Thought Leadership

A mighty Iroko in the Nigerian health sector has fallen: A tribute to the late Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin

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“I shall not mourn you! Not at all. You were a blessing. Your footprints are large but your humanity much larger. First, I shall thank you for all you have done, not only for me but for so many others. Then I shall celebrate you for what is left of my life and work. A global legacy, that’s what you are, were, and will always be.
~ Boluwatife Lola-Dare, friend and co-worker

Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, former Minister of Health and former Executive Director of UNFPA, passed away on June 5, at his home in New York. He was 68 years old.

Late Osotimehin at a health facility in Maiduguri, Borno State. Photo Courtesy:

His death came as a shock to both the Nigerian and the global health community. He was known during his career as an avid advocate for the rights of women, the youth, and children, and as a person his humility, diplomatic spirit and willingness to dialogue earned him many friends.

“Prof. Babatunde Osotimehin was a true champion of the rights of people and in empowering them, in particular the most vulnerable women, youth and adolescents. He truly believed that investing in their rights was at the center of any successful sustainable development strategy, plans or project. It has been my honor and privilege to learn from him, from his experience and humanity.” ~ Susana Edjang, Member, Addis Ababa Team

His diplomatic nature was aptly expressed in the way he handled criticisms. When he was the Minister of Health, in the early days of Nigeria Health Watch, he reached out to us after we had criticised the absence of credible policy around communicable diseases.  Rather than become defensive, he instead arranged to meet with us to share what his thoughts and plans in the area were.

“Always charming, diplomatic and urbane. I met him first at the AIDS conference in Barcelona when he had just been appointed to head NACA. His appointment had ruffled some feathers but he was warm towards everyone, calling a meeting of all Nigerians at the conference representing different countries. He was astute in building alliances and relationships which probably accounted for his becoming the first Nigerian Minister of Health to go on to a major UN job after his tenure. ~ Dr. Ike Anya, Board of Trustees, Nigeria Health Watch

He became Provost at the University of Ibadan in 1990. In 2004 he was appointed as the Director General of the National Agency for the Control of AIDS. Dr. Sani Aliyu, NACA’s current DG, commended  Osotimehin’s efforts as DG.

During his period as DG NACA, he successfully transformed the organisation from a committee to a federal government agency. He will be fondly remembered for his outstanding contributions to the HIV/AIDS response in Nigeria. As we mourn this huge loss to Nigeria, the management and staff of NACA and the entire HIV/AIDS advocates join the family in mourning a departed icon in the country.” ~ Dr. Sani Aliyu, DG, NACA

Osotimehin was appointed Minister of Health on 17 December 2008. During his tenure, he united all 36 states to build a national health plan focused on primary health care. In 2009, he pointed out that Nigeria had yet to comply with the Abuja Declaration which stipulated that 15% of each African country’s budget should be devoted to health care. At the time, Nigeria was only spending between 8% and 9%.

Photo courtesy:

He also pointed out that medical institutions were required by law to treat accident and gunshot victims, highlighting the fact that refusal to give treatment could be punished by a jail term. In December, 2009, he reaffirmed the government’s commitment to eliminate poliomyelitis and other childhood killer diseases.

Prof. Isaac Adewole, Nigeria’s Minister of Health, in a press statement released on Monday, said, “We mourn the passage of a complete gentleman, committed physician, astute administrator and lover of women and girls. He promoted reproductive health and rights to the last minute.”

Osotimehin went on to become Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund in November 2010, after his cabinet was dissolved by former President Goodluck Jonathan. He was reappointed in 2014. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in a statement said of Osotimehin, “The world has lost a great champion of health and well-being for all.”

“Sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights are among the most important, and often sensitive, on the international agenda; Dr. Babatunde’s calm yet ardent efforts helped families get the sexual and reproductive health services they need, and helped the world advance the landmark 1994 Cairo Programme of Action on Population and Development. His voice was invaluable over the years, including his time as Nigeria’s Minister of Health, in pressing for family planning, women’s education, children’s health and action on HIV/AIDS as vital ingredients in human progress. – Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary-General

There is a Yoruba adage that goes, “Ajanaku sun bi oke” which means, “Kings don’t die, they sleep like a mountain.” Osotimehin, your legacy will live on in the hearts of all whom you have touched. You made the world a better place. Sleep well.


Nigeria Health Watch commiserates with the family and friends of Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin. May your hearts find rest in the life that he lived.

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