Originally written by Monica Kerrigan, for Impatient Optimists.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan leadership is making a tremendous difference in reducing maternal and child mortality not only in Nigeria but across the globe.  He has stepped up to the global challenge by co-chairing the United Nations Commission on Life Saving Commodities for Women and Children. Last week he invited 8 countries to Nigeria to discuss their action plans and he is engaged in the review of the implementation plans.

Along with providing global leadership  he decided that it was time to stand up Nigeria and vocally and visibly increase awareness of the persistent problem of maternal and child mortality. He and top leaders from Nigeria launched the Saving One Million Lives by 2015 to prevent deaths of mothers and children from preventable diseases and complications of pregnancy.

Many of us who were fortunate to attend the launch were deeply moved by his passion and personal story. The President’s commitment to saving the lives of vulnerable women and children is anchored in his own personal experience.  He shared that his mother had nine children during her life, but only two survived—he and his younger sister. He poignantly stated that he wished he had known the faces of his other siblings that died too young of preventable diseases and he dreams of a world that is much different and allows children to grow up healthy.

We all have been to plenty of meetings, but this one was different for me. I was not only touched by the President’s testimony, but also his bold vision to improve reproductive, maternal and child health by: increasing the country’s financial resources to improve health outcomes for the poor; expanding support for midwives and community health workers to they have the “know how” to save lives; and by providing his personal leadership to monitor progress and follow up when problems arise.

His leadership is making a difference galvanizing and energizing the Ministry of Health, private sector, faith based organizations and civil society—and he is calling on each of the partners to work together to be change agents.

The President provided an ambitious agenda to increase access to essential lifesaving commodities for women and children including contraceptives to support the rights of women and their families to plan their births.  Nigeria has one of the lowest contraceptive prevalence rates in the world and the highest number of maternal deaths in sub-Saharan Africa.  More than twenty five percent of these deaths could be prevented if women had received the information, supplies and services they needed to plan their births.  The President, Minister of Health, and Minister of Finance, all articulated the need for the empowerment of woman and girls to make significant changes in Nigeria. This strong commitment to family planning and contraception was a courageous step forward for Nigeria.

The President’s vision extended to significantly reducing child deaths also.  Three diseases account for 55 percent of Nigeria’s under-five deaths: diarrhea, malaria and pneumonia. The President’s initiative will also increase coverage of life-saving commodities to prevent those deaths and he personally pledged to the eradication of polio.  He told the audience that there is no justification for polio cases in Nigeria today. He pledged to travel to ‘every corner of the country to “kick out” polio, ensuring every child gets the vaccine.

In Nigeria, the Saving One Million Lives Initiative is a historic landmark because of the unprecedented top level political and financial support from prominent Nigerien leaders from government, private sector, civil society, faith based organizations, traditional leaders, and local midwives. The President’s energy and enthusiasm demonstrated that leadership at the top is critical and can accelerate change.

The excitement and energy at the launch demonstrated that a small group of dedicated and committed leaders can create an environment for transformational change—and we must all encourage them to act on their bold vision.