PIONEER AFRICAN WOMEN IN LAW
Vida Akoto Bamfo
Supreme Court Judge (Ret.)
By Rahma Abdul-Rahman
Justice Vida Akoto Bamfo was born on February 7, 1949, in Pokuase, a suburb of the Greater Accra Region, to Mr. Alfred Kingsley Bannerman-Williams, a lawyer and one of the surviving pioneers of the Ghana School of Law, and Madam Grace Darkoa Dodoo. She is the first of many children, and her three siblings are also lawyers. She was married to the late Eugene Akoto-Bamfo, a Senior Legal Officer, with whom she had a son, who is also a lawyer. She is a Christian who identifies as a Methodist.
Akoto Bamfo had her early education at the Accra Royal School in Jamestown (British Accra). She obtained her Ordinary Level Certificate at Mfantsiman Girls' Secondary School in 1963, now Mfantsiman Girls' Senior High School, and obtained her sixth form education at Aburi Girls' Secondary School from 1967 to 1969, now Aburi Girls' Senior High School. Coming from a family of legal brains, she developed an interest in law after seeing a lady District Magistrate preside over a case when she accompanied her father to the Nsawam District Court in Accra. Her desire for the law drove her to pursue a legal education at the University of Ghana between 1972 and 1975. She obtained her qualifying law degree at the Ghana School of Law after taking off a year to have her child. Before joining the bench, she did her National Service at the Attorney General's office and worked with the British Indian Insurance Company. She subsequently served as the Manager in charge of claims at Zenith Assurance between 1976 and 1981.
Akoto Bamfo first joined the bench in 1981 as a Magistrate in the Accra New Town Magistrate Court. After two years, she was transferred to Cocoa Affairs as one of the first Magistrates at that court. She then rose to become a Circuit Court Judge but served only briefly and returned to Cocoa Affairs from 1986 to 1991. Akoto Bamfo became a Justice of the High Court in 1991 and served for three years, after which she went to the Gambia on secondment for two years. There, she served as the Chairperson of a three-member Assets Commission to probe the assets of the former president and some ministers of Sir Dauda Jawarah’s government.
As Chairperson, her core values of fairness, integrity, impartiality, and judicial courage were put to the test. A member had leaked the Commission's report to the Executive before its formal release by the Commission. She was then told to make adverse findings against some Ministers. However, she stood her ground, even after she was warned that the report would be rejected. To Justice Vida Akoto Bamfo, integrity is key to the work of a judge. According to her, decisions must be made by sticking to the facts and the law. She also values respect and being firm without being rude. To her, being a judge was doing God's work, and when done properly, would merit God's protection.
On her return from the Gambia, she was elevated to the Court of Appeal in 1999 where she rose to become the presiding judge. She describes being a High Court judge as serving as a mistress of the court where you could help develop the law, while the Court of Appeal instead reviews procedures and decisions of the trial court. The peak of her career in the judiciary was in 2009 when she was elevated from the Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court. At the Supreme Court, she became one of the first Supreme Court judges to hear the first presidential election petition in Ghana. She adjudicated cases by regarding all cases and parties before her court as important and requiring the same level of attention. To Akoto Bamfo, parties must be accorded the same level of respect, and all the issues raised must be considered carefully. She believed that trivial matters did not end up in court and she was reluctant to crack jokes on the Bench.
Akoto Bamfo served in the judiciary for thirty-eight years. She worked her way from the District Magistrate Court in 1981 to the Supreme Court of Ghana where she retired in 2019, having gone through all the benches— from the District Court, the Circuit Court, the High Court, Appeal Court, and finally the Supreme Court. She is one of six women judges who make up the second and third generation of women to sit on the Supreme Court of Ghana.
Akoto Bamfo’s love for fairness and transparency is also reflected in her desire to enhance democratic governance when she pushed for the passage of the Right to Information Bill into law. Her soft-spoken nature and dedication to the values of her job won her admiration from lawyers and other judges, both at home and abroad. In an ode by renowned lawyer Nkrabeah Effah- Dartey, he stated that "what every lawyer liked about [Akoto Bamfo] was her extreme tolerance of lawyers on their feet." Even the Chief Justice of the Gambia, who was part of those she had probed during her time on the Assets Commission, wrote to her thanking her for her courage when she worked in the Gambia and requested a copy of the original report. She advocated and exuded knowledge of the law and the requisite judicial temperament for a successful career on the bench.
Justice Vida Akoto Bamfo was the second female judge to grow from the lower courts to the Supreme Court. This growth not only shows how dedication and hard work is rewarded but also helps bridge the gender gap in the judiciary on the various levels of the courts in Ghana. Her success tells us how a woman's achievement in the judiciary encourages the next woman to join the legal field.
Through her growth from the lower courts to the Supreme Court, Justice Akoto Bamfo has accumulated a wealth of knowledge in law and its interpretation and has contributed to the development of the law through precedents. She stands as one of the female figures to look up to when considering the contributions of women in law. Although all her successes and achievements in the judiciary have not placed her as the "first" woman to achieve most of her accomplishments, her accomplishments and dedication to the judiciary are worth celebrating.