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American Academy of Science & Letters honours Nigerian Harvard Law Professor, Okediji

By Emmanuel Ogebe

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Ms. Ruth Gana Okediji, a Nigerian American professor in Harvard University Law School, has been inducted into the prestigious American Academy of Science and Letters.

In a ceremony at the Library of Congress (the world’s biggest) in Washington last week, she was honored alongside the longest serving African American professor at Harvard (52 years) Patterson and several others.

Donald W. Landry, M.D., Ph.D. President and Sanjeev R. Kulkarni, Ph.D. Board Chair,
on behalf of The American Academy of Sciences and Letters, conducted the 2023 Investiture on Wednesday, November 8, 2023, at The Thomas Jefferson Building Washington, D.C. and awarded the
2023 Barry Prizes for distinguished intellectual achievement to:

  • Robert George of Princeton (politics),
  • Jonathan Haidt of NYU (psychology),
  • Svetlana Jitomirskaya of UC-Berkeley (mathematics),
  • Steven Koonin of NYU (physics),
  • Anna Krylov of USC (chemistry),
  • Jon Levenson of Harvard (Jewish studies),
  • Josaih Ober of Stanford (classics),
  • Ruth Okediji of Harvard (law), Orlando Patterson of Harvard (sociology) and,
  • Candace Vogler of Chicago (philosophy).

Harvard University announced the award online as follows:

“Intellectual property expert Ruth L. Okediji LL.M. ’91 S.J.D. ’96, the Jeremiah Smith Jr. Professor of Law, has received a 2023 Barry Prize from the American Academy of Sciences and Letters in recognition of her intellectual excellence and courage.

“A transformative legal scholar, Ruth Okediji’s scholarship has helped nations around the world grasp the revolutionary implications of a simple but powerful notion: that an idea can be someone’s property,” said the academy in its official citation. “Her signal contributions to the development of intellectual property rights in international legal systems has empowered human flourishing globally by protecting people’s right to own not only the work of their hands, but the work of their minds. The academy honors Dr. Okediji’s distinguished contributions to humanity’s development of just laws that facilitate fair transactions so all may prosper.”

A 501(c)(3) organization, the American Academy of Sciences and Letters promotes scholarship and honors outstanding achievement in the arts, sciences, and learned professions. The Barry Prize is the academy’s premier award to promote excellence in scholarship. The annual award, which is open to scholars across diverse fields and disciplines, honors those whose work has “made outstanding contributions to humanity’s knowledge, appreciation, and cultivation of the good, the true, and the beautiful.”

Okediji’s research and scholarship examine, among other things, the impact of IP law and policy on human welfare in developing and least-developed countries. Her interest in the development impact of IP laws began when she was a student at the law school, studying under faculty that included William Alford, the Henry L. Stimson Professor of Law, William W. Fisher III, WilmerHale Professor of Intellectual Property Law, and the late Leroy Hazen Vail, who pioneered African studies at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and for whom she served as a teaching assistant in his courses on African history.

It was in Vail’s classes that Okediji’s research grew in ambition and scope, exploring colonialism’s impact on the rate and direction of innovation in Africa and framing patents as a source of technology transfer to the continent. Her seminal work on international patent law, drug development, and access to medicines helped define the now well-known field of IP and Development.

During her distinguished career, Okediji has served as a policy adviser to inter-governmental organizations, regional economic communities, and national governments on various matters related to IP, competition law, innovation policy, and human welfare. She has written extensively on these topics and her scholarship has influenced government policies and national strategies for implementing the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement) and other global IP treaties in Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Her most recent book, “Copyright Law in an Age of Limitations and Exceptions,” was published in 2017, by Cambridge University Press.

Okediji served as the chief technical expert and lead negotiator for the Delegation of Nigeria to the 2013 WIPO Diplomatic Conference to Conclude a Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works by Visually Impaired Persons and Persons with Print Disabilities (Marrakesh VIP Treaty). In 2015, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed her to the 2015-2016 High Level Panel on Access to Medicines.

Okediji joined the Harvard faculty as a tenured law professor and co-director of the Berkman Klein Center in 2017. At Harvard Law School, she founded and serves as faculty director of the Program on Biblical Law and Christian Legal Studies. She was recently appointed the Oppenheimer Faculty Director of the Center for African Studies at Harvard University.” Ruth Okediji awarded Barry Prize for distinguished intellectual achievement – Harvard Law School | Harvard Law School

Also present to celebrate her at the investiture ceremony were her husband Prof Okediji, her mother Mrs Gana, her siblings Timothy and Grace Gana, international human rights lawyer and fellow UniJos law faculty alumnus Emmanuel Ogebe and her pastors.

Commenting, Ogebe said, “it is a source of deep pride that my big sister from UJ and also the middlebelt could come and make us proud like this. I always lamented that when her late dad who was a professor of political science was being arrested by the Nigerian government, his daughter was being celebrated abroad in the same academic vocation.

The last time we were all together like this was at his memorial in New York many years ago but although we still do not have the Nigeria of his wishes, from heaven he can rejoice at what his daughter has done in the world beyond Nigeria. At a time when Nigeria is being represented by disreputable characters, it is marvelous that Nigerians are continuing to distinguish themselves nobly abroad.“

Ruth Gana Okediji is the daughter of distinguished Prof Aaron Gana who taught at ABU and UniJos and was Vice Chancellor of Bingham University in Abuja. He was also head of the prodemocracy NGO AFRIGOV and an icon in advocacy against military misrule.

Emmanuel Ogebe, Washington D.C.

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