Jake Okechukwu Effoduh

As an Osgoode PhD student researching the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on human rights in Africa, Jake Okechukwu Effoduh already has an impressive list of accomplishments to his name – like leading the drafting process for Nigeria’s comprehensive AI policy.

With law degrees from his native Nigeria, Oxford and Osgoode already under his belt, he’s quickly coming to be regarded as an expert in the responsible adoption of AI in the developing world.

“The big question for me as a lawyer in AI is – how do we legislate this technology for the benefit of all human beings and not just for capitalist gains?” he asks. “Unfortunately, the law is mostly playing catch-up in regulating technological advancement.

“But for a developing continent like Africa,” he adds, “the right legislation is not enough. We must also cultivate an informed and engaged society that understands the potential and the challenges of technological advancements and actively participates in shaping their direction.”

Effoduh’s PhD thesis, which he expects to complete this year, focuses on the legitimization of AI systems in Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa. He says governments in each country have shown varying levels of interest in the human rights impact of AI but are keen on using it to improve a wide array of public services.

As each country adopts AI, his findings indicate, they are also importing imperialistic and monopolistic elements that could make the continent dependent on foreign infrastructure, impoverish the development of indigenous products and compromise human rights.

“How can states push for the development and deployment of AI technologies in their countries and, at the same time, align them with their unique socio-cultural context, address their chosen local challenges and promote the praxis of human rights?” he asks.

For two years, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented Effoduh from travelling to conduct his field research. But he completed it in April after a round of trips to the three key countries he’s studying. His research involved interviews with senior politicians, judges, software developers, activists and top policy officials in each country – even landing him the opportunity to sit at strategic high-level meetings on frameworks for the adoption of AI technologies in some of the states.

In Kenya and Nigeria, he says, Osgoode’s reputation helped open doors because a few politicians and senior lawyers are Osgoode graduates.

As he carried out his work, Effoduh says he was thankful that Osgoode’s graduate program equipped him with the practical skills he needed to carry out his research at the highest level. And those skills and achievements will serve him well when he begins looking for career opportunities after graduation. In some respects, he said, he found that the quality of Osgoode’s graduate program exceeded comparable offerings at other institutions. “I think here at Osgoode,” he notes, “we go deeper in terms of our application of theory and in being critical about our methods of legal research.”

Effoduh says that pursuing graduate studies at Osgoode has opened up opportunities and sources of support he never would have expected. In his second year, for example, he won the $50,000 per year, three-year Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship, one of Canada’s most prestigious doctoral awards.

He has also worked as a teaching assistant and played an important role in York University receiving a $7.25 million grant from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) to use AI and big data to help manage disease outbreaks and health policy. And as an LLM student in 2016, he travelled to China to attend the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting of the New Champions, an event some call the “summer Davos.” It was there, after participating in a panel discussion on regulatory considerations for AI, that he decided to make AI adoption in Africa the focus of his research.

Effoduh’s passion for human rights issues began to take shape in his late teens when he started presenting a weekly local radio show for BBC Media Action that focused on everyday problems affecting ordinary Nigerians.

The programs tackled controversial topics like police brutality, employment discrimination, forced disappearances and the disenfranchisement of women. But as the freelance journalist became more engaged in his work, he came to a resolution.

“I decided I wasn’t only going to keep telling the stories of people,” he recalled. “I became interested in finding solutions. For some of the people I interviewed, I felt like I should have been leading them to court.”

Although he now has his sights set on teaching and research, Effoduh is already making a significant impact on the policy front, helping to shape the very laws themselves. And Osgoode has helped him realize his desire to make positive change that improves people’s lives.

“I’m always going to hold Osgoode as very dear to me,” he said. “This school propelled me to unearth the power of legal research in ways that have helped me uncover new insights, challenge existing paradigms and contribute to this ever-evolving landscape of scholarship.”