Reader, unbelievably sometime in the 1980s, when I was an Army Officer, I read a very curious story in an American Newspaper.
A certain local pastor, annoyed at the way people pay nice tributes to the dead, decided to organize his own funeral ahead of his time.
According to the newspaper report, this maverick pastor published an “obituary” of his own “death” then announced a “burial service”. On the appointed time, he sat in an open truck beside his coffin, went up and down the street to the church, where those who liked him “attended” his burial service, with him seated by the coffin.
I have related this story because in February 2019 one of the finest judges ever to sit on the bench in Ghana – Her Lordship Mrs Justice Vida Akoto Bamfo – reached the statutory age of 70 years, and therefore retired from active service as a justice of the Supreme Court.
Why should we wait until she kicks the bucket before any paean comments are made about her? At any rate, what is the guarantee that I will not predecease her? Whatever testimony I have of her, I better write it now before anything happens.
The year was 1987. I was then one year at the Bar (Cocoa Affairs Courts complex). One morning, I was rushing in between courts when Her Worship Mrs. Akoto Bamfo District Magistrate standing at the entrance to her chambers, called me.
That was the very first time I saw her, and digging her past I got to know that she was the eldest child of the famous lawyer Bannerman Williams. Her husband was the famous insurance capo Eugene Akoto Bamfo, who lectured me in Insurance Law at the Ghana Law School.
I confess I never appeared before her at the District Court, but not long after she was promoted to the Circuit Court, I did several cases before her. Most of them were criminal cases.
What I noticed about her, a trait which I later learnt was common to all judges is that Vida was so nice in the chambers and in the house at Madina with her husband, but anytime a case was called in the courtroom she would behave as if she had never met me before.
One day, I boldly asked her why judges behave like that? She was so strict in the courtroom that even though I knew her so well, invited her time out to countless programmes, I was never at ease in her court, because she was never predictable.
After a few years on the Circuit Court bench, she was elevated to the High Court and as for that place there was never a week I did not appear before her.
What almost every lawyer liked about her was her extreme tolerance of lawyers on their feet. Some judges have this attitude of bullying lawyers, making disparaging remarks in open court, reducing confidence of clients in their lawyers.
Not Vida. Never! She will quietly be looking at you, ask a question or two, guiding you to take a cue on how her mind is working, keep silent and stare at you, and ask: “have you finished?” Then she will make a ruling – if you are not happy, go on appeal. Period!
I remember so well one day when she was still a Circuit Court judge I asked her “do you have any regrets in being a judge?”
She smiled and said “Oh no, Captain. I have always wanted to be a judge and l enjoy it . . .”
“Have you ever had a terrible experience you want to forget?” she sat there for a long time, and said . . . “Oh Captain . . . the police brought some man before me, accused of beating his wife. I saw a big plaster on the face of the woman. The man pleaded guilty and I jailed him for six months.
“After the court closed, I was in chambers when the wife came, crying, that now that I have sent her husband to prison, where is she going to get ‘chop’ money from?”
In due course, she was elevated to the Court of Appeal, where three judges always sit on a case, and she rose to become president of the panel.
Finally, she was promoted to the Supreme Court and she was one of the Atuguba panel members that heard the NPP election petition case.
My lord, Vida was one of the few justices of the Supreme Court to have grown on the bench from District, Circuit, High, Appeal and finally Supreme Court. Most of the justices there came either from lecture rooms in the university or from political patronage straight from the Bar.
Currently, I know of Justice AA Benin and my classmate Justice Agnes Dordzie as career judges who have reached the highest pinnacle.
The lesson is that judges at all levels must know that if only you work hard, you can also reach the pinnacle as a justice of the Supreme Court.
Her lordship was a married woman and I remember so well when her flamboyant husband had to answer a writ of summons from Almighty God. In spite of her good looks, she paid a heavy price of loyalty to her husband’s memory by remaining a widow, still bearing the name Mrs. Akoto Bamfo.
I will never forget that after nearly a year out of circulation due to surgery at 37 Hospital I invited countless people to attend a thanksgiving service in my house on 6th August, 2017. The messenger who sent the invitation card to Justice Akoto Bamfo reported that he did not meet her but left it with her secretary.
In the course of the service, we prayed, and when I opened my eyes, I saw, among the “congregation”, Justice of the Supreme Court, Mrs. Justice Vida Akoto Bamfo, wearing whitish slit and kaba. Later, she had lunch with other dignitaries in my living room, and I escorted her to her car and she left.
The lesson is that God brings us here on earth for the benefit of others. The outdooring of your birth is celebrated by others, your wedding is celebrated by others, and when you die it is others who will see you off.
A meaningful life is life lived in serving others.
May God grant you a happy Retirement, My lord, Justice Vida Akoto Bamfo.
Written by Nkrabeah Effah-Dartey