By Niyi Ojuolape
Our journey began 15 years ago when we crossed paths for the first time in Abuja. My big Uncles; Prof. Layi Erinosho and Prof. Femi Odekunle informed me that yet another of their many Professor friends/colleagues was in town, and as usual, I was to join them as we show him our city of Abuja. Professor Babatunde Osotimehin had just arrived town to manage the World Bank HIV/AIDS programme for Nigeria.
From the moment I met Prof. Osotimehin, my life never remained the same again. He was the Moses that my Israel had been waiting for. He took me as his son as I began working with him. He taught, trained and mentored me, yet condoning my glaring weaknesses.
As the days progressed into years, our relationship evolved and grew, exceeding the artificial confines of an employer/employee relationship, into a father-son or indeed buddy-buddy combo. He was to me, a friend, guide, guard, manager, counselor, protector, encourager, comforter, Helper of destiny. Father, and much more!
As his vision for his personal and professional goals became clearer and grander in scale, I also became a close confidant and counsellor to him. Naturally the more I learnt about his concerns, hopes and dreams, the more I felt and assumed a vested interest in his success.
Prof. Osotimehin was an extraordinary man. He was the dream professional you want to entrust your business to. Replete with class, uncommon grace and impeccable style, he was easily liked and loved by people at first sight, not just for his elegance and impeccable taste, but also for his intellect and sagacity. I never cease to marvel about the depth of his knowledge; Prof knew something about everything! Although he was a professor of medicine by training, he professed in many more areas.
His every effort during his time at National Agency for the Control of AIDS (NACA) was belied by this deeply ingrained sense of accountability and integrity. Several years later when he applied for the job of Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and for some reasons, the Nigerian government did not support his candidature, we had to shift efforts towards lobbying other stakeholders for support.
We would later find out that as part of their vetting processes, the major donor governments had conducted confidential background checks on Prof, paying particular attention to his time at NACA to assess his performance and veracity. Despite some malicious insinuations to the contrary, Prof was found spotless, and coupled with the evident accomplishments of his time in the saddle of the HIV/AIDS response in Nigeria, there was no doubt that the organisation had the best man for the job.
Serving such a charismatic, born-leader meant placing my absolute trust in him, which was a simple thing to do. It was always evident that he cared deeply for the marginalised and made it his life’s mission to be the voice of the voiceless, and to champion the fight for equal rights for women, girls and young people everywhere.
He was a man unafraid of a challenge and unwilling to compromise on his ultimate goal – the realisation of a world where every person is afforded their fundamental human rights and allowed to reach their full potential. After years of service at such high levels at the national and thereafter, the global stage, there were inevitably many fights, obstacles and storms that we weathered together.
But he withstood them all with immense courage and often under unrelenting pressure. He was a fighter. With measured strategy, decisive decision-making and a native intelligence that stood him apart from the crowd, Prof. Osotimehin valiantly fought and won all his battles. His presence commanded not only respect, but also awe. The demonstration of his persuasive skills was always a beauty to behold.
When I walked into Dr. Osotimehin’s home that night and saw him lying peacefully, it was obvious that death came (massively) while he was asleep. Death had to steal in on Prof, (while asleep) to take him unawares, for Prof would surely have persuaded death to go away and come another day, or he would have fought back valiantly, with the same fighting spirit he embodied throughout his life.
I remain grateful to Babajide, his son, who though jarred me with the devastating news of Prof’s passing on that fateful night, held everything up till I made it there. It was indeed an honour when he introduced me to the 911 guys that ‘that is his second son. He is the one you can ask any and every question’. Most significant for me was that, by so doing, Babajide accorded me the privilege of giving a final salute to my ‘General’ before he was taken away.
It was an honour and privilege to serve you, Prof. My mentor, my Oga, and my friend. My Elijah, I was alert and on standby while you were being taken away. So, your spirit (in double portion) abounds in me and your other ‘boyz’ and ‘galz’.
Goodnight, Professor of Professors!!!
* Ojuolape, Special Assistant to Prof. Babatunde Osotimehin, writes