Welcome to the latest interview of the Völkerrechtsblog’s symposium ‘The Person behind the Academic’! With us we have Prof. Olabisi D. Akinkugbe, and through the following questions, we will try to get a glimpse of his interests, sources of inspiration and habits.
Welcome Prof. Akinkugbe and thank you very much for accepting our invitation!
May I first ask what it was that brought you to academia and what made you stay?
My thanks to the team at Völkerrechtsblog, and especially Sissy Katsoni, for the invitation to be part of this Symposium on ‘The Person behind the Academic’!
Your first question on what brought me to academia invites me to reflect on an area I have not always given much constructive thought to in the sense of a narrative or planning that made it happen.
As an immigrant in Canada, the journey to academia was eclectic. Yet, there is a short answer once I have now reflected holistically: the influence of my parents who were teachers. Even if I did not pay attention to it, I cannot underestimate the role they played. Observing them teach so closely, preparing lesson notes over the weekends, and treating every child like they treated their own children was inspiring. While I operate in a different context today, I bring similar ethos – sense of community – to my research, teaching, and service work today.
Here is a slightly longer one. My first teaching experience was as a fresh High School graduate in Nigeria where I was employed to teach after school lessons for middle school students. I taught a course called Commerce. As an undergraduate student at the Faculty of Law, University of Lagos, I was involved in many private tutorials for my peers. I just enjoyed teaching what I knew. Rumor had it that I had clear handwriting and made useful class notes which were simply photocopied by some students in my class and beyond.
[Picture shared with Prof. Akinkugbe in 2015 via a Facebook post by a student who was not in his class but in possession of his original hand-written note].
My passion to share what I knew freely, came from a place of passion and desire to be kind to others. Through it, I was also able to foster a sense of community building that I can learn from others as well.
After my Call to Nigerian Bar, I worked in the law firm of Messrs Aluko & Oyebode alternating between the litigation and corporate departments of the Lagos office. While there, I continued to seek opportunities to teach – for free and as a way of giving back – at the University of Lagos, Faculty of Law. While the opportunity did not materialize immediately, I continued as a Legal Counsel on a public-private partnership road project in Lagos, Nigeria. Between my practice in the law firm and in-house positions at Lekki Concession Company, I obtained a master’s degree from the University of Toronto. In 2010, I started contemplating a doctorate degree as pivotal to the type of infrastructure law and policy work, I would like to embark on for the future. I drafted a proposal. My thanks here to Prof. Michael Trebilcock (my LL.M. thesis supervisor) and Prof. Ibironke Odumosu-Ayanu who both reviewed my proposal for admission. Ronke was a year ahead of me at the Law School and she has and continues to be a huge inspiration in many ways as well.
When I eventually proceeded on a Ph.D. degree in 2011 at the Common Law section of the Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa, one thing remained: the hope to teach a course or two at a university in the city I would work for free, ideally in Nigeria. But I am also married now, and we have had a young family.
The first time I considered academia in Canada as a career seriously was in 2013! Here, I am eternally grateful to my wife, Adebola Esther Akinkugbe, who in the 2nd Year of my Ph.D. studies was clear in her advice that “I should look for academic opportunities in Canada” instead of going back to Nigeria. But I was also extremely nervous! A Nigerian-born, educated etc. dude with interests in Africa and international economic law knocking on Canadian academic doors with a reasonable chance of success was not necessarily the norm in 2011, as I could count how many black Professors there were!
Here I am thankful also to Professor Obiora Okafor. My story has a lot to do with his own generosity and mentorship which started with a cold email in 2006 when I sort admission for my LL.M. degree. As I thought seriously about being an academic in Canada, I reached out to him in 2013. My ask on the call that afternoon from the desk at the Human Rights Research and Education Centre (HRREC) at the Faculty of Law was this: to be considered seriously for an interview at a Canadian Law School, how many publications should I aim for at graduation? True to the “Don” as we call him, his response embodied the spirit of solidarity and nurturing beyond my question.
Looking back, an all-important first academic conference on “Africa and International Law: Taking Stock and Moving Forward” organized by Professor James T. Gathii at Albany Law School in 2012 offered the opportunity to build life-long relationships that remain so critical today in my academic career. Many conversations ensuing from this conference and the kindness of senior colleagues (turned friends and “partners in crime”) offered much needed comfort and pathways to follow in building a career with integrity and inspiration in tough times. Life would then take its course as I landed my first academic position in January 2015 at the Faculty of Law, University of New Brunswick. Professor Jeremy Levitt was the Dean at the time. Our first meeting was in 2012 at Albany at the post-conference dinner in the company of James, Tony Anghie, Ibironke Odumosu-Ayanu among others. Prof. Levitt paid my dinner! We had great conversations as we walked to the hotel. I would later work with him as a Research Assistant when he visited the HRREC as a Fullbright Scholar.
I moved to the Schulich School of Law, Dalhousie University in 2017 where I am now a tenured Associate Professor of Law (as of July 1, 2023).
The thanks goes to my wife for the call-out which made me think seriously about the first time of the formal connection between my vocational interest in teaching and linking to a broader academic world as the path for a possible career in Canada. She made me think most seriously that the academic world is where I probably belong. That has proven to be true so far – I think!
In terms of what made me stay – the fulfilment I find. Of all the career opportunities I have had, being in the academia has given me the most joy, liberty to think, to feel free, to be supportive of a community that is identifiable, to write on issues that I am passionate about, to learn and to express kindness through my work to others. As the years pass, moments, events, interactions affirm the fact that I stumbled upon the career I was possibly destined for – the academia.
Could you share with us three authors that have had a major impact on your perception of justice?
This is a difficult one. I am a product of many encounters, conversations, writings (in different forms) and films. Prior to joining the academia, figures (and the expression of their works) like Funmilayo Ransom Kuti, Chinua Achebe, Obafemi Awolowo, Wole Soyinka, Elechi Amadi, readings about the Aba Women’s Protest of 1929, Nnamdi Azikiwe, among others shaped my thinking and sense of a just society. These works were understandably pivotal to the socio-historical and economic construct of the Nigerian state. They were my earliest encounters with articulations of justice, and they continue to be important in my thinking.
Since joining the academia, I have found home in the scholarly group Third World Approaches to International Law and their case for a just and more equal society. Many figures in TWAIL have and continue to bring major impact on my perception of justice. I will leave out naming specific authors.
Which are three texts that you would wish all academics working on international law would read?
Thank you. I will not suggest that there are three that are enough, and I am mindful that these classics were all written by scholars who identify as male, but I have found them especially insightful in many ways in my research.
- Mohammed Bedjaoui – Toward a New International Economic Order;
- Taslim Olawale Elias – Africa and the Development of International Law;
- Antony Anghie –Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law.
What is your greatest disappointment with international law? And in which way(s), do you think that international law is wrongly criticized?
Thank you. I will not necessarily say I am “disappointed in international law.” The history of the discipline and its development is embroiled in many layers of unjust and exploitative technologies of governance and discipline. As such, coming to international (economic) law for me was always about research on questions that advance the cause of the subaltern. Where I have found a level of growing concern is in what I describe as the “purveyors of international laws disciplinary character”. These purveyors, their manifestations, – and the ways they create greater inequality while sustaining the asymmetries of power – are effectively disguised in the contemporary practices of international law. This is where I hope – as true of TWAIL and other critical traditions – that the responses of this age to the challenges of international law will move us towards a more equitable and just society.
What is your favourite place to read and write? What is always near you when you read and write?
Tricky question. Let me answer it this way, I do not do well pretending to read or write in noisy or busy spaces – I will be distracted. As such, wherever I find calm and quiet, I tend to be able to work there. I generally like to change writing spaces as well from time to time. I find the change of writing space helpful for concentration.
In terms of what is always near me – my mobile phone. It offers a good moment to peek at the world through social media when I need a break. But it also depends on the task at hand. In which case, Chamomile tea, jazz instrumental compilation for study, or compilation of birds chirping, and stream sound also do the trick.
What is an energy and inspiration booster, at times when you have none?
Great question. It depends really on whether this relates to writing and research, editorial work, or service generally. Whichever it is, a clear thread runs through them all – a constant source of inspiration is that I remind myself of “Why I do what I do.” Once I am reminded this is not about self-gratification, but about what it may mean for others, I find I am able to go again.
On a lighter note, as a football fan, and a Chelsea Football Club fan, it helps if my team wins! Lol. All sports lovers will probably agree.
I also enjoy long walks with our dog – Milo. I find it mightily refreshing to re-engage after walks.
In short, thinking beyond the self always help.
Any hidden talents that we don’t know about?
OK, promise me you will not publish this part …. lol ….
I love dancing … a lot! And I do not mean dancing by myself in the house! I love to go out and dance with friends. To great music of all genres as long as the rhyme is great.
I also love to cook. I have been told I do it well… lol… OK. I won’t tell you those who have said so!!
I can’t promise anything… I think some of our readers would actually love to join!
What is your favourite and least favourite part of being an editor of an international law blog, i.e. Afronomicslaw?
Let me start first by thank my fellow editors, Professor James T. Gathii, Dr. Titilayo Adebola, and Dr. Ohio Omiunu. It has been a great honor working with them. I owe a depth of gratitude to James for the opportunity to partner on this venture from inception.
Back to your question. My favorite part: the opportunity to shape and create a free platform for many Global South scholars to express themselves in publication and to mainstream their views. It is an honor of a lifetime to contribute my small part in changing the narrative of the absence or obscurity of Third World (especially African) “voices” and representation in international (economic) law. I enjoy being an agent for a positive agenda that, hopefully, pluralizes the discourses of international law and its sub-fields in a truly inclusive way for many years to come.
If I am being honest, communicating a rejection (in the context of the African Journal of International Economic Law) is tough. Yet, viewed from the right perspective, nothing about being an editor of Afronomicslaw.org is a least favorite. A rejection or revision is an opportunity to do better and improve on the work already done. As such, it is simply an honor to be trusted to do this and for scholars to have embraced it as well.
Have you experienced or witnessed discrimination in academic circles? What do you think would help lessen discriminatory instances in academic circles?
I have experienced my fair share of discrimination in academia. I will leave out the details. But I have also been hugely supported.
To lessen discrimination, we all need a true commitment that is not predicated on lip service, sporadic action, reactionary steps, and race-washing. We must strive to understand our biases and ways in which they unconsciously regulate our actions – even when we have the best of intentions. It is critical to have marginalized groups represented at all decision-making levels of the institutions of academia. We must also bear in mind that “excellence” from and by many marginalized groups may not look like what we already count as such.
Lastly, we need to study and gain a better understanding of the various ways discrimination manifests to truly appreciate our role in lessening it.
What are you working on currently? What may we anticipate in the near future?
I have a series of projects on the go. I am working on my book which focuses on economic integration in Africa by drawing on the experiences of the Economic Community of West Africa States. Outside of this, I have a series of articles on international investment law, \international trade law, and the rule of law in Africa at various stages of writing. On the near end of output though is a Review Essay which I hope readers will find interesting.
Looking forward to seeing your book published!
Thank you very much, Prof. Akinkugbe, for participating in our symposium and for having taken the time to respond to our questions!