Either in death or in life, one great disservice that anyone could do to Babatunde Osotimehin, the revered late professor of medicine, is to reduce his life to a sentence or even a few.
Such was Osotimehin’s greatness — and if anyone doubted it, until he breathed his last, he was Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Whenever it is time to fill the topmost positions at the biggest intergovernmental organisations, the world’s super powers rarely look the way of Africans, much less Nigerians. Not only did Osotimehin get his chance, he performed creditably enough to earn a second term.
One statement that designed his latter life: “In the 21st century, no mother should die bringing new life into the world.” This was part of his ‘Letter to the Editor’ to New York Times in September 2013. And this, for sure, was the lead goal that Osotimehin chased for his last six years.
Ogun-born, Ibadan boy
Born on February 6, 1949, in Ogun State, Osotimehin had his medical studies at the University of Ibadan, and later received a doctorate in medicine from the University of Birmingham, United Kingdom, in 1979. In 2008, he was appointed by late President Umaru Yar’Adua as Minister of Health, after he had been Director-General of the Nigerian National Agency for the Control of AIDS and also Chairman of the National Action Committee on AIDS (NACA).
As a door closed, another opened
In March 2010, one month after the senate invested him with the powers of Acting President, Goodluck Jonathan sought to consolidate his grip on power. He reshuffled the cabinet he inherited, bringing in his own men in place of a few loyalists of his ailing boss, Umaru Yar’Adua, who had been out of the country for three months without official notice. Osotimehin was one of the casualties.
But no sooner had his removal been confirmed than his impending appointment as UNFPA Executive Director became known. By November, it was confirmed, Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General, announcing that Osotimehin would succeed Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, the first Saudi Arabian woman to study in the US on scholarship, whose tenure was to end December 31, 2010.
The appointment was in recognition of his “crucial role in the advocacy efforts around the United Nations Secretary General’s Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health, the African Union Summit and other regional and global efforts targeting improved maternal, newborn and child health”.
In welcoming the appointment, Timothy Wirth, UN Foundation President, said it was an opportunity for the UN to recommit itself to addressing the needs of women and children, globally.
“Osotimehin will join the UNFPA at a critical time for women and girls across the globe, who largely lack access to services that can help them determine the number, spacing, and timing of their children,” he said.
Ki-moon himself had then launched the Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health — a plan of action which tied the health of the world’s women and girls to the achievement of major reductions in infant and maternal mortality, HIV infections and global poverty.
“Osotimehin, in his new position, will have the opportunity to significantly contribute to the success of this strategy,” he said.
Recognising this new challenge, he set about his work. On January 1, 2011, he assumed the reins of the agency.
Under his watch, UNFPA stepped up its efforts to improve family planning, and maternal and newborn health across 156 countries. By the end of his first year in office, donor contributions to UNFPA reached a record $934 million, up from $870 million the previous year. In 2012, it rose to $981 million (£630 million). The rise was steady, and by 2015 it had reached $979 million.
Statistics suggested that the funds were put to good use, as before the end of his second year in office, the number of women dying in pregnancy and childbirth had almost halved since 1990.
It was also under his watch that the UN launched its famed global campaign to end the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), as well as the groundbreaking 7 Billion Actions campaign in response to the birth, in 2011, of the 7 billionth person on earth.
‘No woman must die’
Having assumed office shortly after the launch of the ‘Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health’ and the ‘Every Woman, Every Child’ movement, Osotimehin began to talk more about the need to preserve the lives of women by increasing their access to education. This, he fondly argued, would help them delay their first pregnancy, from which hundreds of thousands of them were dying.
In 2011, he told Forbes journalist Rahim Kanani: “The number of maternal deaths is often inversely proportional to girls and women’s status in the family and society, and evidence shows that the poorer the household, the greater the risk of maternal death.
“Furthermore, there is also data that shows that the more education a woman gets, the lower the risk of dying while giving life, and the more likely that her newborn will reach his or her second birthday.
“Thus, it pays to invest in women’s reproductive health, rights and education, not just in order to lower maternal death and disability, but also for the ultimate general economic progress for families, communities, nations — and individual women themselves.
“Dying in pregnancy or childbirth is common among teenage girls in developing countries. However, when a girl gets an education, she has the power to delay her first pregnancy, and she is healthy and equipped with the right skills and opportunities; she holds the key to unlocking many of the opportunities the world has to offer and this ultimately leads to a reduction in maternal and child deaths, halting the spread of HIV, breaking the cycle of poverty, advancing gender equality and propelling countries’ social and economic development.”
Asked by Kanani what interventions he thought were the most promising to reduce maternal deaths from childbirth, he began by saying: “Every two minutes, a woman dies in pregnancy or childbirth. The good news is that we know exactly what to do to prevent it…”
It must therefore be one of the greatest ironies of life that when death came knocking on his doorstep on Sunday, June 5, Osotimehin didn’t “know exactly what to do”. But it may not matter in the end — so long women, for whom he lived his latter years, know exactly how to remember him!