solidarity riots broke out in Nigerian Universities and UNN was not an exception, in fact, it played the role of a revolutionary godfather, stirring resistance across institutions in the entire South East. Inno plunged into this headlong, joining the progressive list and baring his chest. Apart from the 1986 ABU shooting, the SAP riots and the resistance against the trial of students by a military tribunal set up at Enugu by dictator Ibrahim Babangida presented tests for Innocent. He was one of the leaders of the resistance against police invasion of the campus in 1987, hauling stones and hiding behind the palm trees to dodge police bullets. He was with us at Enugu to disrupt the Military Tribunal that was created by military law but sacked and dissolved by the mass student movement. IBB later set up a crack team of armed students, trained by the military, who on one occasion invaded our gathering at Eni Njoku hall, shot into the air, scared the students, and abducted Lanre Ehonwa, a member of the MYM.
In another attack, Chidi Omeje and Kunu Harmony nearly lost their vital organs. Most of these military recruits I confirmed later joined the State Security Service, (SSS). The students rewarded Inno when he was elected as the Speaker of the Students House of Representative, the third most powerful student union leader. Again in 1990, due to his activism, he was expelled.
The combination of Chief Gani Fawehinmi, Osagie Obayuwana, Civil Liberties Organisation, (CLO) fought a legal battle that defeated the UNN authority. Inno continued with his revolutionary part. In Calabar where I had stayed for a year, Inno visited. During the student protest of 1990, in Calabar, himself, Sola Ayebola (AIT), Uche Oyeagocha, a mystery student, who was a student in two universities at the same time and myself rolled out pamphlets that arouse the University of Calabar and the Polytechnic to the radical renaissance. The two schools joined the nationwide protests for a better country. What stood out Inno was not the ideology he acquired, but his background and his personal character. He was kind, soft-spoken, intelligent, and witty.
In the 1990s, late Aka Bashorun gave us a bus that took some 13 of us to Zaria for a conference of Democratic Alternative, (DA). I remember Bamidele Aturu, Ubani, Uche Onyeagocha were all on board. Inno and myself were the comedians that entertained the audience. He would throw a jab at me and Uche would prompt me to throw a jab back. Between Jebba and Ilorin, a trailer was speeding towards our bus. Just a narrow miss, we could have been crushed. Inno accused me of frantically praying because of my ‘numerous sins’. I replied that I was only thinking of what would happen if the trailer crushed all of us. He said ‘Abacha would send a high powered delegation’ to the burial. The bus erupted in laughter. At the eatery, he would always tease Nassir Kura to pronounce ‘Fufu’ knowing he would end up with ‘Pupu’, the word ‘p’ for a Fulani or Hausa person is ‘f’ while ‘f’ is ‘P’.
When he visited me in Calabar and a cat came in the night, Inno said the cat must have been from my village, given its dialect. Innocent had compassion for fellow humans, he was a good listener, a man of discipline and hard work. He was a shrewd administrator, a man of moderation. He was neat, punctual, and Spartan. He led an organised and ordered life. He paid rapt attention to the needs and fears of everyone around him. He was selfless, great values also found in his exceptional wife, Josephine, the woman who would bear the heaviest burden of living without Inno and coupled with the traditional pestering of widows by in-laws, a terrifying culture common in Nigeria.
It is painful that Inno has gone too early to join many of the revolutionary saints. Inno’s death is as tragic as that of Campaign for Democracy, (CD) icon, Ubani Chima, former NANS President Emma Ezeazu, and his former General Secretary, Jonas Awodi who was suspended in his final year at ABU. Jonas took JAMB again and entered UNN.
In his final year again, he was suspended. Femi Falana, Fawehinmi, and others fought and won the battle. After graduation, Jonas died on the day of his wedding. Tragic. Life is full of twists and thorns, coming into being and passing away of all things, all in eternal flux. Nothing lives forever-not even diamond-except the creator of heaven and earth. We knew Inno would not live forever, but not this early. Not at the peak of his glorious career. Goodnight, Inno.
• Adeoye is the Executive Director, JODER Adeoyewaleadeoye90@yahoo.com