The death on June 4 of Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, and a Nigerian, was not only a personal tragedy and a shock to the staff of the fund but also another blow for an agency that had recently lost all its United States financial support.
Osotimehin, a physician, died at his home in New York, apparently from a heart condition, said a UN spokesman. Osotimehin was in his second term as the fourth director of the Population Fund, which was founded in 1969 largely through the impetus of the US. Originally named the UN Fund for Population Activities, the name was changed in 1987, reflecting a broader mandate in maternal and family health.
Before joining the UN with the rank of under secretary-general, Osotimehin was Nigeria’s minister of health and earlier director-general of Nigeria’s National Agency for the Control of AIDS.
In January, within days of his inauguration, President Donald Trump, pressured by an anti-abortion lobby in the US, gave in to political conservatives who have consistently and falsely accused the UN Population Fund, the world’s largest provider of family planning and maternal health care, of abetting abortion in China. The Fund had previously lost its US financing under the George W. Bush administration, but contributions were restored and enhanced under President Obama.
The fund’s global conferences on population and development, held every decade since the 1970s, reached their high-profile peak in a stormy session in Cairo in 1994, led by a former executive director, Nafis Sadik, which produced a groundbreaking declaration of a woman’s right to make her own reproductive choices.
Osotimehin continued the Fund’s sometimes controversial campaigns — against female genital mutilation and child marriage and stopping violence against women — although his approach was often not very vocal. Critics have said that to some extent his low-key approach dimmed the image and influence of the agency as a backlash grew in various parts of the world against the Fund’s emphasis on rights.
He was the oldest of eight children, four boys and four girls. His father was a schoolteacher and his mother, as Osotimehim said in a 2013 interview, was an entrepreneur who sourced organic foods in their small town of Ijebu-Igbo in southwest Nigeria.
“Somebody wanted mangoes?” Osotimehin said about his mother, Morenike. “She’d tell you where to get the best and organize that you got them.” The household also consisted of cousins and nephews; often there were 15 people around. “For me, that was the happiest time in my life.”
His mother, he said, insisted her children “show progress in school, develop our skills and go to college.” Osotimehin fulfilled his mother’s wishes, earning a medical degree at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, in 1972 and a doctorate in medicine from the University of Birmingham in Britain 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.
Following the news of his death, Osotimehin was applauded as a strong and helpful colleague by numerous groups working in women’s health and rights worldwide.
The director general of the London-based International Planned Parenthood Federation, Tewodros Melesse, said in a statement on June 5: “Even before he became UNFPA executive director, Dr Babatunde had shown how dedicated and committed he was to the struggle for improved sexual and reproductive health for all people. . . . During his leadership, UNFPA and IPPF worked side by side to reach the poorest and those most in need with sustainable sexual and reproductive health care, as well as campaigning together to improve the lives of women, girls and those most likely to be stigmatized and marginalized by society.”
The Population Fund said in its statement about Osotimehin’s death: “This is a devastating loss for UNFPA and for the people, especially women, girls and youth, he dedicated his life to serving. UNFPA expresses its deep sympathy to his family and prays that they have the fortitude to bear this great loss.”
Osotimehin seemed to have landed at the Fund through his mother’s “guiding spirit,” as he called it, saying in the 2013 interview: “She also believed she could choose what she wanted to do. She knew that lives had to be saved and women had to be empowered.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.