Three women have accused Gambia’s former president, Yahya Jammeh, of rape and sexual assault while he was in office, Human Rights Watch and TRIAL International said today. Former Gambian officials said that presidential aides regularly pressured women to visit or work for Jammeh, who then sexually abused many of them.
Jammeh is currently in Equatorial Guinea, where he sought exile after losing the 2016 presidential election to Adama Barrow. A Gambian Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) is documenting human rights violations committed during Jammeh’s 22 years in power, including sexual violence allegations. The TRRC and the Gambian government should ensure that allegations of rape and sexual violence by Jammeh and other former top officials are fully investigated, and, if warranted, prosecuted.
“Yahya Jammeh treated Gambian women like his personal property,” said Reed Brody, counsel at Human Rights Watch who led the investigation. “Rape and sexual assault are crimes, and Jammeh is not above the law.”
Human Rights Watch and TRIAL interviewed three women who accuse Jammeh of rape and sexual assault, and a fourth woman who said that Jammeh’s aides confined her in an apparent set-up for sexual abuse. The organizations also interviewed eight former Gambian officials and several other witnesses. The officials, who said they have direct knowledge of the events, include two men who worked for the Protocol Department at State House (the presidential palace); four close protection officers for Jammeh or at State House; a woman who worked at State House; and a former National Intelligence Agency senior official. The officials and two of the women requested anonymity. Fatou Jallow (known as Toufah), who alleged that Jammeh raped her in 2015, asked that her name be disclosed because she wished to come forward publicly.
Those interviewed made detailed allegations against the former president, saying that he forced or coerced young women into having sex with him. Some were put on the state payroll and worked at State House as so-called “protocol girls.” Former officials reported that Jammeh and his subordinates gave the women cash and gifts and promised them scholarships or other privileges – powerful tools in one of the poorest countries in the world. Witnesses said that both consensual and non-consensual sex took place at the president’s residences.
Jammeh’s rule was marked by widespread abuses, including forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, torture and arbitrary detention. As president, Jammeh crafted a religious persona, preaching sermons and claiming to cure HIV and heal the sick. In March 2019, an official Gambian commission and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, an investigative reporting platform, accused Jammeh of stealing up to US$1 billion from state coffers.
The three women who made the allegations against Jammeh described coercive, deceptive, and violent actions by Jammeh and his aides, and retaliation if the women refused his advances.
Toufah Jallow, then 18, was the 2014 winning “queen” of the main state-sponsored beauty pageant, which Jammeh lauded as “a means to empower girls.” Over six months, Jallow said, the president lavished her with a $1,250 prize and other gifts, and had running water installed at her family’s house outside of Banjul. He offered her a position as a “protocol girl,” which she declined. He asked her to marry him, which she also refused. She said that after aides brought her to attend a pre-Ramadan Quran recital at State House, he locked her in a room and told her: “There’s no woman that I want that I cannot have.” She said that he then hit and taunted her, injected her with a liquid, and raped her. Days later, she fled to neighboring Senegal.
Jammeh also personally hired and then sexually harassed the “protocol girls.” Former officials and two women who worked as “protocol girls” said that, in addition to their state salary, Jammeh and his aides gave the women gifts, cash, and privileges if they had sex with Jammeh. Sometimes the women carried out official functions such as serving drinks, typing, and preparing meetings, but mostly they were on call to have sex with the president. The women accompanied him during his frequent long stays in his home village of Kanilai. Some travelled abroad with the president, were required to live near State House to be more accessible to Jammeh, were not allowed to leave without authorization, or were discouraged from having boyfriends. A former top aide to the president said that Jammeh “handpicked young women to satisfy his sexual fantasies.”
One such woman, “Anta,” said that Jammeh spotted her at an event. She said that government officials put her on the payroll in the protocol department in 2015, and Jammeh gave expensive gifts to her indigent parents. She said that she refused when Jammeh first demanded sex, but that he said he “was supporting my family and that he could end it anytime.” On another occasion when he called her in for sex, he told her that she should not talk to anyone about it or she “would face consequences.”
Another “protocol girl,” “Bintu,” said that in 2013 Jammeh offered her a scholarship to study in the United States. When she refused to have sex with him, Jammeh became angry and sent her away. She said Jammeh instructed his chief of protocol to bar her from going for her visa interview at the US Embassy and to terminate her contract at State House. He also rescinded his scholarship offer.
The three women and several officials identified Jimbee Jammeh, a female cousin of the president, as the person overseeing the “protocol girls” and the procurement of other women. The three women said she befriended them, phoned them, had them brought to State House, took them to Jammeh, and stayed with them and the president in his room before leaving them alone. Jimbee Jammeh went to Equatorial Guinea with Jammeh.
Jammeh’s exploitation of women was well known to those around him. Five former officials said that he ordered them and others to get the phone numbers of women he identified. They said they later saw some of these women leaving Jammeh’s house with money. Officials working with Jammeh said that he also had sex with women soldiers assigned to his close protection and other civil servants working under him.
Human Rights Watch and TRIAL also interviewed a fourth woman, Fatoumatta Sandeng, then a well-known band singer, who did not have direct contact with Jammeh, but said that in 2015 aides confined her in what she suspected to be a set-up for sexual abuse. She is the daughter of a Gambian opposition leader, Solo Sandeng, whose murder in custody in 2016 would galvanize opposition to Jammeh. Sandeng said she was ordered to come alone to see him in his hometown of Kanilai, barred from leaving her hotel there for three days, and finally released.
Sandeng is now spokesperson for the “Campaign to Bring Yahya Jammeh and his Accomplices to Justice” (#Jammeh2Justice), which calls for prosecuting Jammeh and others who bear the greatest responsibility for his government’s crimes.
Gambia president Barrow has said that Gambia will await the report of the TRRC before pursuing Jammeh’s possible extradition from Equatorial Guinea. In addition, the government of Ghana is weighing re-opening its investigation into the July 2005 massacre in Gambia of approximately 56 migrants, including 44 Ghanaians, following a May 2018 report by Human Rights Watch and TRIAL which revealed that the migrants were murdered by the “Junglers,” a death squad reporting to Jammeh.
The TRRC’s public hearings, widely followed in Gambia, have already produced multiple revelations, including allegations that Jammeh personally directed killings. The TRRC plans to schedule hearings on sexual violence, and has reached out to women to give statements “according to modalities that preserve their safety and dignity and protect them from stigmatization and retaliation.”
“These admirable women broke the culture of silence. It is now crucial that the TRRC and the government give them a path to redress and justice,” said Marion Volkmann-Brandau, lead project researcher for Human Rights Watch and TRIAL. “It’s time for the ‘shame’ of rape to switch sides.”Distributed by APO Group on behalf of Human Rights Watch (HRW).