On 4th June 2017, Nigeria and the global community lost a gem. Professor Babatunde Osotimehin passed away in New York while on active duty. He was 68 years old. His time in public service, first as a Professor of Clinical Pathology at the University of Ibadan, Director General of the National Agency for Control of AIDS (NACA), and Minister for Health were marked by spectacular achievements. Prof. Osotimehin went on to distinguish himself on the international scene as he served as Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and as UN Under-Secretary General for six and half years until his death. He was known variously as a health practitioner, academic, humanitarian, teacher, administrator and astute manager. He was also a fine diplomat, with unrivalled erudition and panache. On the one year anniversary of his passing, his long-serving aide, protégé, and present UNFPA Resident Representative in Ghana, Mr. Niyi Ojuolape, shared some insights with Abimbola Akosile on the life and times of the late Babatunde Osotimehin
How would you describe Prof. Osotimehin?
Where to start and how to answer this question is not easy. Prof. Osotimehin was so many things. He was a man I knew very closely. To his students, Prof was an outstanding teacher; loved deeply for his erudition. He was highly articulate and had a fantastic sense of style. I still meet some of his students today and they recount how much he cared about young people. For those of us who were with him at NACA, most of the staff there would remember him as a good administrator. He had wonderful man-management skills. He always tried to galvanise people and resources to reach optimal performance for the organisation. As a person, he was very passionate about the adolescent girl, and how the society can help to put this demography on the right path. In UNFPA, he drew our attention towards “bearing in mind the implications of the society on the 10-year old” in the work we do; in the sense that if we do so, it would have far-reaching implications on defining what the organisation stands for. I can also tell you he was a very loving father and husband, and at the inter-personal level, it is difficult to have encountered him without leaving with a positive impression. For some of us who were lucky to be his protégés (and we are quite many), he was an exceptionally fantastic mentor.
In his professional life, I can tell you, he was a focused passionista, if there is any word like that. He always kept his eyes on the ball, and always sought to go above and beyond the call of duty to realise the aims of every organisation he served or worked in. I would in fact add, looking at the reputation of public servants from the climes we are coming from, that Prof. was a honest, diligent man of integrity who held public office without any sort of scandal to his name. To have held public office at both local and international level for a combined 17 years with no mismanagement of any sort attributed to him is a testament of his undeniable integrity.
How did you come to know Prof. Osotimehin?
I met Prof in 2002. I hadn’t heard of him prior to that time. He had arrived Abuja that day to set up and manage the World Bank-supported HIV/AIDS project for the National Response to AIDS in Nigeria. So, as fate would have it, my Uncles; Prof. Layi Erinosho and Prof. Femi Odekunle informed me that one of their colleagues was coming into town from the University of Ibadan, and I must accompany them to show him around our town. So our friendship developed from that encounter. We were basically friends like that until about five or six months later, he called me one day and said “Young man, why don’t you come and work with me?” And that was it.
In what capacities did you work with him in the various agencies he led?
My portfolio kind of evolved over time. In NACA, I was first, Programme Assistant, then Personal Assistant to him. And then I became Special Assistant to him (following a public advert and interview process) as the Director General of the Agency. I also doubled as the Communications Coordinator of the Agency as we were running a large programme that had a lot to do with publicity and awareness creation. When he was made Minister for Health, I served with him as Special Assistant for Communications. And then when he was made the Executive Director of UNFPA, I worked with him as Special Assistant until his death. But also, before he passed, I had gone through the processes of becoming a UNFPA Country Representative, and my appointment had been signed off on, and clearance from Ghana for resuming duties had also been granted. In fact, I was sort of dithering on when to resume because I seemed to ask myself “so I’m finally leaving Prof.?” As it would eventually turn out, it was Prof who left me.
What do you feel drove Prof. daily; what was it that he had so much passion for, what kept him awake at night?
He was ruled by his vision; his passion for seeing a better life for people generally. In the latter part of his life, he focused on young people, especially the adolescent girls growing up in a safe, supportive environment to achieve their dreams; and also for an equitable world for women. He exuded commitment and dedication in the pursuit of these ideals. I never saw him take a day off, to go to the beach or some holiday resort or put his phone away. I never saw him do that. He never took a break. I feel he was a man so committed to proposing strategies for a better world, that he became very obsessive about how all of these grand designs can come to life. Against this background, I would say his family life took a back seat sometimes, but he was also very lucky to have a wonderful and understanding family; and also because it was a point in his life when his children were already quite grown that they could afford to focus on themselves.
A lot has been said about his unique leadership style and ability to, as a person, keep his eyes on the ball and get things done. Can you recall some of his most defining achievements?
Certainly! Most Nigerians would recall how he led the war against HIV/AIDS. For instance, the benchmark before he came in was that only 40% of Nigerians were adequately informed about HIV/AIDS, but by the time he was leaving the NACA, we had credible information that put the HIV/AIDS awareness rate at 90-95%. And it was this awareness that strengthened the prevention agenda. In terms of treatment for those who were already HIV positive, Nigeria was struggling to treat 10,000 people free, but through Prof’s work at NACA, this treatment approach was scaled up so drastically that by the time he left, those on treatment were about 300,000 or more. Remember he was leading not just NACA but the entire federal architecture of the HIV/AIDS response. He moved for the establishment of HIV/AIDS committees in the various Federal Ministries in order to create a more institutionalised and cohesive structure of data gathering for more effective intervention. In his time, NACA also supported the establishment of the National Business Coalition against AIDS, as a mechanism for bringing the private sector into the HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention agenda. He also ensured that traditional and religious leaders were involved. For instance he got the Sultan of Sokoto (Sultan Dasuki) at the time to talk about these issues, as well as Pastor E.A. Adeboye of the Redeemed Christian Ministry. In fact, we had them recorded, so we were putting them on network news every night. These were ground-breaking strides. There was also the civil society coalition, which birthed the National Youth Network against HIV/AIDS. Fortunately, there was considerable political backing for him at the time from President Obasanjo. Prof. was also able to birth the AIDS Watch Africa, which is a continental platform which brought African Presidents together on the issue of HIV/AIDS, and which Obasanjo chaired.
During his time as the head of the Federal Ministry of Health, one thing stood out. It was Prof who organised, led, and ensured that Nigeria had its first ever National Costed Plan on Health (National Health Plan), capturing every single state in the federation. The cabinet was dissolved just weeks after it was signed off on and launched.
As ED of UNFPA, I don’t even know where to start from. He brought unequalled passion and vision to the organisation. He was highly data-driven. So he ensured we also got the statistical side of things right; like number of people who needed our intervention, the number of lives being saved, whether it is on maternal health or about girls who needed comprehensive sexual education (CSE), reduction in mobility, in every country we were working in.
Prof also magnified and underlined the concept of harnessing the demographic dividend. In fact, before his death, he got the African Union to adopt the theme of “harnessing the demographic dividend for the year 2017”. I can tell you, the process leading to this was quite tedious, but one of Prof’s greatest strengths was in his interpersonal skills as a diplomat and knowing how to go about very sensitive issues and still be able to bring people together. In the last Summit of the African Union, just before Prof’s death, he was the only Head of a UN Agency whom the Chair of the AU singled out for special commendation on his sustained and unparalleled commitment to the cause of demographic dividend in Africa. It was quite befitting also because Ban Ki-Moon (former UN Secretary-General) was present at the occasion, which marked his own final meeting with the AU General Assembly.
There are also reports of him bringing various International Donor Partners to intervene in the IDP situation in the North East?
Yes, we went to Borno, I remember even against security concerns, because we went by road. But Prof insisted that these were the people we were working for. So we visited the IDP camps, together with the Governor. So we were one of the major UN Agencies working together with the Nigerian government to provide relief in that regard.
But before that, while he was Minister of Health, there was the fight against polio, which is fought with massive support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was very much interested in. He facilitated the visit of Bill Gates to Nigeria for the first time, but in a way that Bill could go and see things for himself in a less curated manner. This was in 2009. Prof explained to him that the best formula to intervene would be in working closely with the State Governors. And that was how the fight against Polio became more strengthened and successful through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Also as the UNFPA ED, there were also other strides recorded in his era, like having to see to the raising of about $2.6 billion by donor countries through his championing for family planning in Africa with Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. There was also the UNFPA intervention in Sierra Leone in 2014 through the provision of contact tracers in collaborative efforts with the Sierra Leonean government, Africell and Airtel. There was also the provision of reproductive health equipment, medicines and supplies to 35 million women and girls in crisis-affected countries.
I believe his death must have come as a shock to the UNFPA at the time. How has the organisation fared since his demise?
Typically, when a giant like Prof. leaves an organisation, his presence is definitely going to be felt. But organisations are like the wheels of a corn mill, it’s always going to keep spinning. Fortunately, Prof had overseen an organisation where competence and dedication was a defining character. So we’ve kept on pushing. More so, the organisation has done a number of things to appreciate and honour him in the most befitting ways. UNFPA is organising a memorial event for him in New York this year. We’re naming a conference room in our Headquarters after Prof. Osotimehin.
What was his work ethic like?
As someone who worked very closely with him for 15 years, I can tell you, he worked Saturday, Sundays and holidays to see that his visions were achieved. As the UNFPA Executive Director, there are a retinue of stakeholders to talk to at every point in time, and he made it his duty to meet every single one, from member states, to UN sister agencies, to staff all over the world. In fact, it was a usual thing for a call to come from the ED to a staff member on the field, who normally would be awed that the ED was checking on them personally; the same for country representatives all across the world. In fact, I recall a particular incident; I believe that was December 2015. He wrote a letter to every single staff member, and signed it personally; more than 4,000 members of staff. I even offered to help at some point, but he said he was doing it himself. So over the holidays, Prof. sat and manually signed each of those letters. But he was also a person that sought to provide leadership and inspire his followers through his vision. He was so articulate that he sought to convince anyone, always, through logic and reason. He knew something about everything. He understood the business side of things. He understood the need to provide leadership by inspiring with words and ideas. He also understood perfectly the administrative side of things, he knew how to motivate and get the optimal commitment from staff members. He was simply a colossus.
What would you say are the most important things you learnt from Prof?
[Laughs]. I am not particularly sure if I learnt very well, but if there was one lesson I drew from his life, it would be the virtue of patience. Prof was a very patient person, both in terms of overlooking some of the shortcomings of people, and in terms of having the perseverance to focus on a single goal and vision until it is achieved. He never allowed himself to get drawn into side talks, and other side issues that would take his mind off his main goals or agenda. You’d never see him show anger or recrimination. He tolerated just anybody, and got along easily, but always kept his eyes on the ball. I admire that quality of his, and that’s the one thing I try to replicate in my own life today and in my place of duty.
Are you still in touch with his family?
Oh very much so. Even as at yesterday, I spoke to his wife and kids. You know, I’m part of the family.
Any final words?
We miss and will continue to miss Prof. Osotimehin a lot. I pray that his legacy continues to live on. In Ghana, as part of immortalising his name, the UNFPA has set up the Prof. Batatunde Osotimehin Essay Competition for young people, and we select the best essays and give prizes to the winners. The prizes would be given on the day we would be having the Prof. Babatunde Osotimehin Lecture.