Interview with Godwin O.P. Obasi Secretary-General Emeritus of WMO
A poignant example was in June 1997, when in the middle of the session of the Executive Council, he learned of the death of his mother, who had raised him virtually singlehandedly. His natural inclination was to return immediately to Nigeria, but his sense of duty prevailed and he saw the session through to its successful conclusion, with only a few persons aware of the grief he carried.
While he set an arduous example and expectation with respect to work, he also took human considerations into account. This was particularly noteworthy in his concern for the well-being of Secretariat staff. In 1986, when serious financial difficulties first struck the UN system, many organizations shed staff. Prof. Obasi,however, made a commitment that no well-performing WMO staff member would have to leave, solely because of financial difficulties.
A good way of introducing Prof. Obasi is by citing some of the words expressed on the occasion of his recent retirement by three of his closest associates, themselves eminent personalities in the field of meteorology.
Dr Richard Hallgren, former Permanent Representative of the United States of America with WMO and member of the Executive Council, had this to say:
It just seems impossible that it is 20 years since you became the Secretary-General of WMO! And it is almost 30 years since we started working together. You have made in your distinguished career enormous and important contribution to world meteorology and more generally to the environmental sciences and services. I have enjoyed immensely our close collaboration on a wide range of environmental programmes. Even more important to me is our close personal friendship …
Early in our tenures as Secretary-General and Permanent Representative, we found ourselves united in the most important, in my opinion, aspect of international cooperation—bringing together people from the developing and developed nations. Your leadership in this area, hopefully with a modest amount of contribution from me, has been outstanding."
From Prof. Yuri Izrael, former Permanent Representative of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic with WMO and First Vice-president of WMO:
I feel very sad to realize that you—the Secretary General of the World Meteorological Organization—are leaving the Organization … I believe that WMO has made great progress and has become … a prosperous Organization. And this was your merit ... For a long time, you united the whole world so that we could have a more effective organization.
I wish once again to thank you cordially for everything you have done for our science of hydrometeorology as well as for all of us, your numerous friends and colleagues. I very much believe that you will share your wisdom with us in the future, too. You will continue to be a source of pride for us.
Finally, from Dr Roman L. Kintanar, former Permanent Representative of the Philippines with WMO and President of WMO:
I had numerous fruitful interactions with Prof. Obasi. I was (and continue to be) very much impressed by his competence and qualities, professional and personal.
During my second term as WMO President that began in 1983, Prof. Obasi was appointed WMO Secretary-General. Our relationship was enhanced, and more so our collaboration to ensure that the interest of WMO was well served. I particularly enjoyed the many occasions of dialogue, discussion and conversation we had, which led to a number of initiatives for the Organization. One I particularly cherish is the exchange we had as we dreamed and pondered about a new WMO Headquarters Building. That this has become a reality is a tangible tribute to the vision and dedication of Prof. Obasi.
Moreover, during his term as Secretary-General, there was a remarkable growth in the mutual understanding between the developing and developed countries, with a better recognition of what may now be referred to as their shared but differentiated responsibilities. As one from a developing country, I am particularly grateful for his many outstanding contributions to a better recognition of the role and contributions of WMO Members from the developing world, as well as in bridging the gap in the level of meteorological and related services between the developed and developing countries. In this sense, Prof. Obasi truly led the Organization so that it has become an excellent model of international cooperation in the United Nations system. For this, and many other reasons, his designation as WMO Secretary-General Emeritus is truly deserved.
Indeed, I can reiterate what I have said before, that my long experience with the Organization … had made me totally aware of WMO’s wishes and real needs. Having been closely associated with Prof. Obasi, I have felt that the qualities and dedication he had demonstrated were those needed in the post of Secretary-General.
I am certain that Prof. Obasi will continue to enjoy the extreme satisfaction of having served not only his family and friends, his country and his people but beyond these, the peoples of the world. We can look forward to his further contributions to the broader meteorological and hydrological community for many years to come.
I wish him and his family a happy and healthy future.
Bulletin — You are well known in the international meteorological community. It would be of interest to the readers of the WMO Bulletin to know more about you, as a person. Can you tell us something about your early years, for example?
G.O.P. Obasi — I hail from the town of Ogori, in the Kogi state of Nigeria. I belong to the fifth generation of Obasis who were among the first people who settled in Ogori. I was basically brought up by my mother and grandmother, as my father died when I was seven years old. My early education, both formal and informal, had a significant influence on me.
Bulletin — Please share some of the experiences, which significantly affected your life and career.
G.O.P. Obasi — I grew up in the care of my mother and grandmother, who were devout Christians. We had to wake up by 5.30 a.m. to go to church for early morning prayers. After the service, we would do some housework before going to school. That Christian upbringing and work ethic have stayed with me and served me in good stead. The early loss of my father led me to an early realization that, to be successful in the world, I had to work hard to achieve my objectives.
Bulletin — Could you tell us about the influence on you of your cultural heritage and some of your fellow countrymen?
Another individual who had a great impact on me was the late Mr N.A. Akingbehin, the first Nigerian Director of Meteorology. He introduced me to international meteorology and encouraged me in my career. He was a member of the WMO Executive Committee in 1963 and later became third Vice-President of WMO. I am proud to say that I carried his briefcase when he attended WMO meetings in Geneva.
Bulletin — You have kept in touch with your people in Nigeria and have assisted them in many ways. Why did you feel this was important and how you were able to assist them?
G.O.P. Obasi — The main reason is the recognition of my rich heritage, the roots that have enabled me to grow. I also feel a sense of debt of gratitude to my people. I have played a significant role in the development of the Ogori community through participation in various projects: a comprehensive high school and a cottage hospital were built and water supplies from boreholes were established. I also assisted in the local Anglican Church where I was ordained a Chief in 1991 (this chieftaincy is not inherited, unlike the “Otaro of Okibos”). These were fulfilling events. I felt that I had been given much and that I too must give. For my role in community development, I received the Ogori Merit Award in 1991.
Bulletin — How did you become interested in meteorology?
G.O.P. Obasi — I passed the London General Certificate of Education (GCE), Advanced Level in Pure Mathematics, Applied Mathematics and Physics, with a distinction in Applied Mathematics. My initial ambition was to study engineering. Some of my colleagues and I were informed that we had to spend another five years after GCE “A” Level to have a professional qualification in engineering but that this would not be a university degree. We decided therefore to leave the Nigerian College. I was advised to seek employment in the Federal Department of Statistics, or Meteorology. I decided to join the Meteorological Department and was sent for training as an observer at Oshodi-Lagos. This was the beginning of my meteorological career.
Bulletin — Your higher education in meteorology was obtained at institutions in Canada and the USA. How did this come about? What were some of your most memorable experiences?
G.O.P. Obasi — Nigeria was still under colonial rule at the time. There were no African meteorologists and only one or two forecasters. The expatriate Director felt that, as a promising young student, I should further my studies overseas. I was granted a scholarship to study at McGill University in Canada, where I obtained a B.Sc. honours degree in Mathematics and Physics. I was also able, subsequently, to obtain my postgraduate degrees in meteorology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the USA. The thesis for my Doctor of Science (D.Sc.) degree won for me the first Carl Rossby Award in 1963. Those were exciting times for a young man such as I, being involved in the advancement of the frontiers of meteorology. The experiences of living overseas also had a bearing on my views and values.
Bulletin — Following the completion of your D.Sc. degree, you returned to Nigeria. What happened then?
G.O.P. Obasi — I returned to the Nigerian Meteorological Department. I served in various capacities, including senior meteorologist in charge of research and training, and then of meteorological services at Lagos Airport, and subsequently at the Technical Administration at the Nigerian Meteorological Department Headquarters.
Bulletin — What were then the priority areas of concern in the provision of meteorological services in Nigeria and in Africa in general? What do you consider were the major accomplishments at that point of your career?
G.O.P. Obasi — The National Meteorological Service (NMS) in Nigeria,as in many parts of Africa, was being developed as countries became independent. The priority areas of concern were the establishment and/or enhancement of the basic infrastructure (e.g. observing and communications systems),provision of primary services and training of national staff.
Setting the foundation for training and research capabilities was a major area with which I was pleased to have been associated. This helped in ensuring the provision of the services needed.
Bulletin — What was your first involvement with WMO and what were your impressions?
Bulletin — You were active in the Commission for Aerology, now the Commission for Atmospheric Sciences (CAS), and served as chairman of its Working Group on Tropical Meteorology and as its vice-president. What are your recollections of this period?
G.O.P. Obasi — The session of the Commission for Aerology in Brussels (Belgium) in 1965 designated me as the first Chairman of its Working Group on Tropical Meteorology. In the late 1960s, the International Council for Science invited WMO to jointly sponsor the Global Atmospheric Research Programme (GARP). As Chairman of the Working Group on Tropical Meteorology, I was recruited to work at the WMO Secretariat to study and propose where a pilot field project in the tropics could be held. The outcome of my study was the GARP Atlantic Tropical Experiment (GATE). During the CAS session in Manila, Philippines, in 1978, I was elected vice-president of the Commission. I had not been a candidate at the beginning but decided to stand when I realized that I could make important contributions to the advancement of research in the atmospheric sciences and especially in tropical meteorology. My experience in CAS was scientifically fulfilling, particularly in advancing research in tropical meteorology. As representative of my country in planning the First GARP Global Experiment (FGGE), I played an active role in the processes leading to the Global Weather Experiment in 1978. I was also a WMO consultant in the planning of some subprogrammes of FGGE, especially for the West African Monsoon Experiment (WAMEX) data management.
Bulletin — You served as a WMO expert with the WMO/ UNDP project at the University of Nairobi from 1967. You became Professor of Meteorology in its Department of Meteorology and Dean of the Faculty of Science. What were the challenges to the development of meteorological services then and what role did the Department of Meteorology at the University of Nairobi in Kenya play?
Bulletin — You were subsequently enticed, we understand, to serve in the WMO Secretariat, initially as Director of the Education and Training (ETR) Department in 1978. How did this come about and what did you hope to achieve?
G.O.P. Obasi — I resigned from my position in Nairobi to return to Nigeria in 1976 to serve my country as Head of the Nigerian Institute for Research and Training and as Adviser to the Federal Government of Nigeria in Meteorological Research and Training. I was encouraged to apply for the post of Director of the WMO Education and Training Department in 1977. I applied with the hope that my background and experience could be useful in strengthening the education and training opportunities, especially for the staff of NMSs in developing countries. Another particular interest was the further development of the WMO Regional Meteorological Training Centres (RMTCs), of which the Department of Meteorology at the University of Nairobi was one.
Bulletin — In retrospect, how would you assess the impact of the ETR Programme and what do you feel could have been better addressed?
G.O.P. Obasi — The ETR programme has played a substantial role in bridging the gap between the level of meteorological and related services provided in the developed and developing countries. We strove to do our best with the opportunities and resources available. I felt that the provision of long-term fellowships was useful, but we did not have enough resources to meet demands. Also, the RMTCs could possibly have been more focused, with greater emphasis on the training of trainers.
Bulletin — How would you summarize your personal experiences as Director of the ETR Department, including your work with the EC Panel of Experts on Education and Training?
G.O.P. Obasi — The Panel served as the guiding body for the ETR Programme, which supports all the WMO Scientific and Technical Programmes. As President of WMO, Dr Kintanar was designated to chair the Panel. I served the Panel as its Secretary. That working relationship led to a close personal and professional relationship, which served us in good stead when I assumed the post of Secretary-General as he continued his second term as President. Dr Kintanar is a pleasant person and I learned much from him.
Having been intimately involved with the planning, implementation and evaluation of education and training activities, I grew even more appreciative of the role and importance of capacity building to assist NMSs, especially in developing countries, to better serve their respective societies.
Bulletin — While you were Director of the ETR Department, you were nominated by your Government to the post of Secretary-General in 1982. How did this come about?
G.O.P. Obasi — An important task that each WMO Congress has to undertake every four years is the appointment of the Secretary-General for the following financial period. As a result, informal consultations and/or discussions are held a year before, as to who will best lead the Organization as its Executive Head in the following financial period. Naturally, several names would be mentioned and gradually the list narrowed done to a few names. In 1982, some individuals and Member countries felt that I possessed the qualities to be a good Secretary-General. This view somehow filtered through to the Nigerian Government and was taken up seriously. During the session of the Regional Association for Africa in November 1982 in Cairo, the Permanent Representative of Nigeria was instructed to inform the session that Nigeria would propose me as a candidate for Secretary-General for the financial period 1984-1987. I did not know anything about this; it was only after some Secretariat staff returned from the session that I learned what had transpired in Cairo.
Bulletin — What was your vision for the Organization at the time of your appointment by Ninth Congress in 1983? What were you objectives?
G.O.P. Obasi — My vision was guided by what I perceived to be the main requirements of the Organization. In particular, I felt that it was important to ensure the greater participation of, and benefit for, developing countries. In addition, it was important that the developed and developing countries should enjoy closer understanding and collaboration through a heightened appreciation of their shared but differentiated responsibilities. An important component of my vision was to raise the level of understanding and application of meteorology and operational hydrology worldwide, to ensure that these disciplines are regarded as crucial to social and economic development of all nations. Another was to bring together, within the United Nations system, and in an interdisciplinary manner in the context of global changes, all entities dealing with the components of the Earth System. With this, the World Meteorological Organization would hopefully evolve into a World Geosciences Organization. I made use of my missions, as well as of my discussions and statements, to promote these goals, which were, I felt, largely heeded. The greater involvement of the Regional Associations and emphasis on establishing or developing regional centres of excellence such as WMO Regional Meteorological Training Centres, the African Centre of Meteorological Applications for Development and the Association of South-East Asian Nations Specialized Meteorological Centre were other goals which we achieved.
Bulletin — What was it like to work with the leading figures in the international meteorological community such as Dr Kintanar, Prof. Yuri Izrael and Dr Richard Hallgren?
G.O.P. Obasi — The vision I sought to realize was shared by these three stalwarts. It was interesting, exciting and challenging to discuss with these leaders in the field of international meteorology. I appreciated the opportunity to work with them and others like them.
Bulletin — What stands out in your mind of your early years as Secretary-General?
G.O.P. Obasi — Having already been involved with WMO for a long time and, in particular, having served in the Secretariat, was a great help as I strove to carry out my responsibilities as Secretary-General. It was interesting to take a leadership role, especially with the Directors, having been a director myself before. I was particularly guided by the example set by the second Secretary-General, Sir Arthur Davies. I value his contributions highly. I believe it was he who was mainly responsible for laying the solid foundation for what WMO now is. Meetings with high-level government officials were also a major highlight. They afforded me the opportunity to draw attention to the role and contribution of WMO and the National Meteorological and Hydrological Services (NMHSs).
Bulletin — Your appointment as Secretary-General was renewed by acclamation by the World Meteorological Congress in 1987, 1991 and 1995. What were the main contributions of WMO and the advances in the atmospheric and related sciences which had an impact on those contributions during that period?
G.O.P. Obasi — The main areas to which WMO contributed were in the protection of life and property, climate change and variability and development of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, ozone assessments, safeguarding the environment and contributing to the sustainable development of nations. In addition, Members were assisted in meeting international commitments as expressed in various conventions (including the WMO Convention) and in pertinent policy-formulation processes. These were linked to the role of WMO in natural disaster prevention and mitigation, climate change, water-resources management and environmental quality. WMO’s contributions were facilitated by advances in observation systems, satellites, computers and numerical weather prediction.
Bulletin — Your appointment was again renewed in 1999, for the period 2000 to 2003, which was your last term of office. What are your impressions of this period?
Bulletin — You visited many Member countries. What did you feel was the most important aspects of those visits?
G.O.P. Obasi — It was a rewarding experience to visit Member countries. These visits often comprised frank discussions and resulted in strengthened relationships. They also provided opportunities to understand better the situation, objectives and aspirations of the countries. I am grateful for the warm welcome extended to me. While country situations differed, they were all most cooperative. Being received by a Head of State or Government provided distinct opportunities. In a way, these occasions were recognition of the status that WMO had achieved.
Bulletin — Many honours have been bestowed upon you, such as doctoral degrees, awards from academies of sciences, as well as national and other honours. What do these honours and awards represent for you?
G.O.P. Obasi — I am most grateful for these awards and honours, which I consider to be not only for me but also for the Organization and for the Secretariat. Whatever I was able to achieve was made possible by the assistance of the Secretariat staff. For me, it is a true honour to have received the title of “Secretary-General Emeritus”.
Bulletin — Despite your hectic schedule, you have made yourself available for worthwhile causes. Your association with the Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS), of which you are currently vice-president, is a case in point. How important is this to you?
G.O.P. Obasi — I know I have been given much in terms of opportunities. To whom much is given, much is expected. Hence, I try to give back whatever and whenever I can, as an expression of my gratitude. As one who has been reared in the sciences, I feel that science is a powerful agent for the advancement of countries and it is for these reasons that I have associated myself with the TWAS, as well as the African Academy of Sciences.
Bulletin — What about your being designated by the President of Nigeria as a member of the Honorary Presidential Advisory Council in Science and Technology in 2001?
G.O.P. Obasi — It is indeed an honour, but also an immense responsibility. It as an opportunity to enhance the symbiotic relationship between science and society, in the context of the Nigerian nation: putting science in the service of society, and encouraging society to further nurture science.
Bulletin — As a specialized agency of the United Nations, what do you consider to be the primary role of WMO in, and contribution to, the UN system?
G.O.P. Obasi — WMO is recognized for its scientific capability, integrity and effectiveness in the UN system. It contributes, within its sphere of competence, towards the United Nations’ objectives of peace, security and prosperity for all nations.
Bulletin — As executive head of WMO, you participated in the United Nations System Chief Executives Board. Can you tell us something about this body and the issues it has addressed?
G.O.P. Obasi — This body comprises the heads of agencies belonging to the UN system and is chaired by the UN Secretary-General. It addresses areas of concern of shared interest in the system such as common administrative issues related to the condition of service of staff in the UN system, and issues related to the quest for sustainable development. In this connection, the Chief Executives Board puts in considerable efforts on how best the UN Programmes, the specialized agencies and the Bretton Wood institutions can all work together harmoniously in the context of the UN system.
Bulletin — International cooperation in meteorology and related fields is the hallmark of WMO. What could be done to further promote and/or strengthen international cooperation?
Bulletin — What significant changes did you observe during your tenure as Secretary-General of WMO?
G.O.P. Obasi — The vision of an increased contribution to the Organization of developing countries, including those with economies in transition, the least developed countries and the small island developing States, has been, and continues to be, realized. The sharing and collaboration between developed and developing countries also continue to be strengthened, particularly through capacity building. There has also been heightened awareness of the role of science and technology, including the disciplines of interest of WMO, in the lives of people. These range, for instance, from what to wear, depending on the weather, to significant economic implications such as power generation and distribution. The increasing role of computers and the Internet is another indication of progress. In addition, there has been much improvement in tailoring meteorological information, products and services to particular users’ requirements. Moreover, there has been important improvements in weather prediction skills,thanks to advances in telecommunications, satellites and other observation platforms, that have been significant in the mitigation of natural disasters, particularly with respect to increased lead time in forecasting.
Bulletin — What were WMO’s most important challenges and achievements during your tenure? What was your greatest personal challenge?
G.O.P. Obasi — Progress itself was also a challenge for WMO and for many of its Members and their NMHSs. Modernization has a price, in financial and socio-cultural terms. The changing situation, including increasing globalization, has provided challenges such as those in connection with the international exchange of meteorological and related data and products, commercialization of meteorological services, interaction with the private sector and alternative service delivery of meteorological and related products.
I would say that the greatest achievement was the increased unity that came about in rallying to a common purpose, of advancing meteorology, climate- and water-related sciences and connected disciplines, and putting them in the service of humankind.
Most satisfying for me was the knowledge that I had helped bring about the progress of Members and their NMHSs through the facilitating, coordinating and catalytic role of WMO for the benefit of people, both the present and future generations.
My greatest personal challenge was that of ensuring that the Secretary-General was truly one who belongs to all countries, continents and races, providing a dedicated service to all.
Bulletin — Would you agree that the new WMO Headquarters Building will be one of your lasting legacies ?
G.O.P. Obasi — Well, I am glad if it is seen that way. It is a realization of an early idea I nurtured from about 1985. To see it become a reality provides me with much satisfaction. The building is now a landmark in the Geneva area and stands as a tribute to international cooperation in meteorology, operational hydrology and related fields promoted by WMO.
Bulletin — How do you see the future for the atmospheric and related sciences? What are the significant developments that may yet occur?
G.O.P. Obasi — I see the future brightly. We have in place a solid foundation that will ensure progress in atmospheric and related sciences. Further improvement in monitoring and understanding all the components of the global climate system will lead to more accurate and more useful forecasts and predictions on a wider range of space- and time-scales.
Bulletin — And the future for WMO?
G.O.P. Obasi —I am confident and optimistic that WMO will continue to grow and develop. It will become even more appreciated as a truly international scientific and technical organization which contributes significantly to the welfare of humankind. It will continue to respond to the evolving needs of Members and will deal with the challenges and opportunities that will be brought about by new and unexpected developments. In this connection, the leadership should be optimistic and keep in mind what Sir Winston Churchill once said: “The optimist sees opportunity in every danger; the pessimist sees danger in every opportunity”.
Bulletin — Mr Michel Jarraud, your Deputy Secretary-General for several years, follows you as Secretary-General. What advice would you pass on to him?
G.O.P. Obasi —To remind him that indeed he is the Secretary-General for all countries, races and continents. To be true to himself and to be guided by the principles he holds dear as he serves one and all.
Bulletin — Being such an indefatigable and visionary person, it does not seem likely that you will fully retire. What are your plans for the future?
G.O.P. Obasi —I will return to my native Nigeria, to dedicate myself to the service of my countrymen in whatever capacity I can, particularly in the area of science and technology. Using Nigeria as a base, perhaps I can further contribute to international cooperation and understanding in the fields of interest of WMO.
Bulletin — What message would you like to convey to the Members of WMO and the international meteorological and hydrological community?
G.O.P. Obasi — Having served as the Organization's Secretary-General since 1984, I can truly say that the position has provided many opportunities for service to WMO and its Members. This included helping to realize the purposes and goals of WMO; to advance the sciences of meteorology and hydrology and related disciplines; to ensure their application for the benefit of society and to enable the fields of interest of WMO to be better appreciated. In the process, there has been an enhanced collaboration among Members, their National Meteorological and Hydrological Services as well as the broader meteorological and hydrological community. This, certainly, has been facilitated by the exemplary support from the Secretariat.
I am thankful for this opportunity and would like to express my gratitude to all those who have helped me, in one way or another. I also urge that we all provide our support to the new generation of WMO leaders.
Bulletin — Thank you for sharing some of your thoughts and memories with the readers of the WMO Bulletin. Thank you also for your dedicated service to the WMO community. We wish you and your wife health and happiness in the years to come.