Glowing tributes, fond memories and outpouring of emotion echoed through the night as the whole United Nations family gathered weekend in New York, US at a valedictory session for Prof. Babatunde Osotimehin.
Osotimehin, who was UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), passed away suddenly during the evening of June 4 in his home in West Harrison, New York.
Born on 6 February 1949, the 68 year-old former Minister of Health in his native Nigeria was a physician and global leader of public health, and the empowerment of women and young people, with a strong focus on promoting human rights in population and development.
The valedictory night, according to the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), was attended by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres; his Deputy, Amina Mohammed (also from Nigeria), President of the General Assembly Peter Thomson, Heads of UN agencies, and Permanent Representatives, among others.
Guterres, in his remarks, said “the news of Dr. Babatunde’s sudden death last week devastated our UN family; today we mourn this heartbreaking loss and we remember his inspiring life. Babatunde was completely devoted to the cause of women and girls – especially those who are most marginalised.
“He was driven by the conviction that every single family on earth should be free to decide on the timing and spacing of their children. That no one would suffer from harmful traditional practices; that there would be no more female genital mutilation; no more prenatal sex selection; no more child brides and no more maternal deaths.”
According to him, Osotimehin worked day and night to achieve this just future, recalling an instance of the dedication of his former colleague.
“When he was appointed Executive Director of UNFPA, he was due to start at the beginning of 2011. January 1 was a Saturday. So his staff suggested that they put out a press release saying he would be in the office as of January 3. But he completely dismissed the idea.
“He was ready to start on January 1. And he did go into the office that day and stayed through the holiday weekend. Babatunde embodied that ethic of service throughout his term – working every day to help people who were suffering.”
Guterres affirmed that Osotimehin continually made UNFPA an even more effective organisation that stood as a respected international authority on sexual and reproductive rights.
“His loss is felt most deeply by his family and by the staff of UNFPA. But his passing is also a loss for the world. The name ‘Babatunde’ means ‘father comes back.’ Though he is now gone, I have no doubt this father will come back every time we speak out – as he did – for women and girls.
“Babatunde will be with us every time we champion the rights of individuals and families of all kinds. He will live in our hearts as long as we carry on his fight for justice – for a better world for all people.
“Let us honour his memory with the actions Babatunde would have wanted us to take – actions for the sake of others and especially women and girls,” Guterres said.
Thomson, in his tribute delivered by Special Adviser to President of the General Assembly, Ambassador Dessima Williams said Osotimehin impacted millions of people around the world.
“As a professor, he cultivated the next generation of top-class doctors; as the Minister of Health, he served Nigeria with dedication; and as the Executive Director of UNFPA, he was a steadfast champion of the rights of all.
“Every person he knew, he respected. Everyone he did not know, he fought for their rights. Thus was that human being we have just lost. Here at the United Nations, we will never forget how fearlessly, how forcefully, and how tirelessly he fought for the dignity of women and girls all around the world.” The Acting Executive Director of UNFPA, Dr. Natalia Kanem, in her tribute, described Osotimehin as “a super-doctor, a mentor and a teacher who taught all those who worked with him to persevere and to persist even on the face of adversity”.
According to her, “he championed the defence of the rights against harmful practices and dignity of the adolescent girls and told them to champion the same.
“So Prof., we thank you for inspiring us, for guiding us, for teaching us. We’re missing you already. We miss your counsel; we miss your humour and your profound love for humanity.”
Kanem pledged that the UNFPA would continue to carry forward the torch lit by Osotimehin’s vision and example in his determination to be the voice for the most vulnerable all over the world.
Meanwhile, the Federal Government said it was gladdened by the accolades showered on Osotimehin for his exemplary work and impact on the global community.
Nigeria’s Ambassador/Permanent Representative to the UN, Prof. Tijjani Bande, stated this while delivering the tribute by the Federal Government at the valedictory night for Osotimehin in New York.
Bande expressed Nigeria’s gratitude at the outpouring of encomium for the late UNFPA chief who died on June 4 in his home in New York at the age of 68 years.
“Nigeria joins the rest of the grieving world in mourning but also celebrating the life of an illustrious citizen, as a Government and people.
“This gathering today barely whispered that he is a Nigerian. We take no offence. We take pride in the fact that we produced him. His commitment on global health issues has been attested to by all through the testimonies that you gave.
“So today, we are proud to give him to the world. In Nigeria, Prof. Osotimehin was a distinguished teacher and professional public servant,” the Nigeria’s Permanent Representative said.
The Nigerian envoy noted the exceptional legacy of Osotimehin at the University of Ibadan Teaching Hospital.
He said the deceased sustained the pride of the College as the primary and principal parent institution for post graduate training in medicine in West Africa and by extension, in Africa.
According to him, the stewardship of the former Nigeria’s Minister of Health at the National Agency for the Control of AIDS, was also distinguished by hard work and excellence.
“That was what we really knew him for and it was those qualities that he brought to bear and that made him attracted to the world system.
“Nigeria is gladdened by the statements by all about celebrating him and continuing the work he did, which did not die with him. And we can only affirm that with the same commitment, we will carry on the work that has been done by him, as Government of Nigeria.
“I want to thank all of you for rallying around us and the family during this loss of a great and distinguished Nigerian, loving family man, politician, public servant and public health professional.”
The UN Deputy Secretary-General, Ms Amina Mohammed, who frequently betrayed emotion throughout the valedictory, described Osotimehin as “a big brother and a friend”.
Mohammed, who said she was still shocked at his death, recalled how the late UNFPA boss welcomed and supported her to quickly found her feet at the UN in 2013.
Osotimehin, who was the most senior African Under-Secretary-General and served as Chair of the UN Senior Africans Group until his death, was also honoured by the Group of African States at the UN.
The group, in a tribute by the Ambassador/Permanent Representative of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ambassador Ignace Lufuta expressed its condolences to the Government and the people of Nigeria.
“He will be remembered by the African Group as a statesman and worthy son of Africa who in particular engaged and prevailed with African leadership on important issues as it affects the continent and its people.”
The Executive Director of UNICEF, Dr. Anthony Lake; Executive Director of UNAIDS, Dr. Michel Sidibé; and Special Adviser to UN Secretary-General on the Prevention of Conflicts, Adama Dieng also paid special tribute to their late colleague.
Others who honoured the night of tribute included the Permanent Representatives of countries at the UN, family, friends and members of the Nigerian community.
According to a detailed biography on UNFPA website, Osotimehin was a global leader of public health, women’s empowerment and young people, particularly focused on promoting human rights, including sexual and reproductive health and rights, as well as population and development.
Since his appointment as UNFPA Executive Director, effective 2011, he had spear-headed efforts by the international community to advance the milestone consensus of the International Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo in 1994.
As he moved into his second term in 2015, Osotimehin introduced new reforms that have increased the effectiveness and efficiency of UNFPA and outlined a more robust vision for improving the lives of women, adolescents and youth around the world. His leadership and advocacy with governments and other key stakeholders have continued to focus on youth and voluntary family planning.
He was also steering UNFPA’s humanitarian action and efforts around eliminating gender-based violence and other harmful practices.
During his lifetime Osotimehin believed that humility is the key to engaging people and facilitating change. “Humility to engage with the other person of the other community in such a way that they know that you respect them,” he said.
Osotimehin’s professional background was in health and medicine. In addition, he had extensive knowledge of the global and national frameworks and processes that are critical to the Fund’s work.
He had previously served as Nigeria’s Minister for Health, and also as the Director-General of the Nigerian National Agency for the Control of HIV and AIDS, which coordinates all HIV/AIDS work in the country.
The late Executive Director served on various advisory boards and committees, including the Family Planning 2020 Reference Group and the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Population Dynamics.
Osotimehin completed his medical studies at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, in 1972 and received a doctorate in medicine from the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom in 1979. He was appointed Professor at the University of Ibadan in 1980 and headed the Department of Clinical Pathology before being elected Provost of the College of Medicine in 1990.
He had served as chair and member of several academic and health organisations, including as Chair of the National Action Committee on AIDS, between 2002 and 2007. Osotimehin received the Nigerian national honour of Officer of the Order of the Niger, in December 2005. He was married and had five children.