During his 22-year dictatorial rule that ended in early 2017, Gambia’s former president, Yahya Jammeh, reportedly used his power as well as state institutions to entrap and sexually abuse young women, according to a new investigation. Jammeh’s reign was already characterised by enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, and torture, but now new evidence unearthed by Human Rights Watch and TRIAL International links the former leader directly to rape and sexual exploitation of women. In this interview, Human Rights Watch researcher Marion Volkmann-Brandau discusses how she tracked down survivors of these crimes, the schemes Jammeh used to entice and assault young women, and the victims’ hope that he will face justice.
When did you first hear that Jammeh had raped and sexually assaulted women?
The first stories surfaced when Human Rights Watch Senior Counsel Reed Brody and I started collecting evidence for the “Campaign to Bring Yahya Jammeh and his Accomplices to Justice” (#Jammeh2Justice). That was in October 2017. While I was interviewing people, I was told that there had been many rumors that Jammeh had forced women to have sex with him.
How did you go about probing these rumours?
I found a lot online about how Jammeh, who fled the country a month after being defeated in elections in December 2016 and now lives in Equatorial Guinea, coerced young women by promising scholarships and jobs. There were stories about so-called “protocol girls,” young women hired by the president to work as event hostesses at the Protocol Department. Some media reports even compared the protocol girls to “sexual slaves” who lived at State House, the presidential residence, without being allowed to leave. I had already talked to survivors of rape committed by former high-level officials. But I had not gotten first-hand information about cases that involved the president himself.
One day, Fatoumatta Sandeng, the spokesperson of the #Jammeh2Justice campaign, and daughter of an activist whom state security forces had tortured to death, told me over lunch how Jammeh had her confined to a hotel in his home village Kanilai for four days. She was a well-known singer and had caught Jammeh’s eye when she performed on TV. Fatoumatta was 21 at the time and too afraid to leave without permission. She was let go unharmed when Jammeh never came to the hotel — he unexpectedly had to attend a funeral that weekend — and she claimed she had to be at a concert. But he made her promise him she would be back. She later heard from other women who had not been so lucky. And she put me in touch with one of them: Fatou Jallow, who is known as “Toufah.”
What did Toufah tell you about what happened to her?
Toufah told me she had participated in a State House-sponsored beauty pageant and won. When she was invited to State House to discuss a charitable project she was supposed to present to the Ministry of Education as part of her beauty queen obligations, she went without qualms. During their meeting, which to her surprise turned out to be quite informal, President Jammeh told her about his difficult childhood and expressed his admiration for her achievements. She felt like she had found a mentor in the president. But then he started giving her gifts “for her troubles,” money, and jewelry. She was offered a position in the Protocol Department, which she declined because she had other dreams: she wanted to be an actress. Jammeh eventually offered to marry her. Toufah was only 18 at the time. “You are three times older than me,” she laughed. But she felt so uncomfortable about the incident that she blocked all State House numbers on her phone and stopped attending State House events.
Jammeh did not give up. Reminding her of her beauty queen duties, he and his female cousin, Jimbee Jammeh, who helped the president secure young women, used the pretext of a Qur’an recital at State House marking the beginning of Ramadan to lure her back. As soon as Toufah arrived, Jimbee ushered her into a room where she found herself alone with Jammeh. Clearly her refusal to marry him had made him extremely angry. He slapped her, shouting: “How dare you refuse me?” She tried to leave the room, but he injected her with something that impaired her movements. Then he rubbed his genitals into her face, pulled her dress off, saying “let’s see if you’re a virgin,” and raped her. Toufah eventually lost consciousness. When she woke up she was sent home with a warning that if she talked, she’d be punished.
What happened after that?
Toufah told me that from that day on there were men outside of her home watching her every move. Afraid that Jammeh might send for her again, Toufah decided to flee across the border. Telling her sister that she was going to cook supper, so as to not raise suspicion, she went to the market with a small bag of clothes hidden under her dress. She went from stall to stall, buying chicken and eggs, onion, and fish, before she finally managed to don a burka and give her pursuers the slip. She had a taxi take her to the ferry from Banjul, to Barra, a town close to the border with Senegal. Afraid that Jammeh’s men would be looking for her on the ferry, she asked a fisherman to take her across the river instead. To cross the border to Senegal without having to show her passport, she hid in a truck among cattle. This is how she arrived in Senegal, from where she eventually made her way into exile in Canada.
How difficult was it to track down other women allegedly abused by Jammeh?
Remember, Jammeh was once an all-powerful dictator. Even with him out of power, women were afraid to talk to me for fear of being stigmatised or of being tracked down by Jammeh’s people. But when I was introduced through people they trusted, they would eventually open up. One of the women willing to share her story — we call her “Bintu” — had worked as a “protocol girl” for more than two years. She told me the president had promised her a scholarship to study abroad. She had already been accepted at a university in the US. More than once, she and other “protocol girls” had been taken to Kanilai to accompany the president on his trips to his home village. She had witnessed how women would be called into his private apartment, and all the women knew it was for sex. She hoped it would never be her. But on the weekend before she had her visa appointment, the cousin Jimbee summoned her. Once Bintu was in Jammeh’s private room, he asked her to undress, saying he wanted to apply spiritual waters on her for her protection. She let him do so. But when he sent back for her the following night and began to touch her, she rejected him. He got angry and threw her out of the room. As punishment, her scholarship was cancelled and she was fired from State House. In the end, we were able to document two cases of rape and Bintu’s case of sexual assault. Only Toufah was prepared to go public.
To what extent were these individual cases you documented part of a wider pattern?
Two high-level officials who were working in the Protocol Department, four former members of the presidential guard, and another person who used to work at State House, all told us similar stories. They described how they would hand-pick women for Jammeh, how young women would be sent into his room every night, and how they saw some come out crying. Their accounts are very strong. Over the years Jammeh had created a sophisticated system, using state institutions and resources to satisfy his appetite. He recruited young women as civil servants, officially to work in Protocol. The Ministry of Education was used to organise beauty pageants. He even created a foundation for the empowerment of women that selected girls for scholarships to study abroad. And he used his bodyguards to get the contact details of young women he fancied. Jammeh appears to have been a serial, sophisticated sexual predator. He had a modus-operandi: First, he would be gentle and charming, making the women feel at ease. Then he would play the concerned father figure, telling them they should stay away from boyfriends and focus on their studies. He would flatter them about their intelligence, promising scholarships or financial assistance — powerful enticements in one of the world’s poorest countries. Only once the women and their parents had received gifts and felt a certain obligation towards him, or when a scholarship had been offered, did he make his move.
Why have none of the women come forward before?
The environment in Gambia was simply not one where women would feel safe to speak the truth about their experiences. Jammeh put people in prison for no reason. He made people disappear. National intelligence agents routinely tortured prisoners. And he had a death squad, the “Junglers.” People were really afraid of him.
What has motivated Toufah to break her silence and go public with her story?
Toufah grew up in a culture where talking about rape and other sexual violence was taboo. She is convinced that if she had heard about such incidents, she would have been more careful. By breaking the culture of silence, and putting her face to her story, she wants to give young women in Gambia the courage and power to speak up.