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The inimitable Professor Babatunde Osotimehin – a life lived well and well lived

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By Babatunde Ahonsi

The numerous synonyms for the word ‘inimitable’ – incomparable, unparalleled, unrivaled, matchless, and peerless, impressive as they are, do not quite adequately describe the phenomenon that Professor Babatunde Osotimehin was. He was simply put – an immense force for good in the world who continuously conveyed hope, wholesomeness, wellbeing, freedom, dignity and empowerment to millions of vulnerable women and young people across the world, especially adolescent girls.

I had the honour of hosting him twice in the last 18 months as his representative in two vastly different countries – Ghana in February 2016 and China in May 2017, barely 3 weeks before his sudden demise. He was such a delight to be with as a UN Under-Secretary General – so high-ranking and yet low-maintenance; a scene-changer, yet so unassuming. His presence at any meeting or event radiated an uncommon mixture of significance and humility, sophistication and simplicity, greatness and generosity, exceptional sagacity and conciseness, gravitas and compassion. He was truly positively enigmatic!!  At every level of society and government in both countries, from Presidents, Vice Premiers, Ministers, business and media executives to market women, clinical assistants and street kids, he effortlessly commanded everyone’s attention and respect.

My first meeting with Prof was as a young program officer with the Ford Foundation in 1997 in his capacity as the President of the Social Sciences and Reproductive Health Research Network at its secretariat in the College of Medicine, University of Ibadan, Nigeria. The network was a pioneering initiative that brought together biomedical scientists, lawyers, demographers, economists, social psychologists, philosophers and management experts to conduct research and informed action on critical sexual and reproductive health issues from a multi-disciplinary perspective. This was a trail-blazing approach at that time which laid the foundation for what we now regard as a given – namely that most health challenges especially in the sexual and reproductive spheres cannot be fully understood and therefore effectively responded to without going beyond their biomedical dimensions to address issues of livelihoods, culture, beliefs, values, health systems, ethics, geography or location, law, and human rights.

Professor Osotimehin was a master in strategic thinking. But he was also very good at getting things done. Indeed, he was a quiet radical who instituted significant organizational and programmatic changes in the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), dexterously overcoming all kinds of resistances, intrigues and bottlenecks for the good of the agency and the populations and communities it was set up to serve. Some of these changes were tough for many colleagues, but few would say he was not humane and extremely considerate in the way he managed these processes. Professor Babatunde Osotimehin had such a large heart. I often marveled at how he easily forgave and even rehabilitated the careers of individuals who had in the recent past stabbed him in the back. To a great extent, his life was a lesson in self-sacrifice for the good of others.

It was a great privilege to have known him for two decades and to have served as his Representative in the last 3 years. I became a much better professional and a better human being learning from Prof. I am yet to overcome the shock of his sudden passing. But like several colleagues and friends, I take solace in the lasting legacy that Prof has left behind through a life lived well and well-lived in the service of others especially disadvantaged women and girls. We will honour and celebrate his life by redoubling our efforts to advance the reproductive wellbeing, human rights and empowerment of women and young people throughout the world.

There can be no other Professor Babatunde Osotimehin.

Adieu, great mentor.

Sleep well, inspirational leader.

May God bless your soul!

Babatunde A. AHONSI is UNFPA Representative in China