By Musibau Tunde Akanni
TO many of us who worked with him, Prof. Babatunde Osotimehin, immediate past Executive Director of UNFPA was “Baba” as he strove to maintain a consistent father figure. Getting to office early was a routine for him, so you didn’t need anyone to remind you if your punctuality rating was fine or otherwise with Osot’ as he was otherwise referred to. He was a stickler for time at most functions. This earned him profound respect among colleagues even as he was never in a hurry to sanction, although this did not go down well with those who had absorbed his disciplinarian mentoring.
The workaholic Prof. was, however, a good old Lagos boy too. His cordial friends fondly called him “Bob”. As the communication consultant to NACA for some memorable period, the “Bob” in Prof got revealed to me occasionally when he deemed me a good guy signaled with thumb up approval. With his infectious smile he would regale me with some social postulations in very tender voice. “Can you guess how you could tell if a man and a woman in the same car are husband and wife?” he tried nudging me after a successful presentation. “How, sir?” I wondered. “But Tunde”, and he really never failed to register his admiration for me as a namesake, “you are married and should know. Look, if you see a man driving a car with a woman beside him and his concentration is faultless, that woman is his wife. But when he keeps looking sideways and radiating excitement, ah ah, there you go. Sisi niyen jo (meaning that’s a girlfriend) Just try to observe…”
Most sadly, Prof. Osotimehin fulfilled poet Kalu Uka’s guess of the happiest moment being the saddest encounter. A medical doctor, professor and administrator par excellence, Osotimehin could be said to have seen it all even with the failed ambition of becoming the vice-chancellor of the nation’s premier university at Ibadan.
As a proficient medic, Osot’ once preached why it won’t do anyone any good switching off phones at night. “Someone was dying in our neighbourhood sometime ago. The neighbourhood was desolate given the time of the day yet this urgency persisted. Somehow they had knocked on my gate but it sounded like the gate of another house was the one being banged. Telephone clarified it all. My phone rang and I rushed to pick. Thank God for the technology” he recalled. Osotimehin’s use of telephone was optimal but professional and courteous. He indulged abundantly in giving instructions and advice through texts and this he did till late at nights while I consulted for NACA. Unlike many folks in this clime, Baba won’t play unfounded big man with phone messages. Your messages would get attention as soon as they reached him.
Beyond the recall of his intervention in the case of the dying person late in the night, this writer witnessed his compassion, especially for journalists, on at least two other cases. For long, he agonized over the death of our late colleague and foremost HIV/AIDS activist, Omololu Falobi. On the occasion of the first anniversary of Omololu’s demise, he was invited to be part of the first anniversary commemoration. He wanted the invitation from the organizers given the best of attention. He felt like attending the programme personally but then he also ruminated on the Yoruba culture that does not encourage elders to attend sessions dedicated to mourning younger souls, especially of the age of the children. Finally he dispatched one of his staff, Sam Archibong to Lagos for the event.
The second occasion was the 2008 fatal accident involving Akin Jimoh, then of Development Communication, DEVCOM, now of UNICEF. Anyone who saw Baba that day would know something was wrong. He ensured some good support for Akin, something that transcended the official. Before founding DEVCOM, Akin was the leading light in health reporting at The Guardian newspaper. It was, therefore, not an accident that Osotimehin chose to accord the concerns of the young people a top priority as the UNFPA boss. This dynamism has earned him a trans-generational and global celebration during and after his death. Melinda, wife of renowned Bill Gates, the multibillionaire, tweeted to attest to Baba’s ingenuity as a development zealot who was also a veritable source of knowledge for her and anyone who had the opportunity to have access to him.
Yours sincerely met Osotimehin for the first time in 2007 when he yearned seriously to have a good communication expert who also had a great deal of development work experience. As the aide to the nation’s Information Minister then, my friend and very dear brother, Niyi Ibietan, now of the Nigerian Communication Commission, NCC, offered to assist him head hunt. He resorted to me. My meeting with Baba was an exciting one having read a lot about him but never had any encounter.
No time to waste, his welcoming courtesy bore his concern. “Good to see you, Tunde. My challenges here, I’ve been told you can tackle. Going though your impressive profile convinced me reasonably but I want you to demonstrate this. Really so nice to know you were British Chevening scholar.” Promptly, he shared details of his challenges and wanted a written proposal in response to that, first thing the following Monday. Our meeting was on Friday. “Your response would determine if we would be able to move forward.” Not only did I get Baba’s professorial endorsement, he got his management to critique my offering too and their additional endorsement. Thus began my consultancy which ran for almost one year until I won a travel grant that took me to Michigan State University as a visiting scholar.
Though it was part of my initiative to start a journal for NACA, Baba wanted a journal that must match what Remi Oyo was producing for Villa, Villascope. I spent my Sundays and Saturdays on this and enjoyed the support of another great consultant, James Sarki for the contents. The excellent aesthetics of the final product was ensured by the defunct Taijowonukabe. “I knew you could do it, Tunde”, I got another thumb up.
Osot’ lived for humanity and the manifestations are conspicuous. It is in fact interesting that at least one of the daughters is already in the UN system. Good people hardly die…