The need for women to have access to quality reproductive health services, such as medical care, planned family, safe pregnancy, delivery care, as well as treatment and prevention of sexually transmitted infections, is increasingly gaining recognition in Nigeria and indeed Africa at large. In applauding this development, it is fitting that due credit be given to the relentless efforts and contributions of public health administrators like Prof. Babatunde Osotimehin of blessed memory, who had drawn international attention and interventions to the ugly realities affecting women and girls in our society.
Babatunde Osotimehin was a renowned physician and public health administrator, who served as Nigeria’s minister of health from 2008 to 2010. In 2011, he became the executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), holding the rank of under-secretary-general of the United Nations. He was reappointed in August 2014 and held the position until his death in 2017.
Osotimehin’s interests were primarily in youth and women development, and he advocated for women’s reproductive health and reproductive rights, particularly within the context of the HIV epidemic. One of the hallmarks of his leadership and advocacy was his reliance on data and evidence as the bedrock of his public health policies and programmes while serving as minister of health and as pioneer director general of Nigerian National Agency for the Control of AIDS (NACA), an agency which coordinates all HIV and AIDS work in Nigeria.
At a time when many government officials were indifferent to the fact that homosexuality was a major factor promoting the spread of AIDS in Nigeria, Osotimehin contested using available data to prove that homosexuality and the transmission of HIV were indeed very much interrelated in Africa. Also, during his tenure as minister, Nigeria had the largest malaria disease burden in Africa. His ardent advocacy however secured $1 billion from different sources to combat the disease. From these funds, he ensured free medication was provided to pregnant women suffering from malaria. He also united all 36 states in Nigeria to build a robust national health plan focused on primary health care.
Moreover, when he became executive director of UNFPA, he actively advocated three major goals: zero preventable maternal deaths, zero unmet demand for family planning and the elimination of harmful practices against women and girls. Under his leadership, UNFPA placed special emphasis on adolescent girls. He boldly tackled sensitive issues like female genital mutilation and sexual and reproductive health; as well as canvassing for education and decision-making power for women and girls. As a policymaker, he was committed to the notion that quality healthcare is an integral part of women’s rights.
Due to his various contributions to the health sector (including contributing to 90 per cent of the progress made to eradicate polio worldwide in 2009), Osotimehin received one of Nigeria’s highest honors: Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON).
Background and career path
Babatunde Osotimehin was born in February 1949 in Ogun State. He had his secondary education at Igbobi College, Lagos, between 1966 and 1971. He gained admission in 1972 to study Medicine at University of Ibadan, where he graduated in 1977. In 1979, he moved to the UK for a doctorate at the University of Birmingham; and from 1979 to 1980 was a fellow in endocrinology at Cornell University Graduate School of Medicine, New York, United States.
In 1980, Osotimehin returned to Nigeria and became professor of Clinical Pathology, College of Medicine, University of Ibadan. He climbed the academic ladder and from 1990 to 1994 was provost of the College of Medicine, University of Ibadan. From 1996 to 1997 Osotimehin was a Visiting Fellow, at Harvard Centre for Population and Development Studies, Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States.
Osotimehin’s career transition from an academic scholar to that of a public health administrator and policymaker came naturally due to his passion and interest in improving the lives of vulnerable and disadvantaged people. From July 2002 to 2007 he chaired the National Action Committee on AIDS in Nigeria, laying the foundation of what later became NACA and becoming the agency’s first director general from March 2007 to December 2008. He also served as project manager for the World-Bank assisted HIV/AIDS Programme Development Project from 2002 to 2008. He was also chairman of the Governing Board, Joint Regional HIV/AIDS Project in the Abidjan–Lagos Transport Corridor from 2003 to 2008.
In 2005, Osotimehin was elected vice-president at the 14th International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA). He also served as chairman, Committee of Presidential Advisers of AIDS Watch Africa.
On 17 December 2008, he was appointed minister of health under the administration of Dr Musa Yaradua. During his tenure he was the African spokesperson of the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health. He also advocated for increased government spending on healthcare.
In a September 2009 press conference, Osotimehin said that Nigeria had yet to comply with the Abuja Declaration that recommended 15 per cent of the budget of each African country to be devoted to healthcare. Nigeria as a whole was only spending between 8 per cent and 9 per cent, at that time. In December 2009 he reaffirmed the government’s commitment to eliminate poliomyelitis and other childhood killer diseases.
Osotimehin left office as Nigeria’s minister of health office in March 2010 and was appointed as the executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in November, 2010. He assumed the position on 1 January 2011 and became the organisation’s fourth executive director.
Following his appointment, Osotimehin spearheaded efforts by the international community to advance the milestone consensus of the International Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo in 1994. He was also key to ensuring the adoption of the Motevideo Consensus on Population and Development in 2013: a wide-ranging agreement that, among other goals, aimed to increase access to sexual and reproductive rights, achieve gender equality, empower youth; and to recognise the correlation between population issues and development.
Prof. Babtunde Osotimehin died in Harrison, New York, on 4 June, 2017, aged 68. He was survived by his wife Olufunke Osotimehin, children and grandchildren.