Obot… Renowned Conservationist, Gone With The Crash
Sunday, Jun 17th
THE above quotes were the chilling statements of Professor Emmanuel Obot, Executive Director, Nigeria Conservation Foundation (NCF), who died in the DANA plane crash in Lagos on June 3.
He reportedly made the call to his family members, as the pilot of the doomed aircraft battled to take it to the tarmac of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport.
The moment was scary. Everything was unpredictable. And in the end it was tragic. The descending aircraft, apparently sent shockwaves through the passengers, some of whom, The Guardian gathered, switched on their cell phones to call their relations, friends and associates, before the final moment came.
Obot, distinguished Professor of Botany, Ecology, and lover of orchids, called one of his sons and gave those parting words.
The previous Friday, two days to the crash, the Professor, who was not known for ostentations life and publicity in the media, had requested that the photographer attached to the Nigerian Conservation Foundation, Lekki, Lagos take his photograph. He removed his glasses for the clarity of the photograph.
The quiet and unassuming Professor did not tell anyone why he did this. For the very first time, he requested that the staff should make 50 copies of his passport-size photograph.
The following day, after the plane crash that killed him, the photograph was what the NCF had to display for mourners to sign the condolence register.
Obot was not known to have flown Dana Airlines. He had his own choice of airlines, especially the ones that had new aircraft in their fleet. Somehow, the DANA ticket got into his palm and he embarked on the journey to Lagos eagerly so that he would be able to attend the World Environment Day celebrations on June 5.
While Obot was to be part of the celebration in Lagos, Mrs. Cordelia Agboti, Council Member of NCF, was to travel to Bonny Island, to represent the NCF at the celebration, which was to involve the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas Company (NLNG).
Obot sent emails to Mr. Philip Hall, NCF National Council Member and Head of Science Committee on his findings during the trip to Abuja and many things to be done when he returned to Lagos that Sunday.
He had called Desmond Majekodunmi, a member of the NCF National Council. They spoke on a wide range of issues bothering on conservation and environment and what the NCF should embark upon on his arrival in Lagos.
Joseph, the driver, who went to the airport to pick him, looked with disbelief when the DANA plane, which his boss took, did not land as scheduled.
Obot’s secretary, Susan, who had worked with him for many years, began to call the three phone numbers of her boss. None of the numbers went through.
“This is very unusual of Prof.; he could not have switched off all his lines at the same time,” Susan said.
Then the Financial Manager of the NCF, Mr. Saturday, also made frantic efforts to reach his boss on the phone, but he was unsuccessful.
It later dawned on the staff that those wishes of Professor Obot, while he made the last phone calls to colleagues and staff in Lagos, were not to be. Those wishes had been lost in the bowels of the exploded plane that black Sunday in Lagos.
The ceremony at the NLNG, which Agboti was to attend, was cancelled.
Agboti was shocked. Desmond Majekodunmi was flabbergasted. Philip Hall was devastated. The environment community fell into deep mourning.
Mr. Hall had worked with Obot for many decades since he came to Nigeria in 1972. And for the first time, the NCF and its Council met last Thursday without Professor Obot. As Hall told The Guardian and Mrs. Emmanuel Obot, during the condolence visit with other Council Members, a big vacuum had been created.
SEVERAL international friends of the NCF, from organisations such as International Union of Conservation (IUCN), Birdlife International Orchid Survival Group, Pro-Natural’s Nick Wicks and the Taraba State Government, represented by the environment commissioner, Mr. Danfulani Kwetaka, came to the NCF to pay tribute to the distinguished botanist.
Mr. Alade Adeniran Adeleke, director, Technical Programmes and Obot’s deputy at the NCF, described Prof. Obot as a disciplined man, who could be seen in three ways: as a person, as an ecologist and as a conservationist.
As a person, Adeleke saw Obot as a disciplined person. He said that as an ecologist Obot was a great conservationist who worked up till his last moment on earth. In fact, Obot spoke to Adeleke about the NCF conservation projects before the DANA plane took off from Abuja.
Adeleke, who had been with Obot for 18 years and was his deputy for six years, reflecting on how Obot worked, said that only very few Nigerian scientists combine efforts on the field, research with laboratory and other information to convince people.
“He was a complete field man that has passion for ecology,” Adeleke said.
WHEN former American Visa President and Nobel Prize winner, Mr. Al Gore, released the film, The Inconvenient Truth, Prof. Obot showed the film and he gave a talk on it. He related ecology to climate change.
Before the crash, Obot had put up the process of the NCF looking at the landscape basis and specifically bringing out the relationship between landscape and ecosystem as strategies of the future.
Obot, who started his research work at the Kanji Lake Research decades ago, also worked on the Hadejia-Nguru Wetland in northern Nigeria where the NCF is carrying out a project entitled, ‘Living on the Edge’ to support areas in the dry Sahel region of Nigeria.
Adeleke had flown with Obot regularly over the years. Both of them had experienced turbulence while airborne many times. Anytime they encountered turbulence in the air, Obot would look at Adeleke and just smile. When the aircraft later touched down, he would look at him and other colleagues in the plane and ask, “I think you enjoyed that!”
From the way Adeleke knew him during previous flights, he told The Guardian that Prof. Obot was a solid-minded person, who was rarely perturbed.
“I know he could not struggle when the aircraft was going to crash. He would not be running up and down in the chaos,” Adeleke volunteered.
Strangely, too, during their last trip to the Finima Nature Park in Bonny Island in the Niger Delta, Adeleke did not know why he took the photograph of his boss, Prof. Obot.
Chief Ede Dafinone, NCF Council Member, recalled that Prof. Obot had a unique leadership style, adding that he was someone who could relate with people at the highest level of government as well as the lowest strata of the society.
He said that Obot had, indeed, “taken conservation to the world.”
Members of the Obot family were the saddest. They had lost a husband, a father, an uncle and a distinguished Nigerian and a great lover of nature.
At Obot’s house last week, Mr. Hall told the bereaved wife that her husband was an inspiration to all, adding, “your household will miss him and he will be remembered forever.”
A copy of the book, Heroes of the Environment-Voices from Africa, which contained one of Prof. Obot’s rare interviews, was handed over to Mrs. Obot during the visit.
EMMANUEL Obot was a Professor of Botany and a renowned Orchid Specialist. He had expertise in use of geographical information system (GIS) applications. He was the Chairman of Bird Life’s Council for the Africa Partnership, and member, IUCN Commission on Extractive Industry and Biodiversity (WGEIB).
His impeccable biological research ability and efforts earned him honors’ citation in the rare butterfly subspecies — Acraea oreas oboti — named after him.
He led the NCF team to facilitate the development of Natural Resources Management Plans and Sustainable Community Development strategies for targeted communities in the Niger Delta region towards the promotion of a paradigm shift among communities and governments from oil and gas to sustainable management of renewable natural resources towards poverty reduction through the realisation of the trade of value of biodiversity.
The former Professor of Botany and Dean, Faculty of Science, Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA), was Biological Research Coordinator of Okwangwo Programme, Cross River National Parks, from 1994 to 1998.
He was Senior Lecturer, Rivers State University of Science and Technology and Research Officer at the National Institute for Freshwater Fisheries Research from 1979 to 1989. This was where he began his career in biological research and environmental management.
The Guardian gathered that over two and a half decades ago, Prof. Obot developed a computer-based model for the management and utilisation of the aquatic macrophyte, Echinochaa stagnina (that invaded Lake Kainji), as dry season livestock fodder for nomadic livestock that otherwise lose weight and form due to inadequate feed during the usually long dry season associated with semi arid areas of Nigeria.
And that “today, the result of this work is of direct benefit to people because of the harvesting, drying and sale of Echinochlaa ‘hay’ based on the model and it is a full time occupation of a section of the population of villages around Lake Kainji, especially in Birnin Gwari.”
Prof. Obot published several mathematical models, the most significant being: A model for estimating the optimum tree density for maximum herbaceous production in the Guinea Savanna of Nigeria. (Journal of Arid Environments. 14, 267-273.), and Logging and forest recovery: A modeling approach to the question of Gap Dynamics. (Roan 1 (1) 16 – 23).
Prof. Obot has the best collection at orchids in Nigeria at his hometown as well as in Lagos.