Q1: How did you get here?
I’m not sure how to answer this, but I’ll say that I’ve been educated at University of Ghana, Ghana School of Law, University of Cambridge, Harvard Law School, University of British Columbia and Dalhousie University (where I was a Killam Post-doctoral Research Fellow). It’s the educational and professional knowledge and experiences that I accumulated from these institutions that enable me to work at Thompson Rivers University, Faculty of Law. I must add here that I’m a Founding member of the Faculty (indeed, the first person to be hired as a professor when the Faculty was established in 2011). It’s something I’m very proud of.
It’s also a great honour for my work to be recognised by the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences. Election is a distinct and valuable recognition of excellence in research and scholarship.
Q2: How does a person who started out at Asokore, Ghana, end up going to the University of Ghana, Ghana School of Law, University of Cambridge, Harvard Law School, University of British Columbia and Dalhousie University, all achieved between 1997 and 2013?
This question is related to the first, but I think it invites more reflection. Both my parents were primary school teachers. So from a very early age they inculcated in me the value of education. They were also prepared to make the necessary investments to ensure that I got the best education. Thus, I attended an “International” school – Perseverance Preparatory School – in Effiduasi, the nearby town, and then returned to Asokore Methodist Junior Secondary School where my father was Headmaster. From there I attended Opoku Ware School in Kumasi. The rest is history.
In addition to appreciating the value of education, I knew from an early age what was likely to be my ‘station in life’ if I didn’t work hard in school. As kids, we would to travel miles to the farm. Sometimes, we’d take a lorry to a village where my Dad had cocoa and rice farms. It was very hard work, although as a kid I really enjoyed it. It was an opportunity to sit in a car!
I won’t say that my academic journey was planned; indeed I’d say 2 important ‘mistakes’ led me on the law path. First, when it came to choosing subjects for my Senior Secondary education, I actually chose the Sciences. However, for some reason, the Headmaster, who came in after my father had left, registered me for the Arts. When I was admitted to Opoku Ware, my parents made several attempts to get me into the Sciences. However, they were unsuccessful and for 3 years I was stuck in the Arts class! Second, when it came to choosing our majors at the University of Ghana, I chose Health Administration as my first choice and Law as my second choice. The Faculty of Law did their admissions first and offered me a place. Because of the law offer, the School of Administration refused to give me an offer, even though I was number 2 or 3 on their list by GPA. I still recall how Professor HJAN Mensa-Bonsu’s advice/warning one afternoon decided it for me. I had gone in late to her criminal law lecture (after going to plead with Professor Nkrumah, the-then Director of the School of Administration, to admit me into the BSc Health Administration programme). She said something like: “if you want to study law then find a seat and do not come in late for my lectures again”. I never returned to the School of Administration after that.
At the University of Ghana Faculty of Law, I worked very hard. But I’d say that I was really motivated by my peers – there was healthy competition among us. I was also inspired by my professors. What I admired most about them was not the cars, suits, lectures etc. It was what I found placed after their names in the University of Ghana Law Journal – the list of degrees! It was the first page I looked at whenever I picked the Journal. I vowed all the time to have something similar (or better) to my name one day. The professors were very helpful. I can especially mention Professors EVO Dankwa, Mensa-Bonsu and Fui Tsikata all of who took me as Research Assistant on various projects.
It will be remiss of me not to mention the supportive role my family has played in my work and progress. I am indebted to my wife, Joyce, and our three children, Mary, Zoe and Elizabeth in this respect. Those fantastic 4 share with me our basement that serves as my study and their in-house playground. Their noise reduction accommodations are always appreciated!
I could continue, but I think it’d be too long a story for your audience. I’ll accordingly summarise and say that it’s the appreciation of the value of education, hard work, the inspiration of others and a heavy dose of good luck and grace that has brought me this far.
Q3: In your known simple and beautiful way, can you explain why private international law is so interesting to you?
A proper response to this question should begin with an understanding of what private international law is about. Private international law, which is sometimes called conflict of laws, is that branch of law that comes into place when there’s a claim before a national court or a transaction which contains a foreign element that transcends national boundaries. So for example, we are looking at a person in Ghana entering into a contract to purchase a book from Amazon UK; or a Ghanaian marrying a Nigerian in the UK; or a Ghanaian in USA dying with properties in the USA, Dubai and Ghana. In all these examples, the transaction has connections with different countries and hence different national laws. Once that is understood, it becomes very obvious why private international law should interest many: we live in a world that’s interconnected – we travel to other countries, purchase goods from abroad to consume in Ghana; post materials on the web and social media which could be read anywhere in the world; we marry people who are not Ghanaian or may celebrate our marriages in foreign countries. All these generate private international law problems, and how they are addressed can have significant impact on individuals. For example, let’s assume two Ghanaians travel to Canada and get married there. On their return to Ghana, will Ghana law recognise their ‘Canadian marriage’? If not, what’s their status in Ghana? What about the children of their ‘Canadian marriage’? In this era of globalisation private international law issues are pervasive.
Q4: Share a funny or embarrassing personal experience about using technology?
The one I remember most was my experience with online study materials at Cambridge. As a student in Ghana, I was used to studying in the library – reading the physical books, articles, etc., and hand-copying the relevant parts. When I got to Cambridge I realised that the library was almost always empty! When people came in, it was a quick browse through the stacks and they were out. Throughout the first term (the Michaelmas term) I was shocked at this, but did not say this to anyone. I kept going to the library and spending long hours (sometimes closing with the librarians) as I’d done in Ghana. Then, one day, when the library was closing for the day, I walked up to the librarian and asked “why are my colleagues so lazy? They never come to the library and when they come they leave quickly.” The librarian smiled and said “Mr Oppong all/most the materials you read in this library are online; you can read them from your room in your College.” That was a great revelation to me. Indeed, when I went to my room and worked out how to access those materials, he was right. After that I worked from my room. Indeed, even to this day I prefer to work from home than in the office or library. Incidentally, working from my room worked well for me – I was named a Senior Scholar of Fitzwilliam College, and won the David Pearl Prize for Excellence in LL.M. examinations on graduation.
Q5: What one thing would you change about the Ghanaian Constitution or democratic practice?
This is an interesting and difficult question. I think the work of the Constitution Review Commission clearly reveals that we have an imperfect Constitution and there are many aspects that require a second look. I think, as a country, we have to reflect on the many proposals for reform the Commission generated after its careful deliberation and nationwide consultation. I hesitate to point out only one for attention.
On democratic practice, I think we have come very far. I however think that the level of political literacy is still very low. A well-functioning democracy is founded on certain assumptions about the people who govern and are governed. For example, the right to vote is a dangerous right in the hands of one who does not have access to the issues or does not fully understand them; freedom of speech can become a recipe for social strife and discord if it’s seen as an opportunity to ‘just talk or talk any how’; democratic institutions are undermined if they lack the respect of the governed and the governing; national interest in ill-served if fidelity to party trumps the goals of nation-building. I think, as a country, we have to work on these – enhancing political literacy, appreciating the limits of freedoms, fostering respect for national institutions, being able to distinguish the nation from the political party etc. – to make our democratic experience sustainable.
Q6: What sport do you play or are you a fan of? What’s your favourite sports team?
I watch football, when I have the time. However, I don’t think I’m emotionally wired to be committed to any particular team.
Q7: Do you consider yourself a lawyer, or something more, or something else?
I think I’m more of an academic than a lawyer, if by lawyer you’re referring to someone actively practising law. I enjoy teaching, research and writing. It’s a different form of legal practice. I think the most important thing in life is to do what one is best at and where one can make the most impact, especially an impact on others.
Q8: Tell us something about you that most people don’t know about you?
If I do, then that is one more ‘secret’ out of my list! I’d say it’s my love of aeroplanes – they amaze me! How they fly, land, and all that. When I fly I enjoy the take-off – just an amazing experience – and the sentence ‘Cabin Crew, prepare for landing’! If I were starting life again, I’d love to be a Pilot.
Q9: Who has the honour of being your greatest influence in the field of law?
This is another difficult question. However, as a law student, I’d say that it was Professor EVO Dankwa. He epitomised for me what a great law lecturer should look like – his organisation, style, method of instructional delivery, and calmness. His lectures were magisterial. I learnt a lot from him outside what he taught us in class. He was very instrumental in my application to Harvard and Cambridge; indeed he is the one who encouraged me to apply to Harvard and wrote many references for me. He even gave me some ‘chop money’ for my first few days in Cambridge when I visited him to say good-bye on my way to Cambridge.
Q10: What do you miss most about your undergrad or Ghana School of law days?
My friends – the jokes, the drinks, the conversations, attending Hall Weeks, and taking part in the ‘Processions’; I could go on but I fear incriminating myself and others!
Q11: Would an IQ test ever have a place in politics (e.g. as an eligibility requirement for Ghana’s parliament)?
I’m not sure about this question. I don’t think that being strong academically necessarily makes one a better politician or mean one will excel in politics. Indeed, it may be the opposite. It’s however important that all politicians are able to engage with the issues, and one is unlikely to be able to do that meaningfully without some level of education or significant ‘in-politics’ experience. In general, I think post-secondary-level education is desirable, but I wouldn’t make it a constitutional requirement.
Q12: In your view/belief, how did the world/universe come about?
I believe in what the Bible tells us. “In the beginning, God created heaven and earth”. It’s quite a simple (but powerful) story, especially when one takes into account the obvious complexity of the world and the universe. However, that’s what makes the story so appealing. Behind all the complexity is this simple and true fact: you take it or leave it!
Q13: What legal (or other) concept is tantalising your mind right now, and why?
I’d say it’s an issue rather than a concept and this is it: what’s the role of courts in ensuring the rule of law in cross-border economic transactions within the context of regional economic integration. We’re used to courts promoting the rule of law by preventing arbitrary arrest and detention, ensuring the appropriate exercise of discretion, preventing abuse of governmental power etc. What about their role in promoting economic freedoms – freedom of movement of goods, persons and capital when countries form an economic community such as ECOWAS? I’m currently doing a two-year funded project on this issue.
Thank you very much, Richard.
Thank you too, David.