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Meet the Beauty Queen Who Inspired Gambia’s Me Too Movement After Accusing Ex-Dictator of Rape

StorySeptember 19, 2019
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In Gambia, an ongoing public truth and reconciliation commission is investigating the atrocities of former President Yahya Jammeh, who ruled the West African country of 2 million people for 22 years before his regime ended in 2016. In widely shared public testimony that has been live-streamed to tens of thousands of people, survivors and members of Jammeh’s death squad who killed migrants, journalists and civilians during the president’s reign are telling their stories for the world to hear. One such survivor is Fatou “Toufah” Jallow, who says the former president raped her in 2015. We speak with Jallow, a Gambian feminist and anti-rapist activist, and Reed Brody, counsel and spokesperson for Human Rights Watch who is currently leading the prosecution of Jammeh.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to Gambia, where an ongoing public truth and reconciliation commission is investigating the atrocities of former President Yahya Jammeh, who ruled the West African country of 2 million people for 22 years before his regime ended in 2017. During the hearings, members of Jammeh’s death squad have admitted to killing migrants, journalists and civilians during the president’s reign. Survivors of the regime have also testified during the hearings, which have been live-streamed across the country. The investigation is part of an ongoing process to reckon with the horrors committed during Jammeh’s rule, including killing and disappearing hundreds of people, torture, unjustified jailings, and sexual violence against women and girls. But the perpetrators of this violence have never been brought to justice, including Jammeh himself, who fled to Equatorial Guinea in 2017 after losing the 2016 presidential election. He refused to cede power for weeks, before leaders in the region helped arrange his exile.

AMY GOODMAN: Among those demanding Jammeh be tried in criminal court for his crimes is a Gambian beauty queen who says the president raped her when she was 18. Fatou Jallow, known as “Toufah,” has become a leading voice against the former president. In this Human Rights Watch video, she tells her story.

FATOUTOUFAHJALLOW: I can’t wait to face Yahya Jammeh. I was 18 years old when he raped me in 2015. I have spent the last four years wanting to erase, to hide, that it didn’t happen, like life is all good. It happened. He is no longer the president. My family is fine. Life goes on. That’s pretty easy, right? I wish that is what it was.

The pageant is a competition of women empowerment. So the messaging behind it was to empower women, to give them a platform to compete and talk about issues that affect their communities, and also have a scholarship for girls so they can go and study abroad and come back to the country and contribute.

PAGEANT ANNOUNCER: And the winner is Fatou A. Jallow from Gambia College.

FATOUTOUFAHJALLOW: I was so proud of myself. I am a crowned queen, right? And I’m going to study abroad.

My first time meeting the ex-president was in 2014. Towards the end of the year, after the pageant, we were invited to the State House.

NARRATOR: Jammeh used state channels to pressure women to visit him and work for him. He abused many of them. He began reaching out to Toufah, claiming an interest in he community service project.

FATOUTOUFAHJALLOW: One day, he asked that he wanted to marry me. But I told him I’m not planning to. I don’t want to get married. I want to go and study. That’s the reason why I got into this pageant.

NARRATOR: A few weeks later, Jammeh invited Toufah back to the State House.

FATOUTOUFAHJALLOW: In his eyes, all I saw was just a sense of anger at the fact that I would have the audacity somehow to say no to him, the president. He did what he wanted to do. And I was screaming. And at some point, I couldn’t hear my scream anymore. He told me no one is going to hear me anyways. Well, I’m going to say the story again, and I’m going to own this story.

NARRATOR: Toufah has decided to tell her story to the Gambian Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission. The commission can recommend that Jammeh be prosecuted.

FATOUTOUFAHJALLOW: My justice, most importantly, includes a whole system change, so that we can prosecute this man, have our day in court. Nobody discusses rape. And yes, I am scared. I am scared. But I want the next person after me to be a little less scared than me.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Fatou Jallow, known as “Toufah.” Two other women have also come forward to accuse the former president of Gambia of rape and sexual assault. Human Rights Watch says Yahya Jammeh, quote, “handpicked” women and girls to rape or sexually assault while president, requiring so-called protocol girls to be on call for sex. He denies the claims.

Well, Toufah joins us now in our New York studio, along with attorney Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch, who’s currently leading the prosecution of the former Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Toufah, your bravery is — you know, is unbelievable, what you went through. We didn’t want you to have to describe this again, your assault, but this is only a part of the story. You then had to escape from Gambia. Explain what happened next.

FATOUTOUFAHJALLOW: Thank you for having me.

Leaving the country was very prompt. It happened a week after the incident, because I received a call again from a protocol officer to go back to some event, and I realized that it’s not a life I would want to live, to be just called and picked up by the president at any time that he wanted.

I remember waking up in the morning and deciding to go to the market. I put on the niqab, which is the Muslim attire, that only my face or eyes would show. And I put the passport just right by my waist, and I walked to the market to do grocery shopping. And when I realized that whoever is following me at this point is convinced that I’m actually buying groceries, I jumped into a cab that was going to the capital, where you had to cross a border to get to the other side of the border into Senegal.

I got onto a boat, a fishing boat, because I couldn’t take the ferry. I crossed with the boat. And then, right at the border, I realized I couldn’t take the formal route, because I had to show paperwork. I joined in a big truck that carried livestock, like cows and goats, and I squeezed in between two guys in the front seat of the truck. And that’s how I found myself in Senegal.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And can you talk about — we mentioned this briefly, and you’ve just said again that you fled, in part, obviously, because you were called again by a protocol officer to go back. Who were these protocol girls? Why are they called protocol girls? And the fact that after you came out with your own story, the government actually asked for other people to come and testify, as well, about their experiences?


NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, can you talk about whether you met these other girls, girls who were also assaulted by —


NERMEEN SHAIKH: — the former president, and the women who have come forward after you’ve spoken out?

FATOUTOUFAHJALLOW: Right. The protocol girls, they were always very nuanced and very unclear to the rest of the population, but they were girls that worked at the State House to do paperwork or have guests —

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The State House is where he lives or lived?

FATOUTOUFAHJALLOW: It is where he lived.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: It’s the prime minister house, the president house?

FATOUTOUFAHJALLOW: That is the state office and the presidential palace.

AMY GOODMAN: And that’s where he raped you?

FATOUTOUFAHJALLOW: That’s where the incident happened, yeah. And the protocol girls did work there. And one of them, in particular, called Jimbee Jammeh, was the one who kept in contact with me and invited me to this event and also tried to get as close to me as she can. The rest of the other girls, I wasn’t very well known to them, or I didn’t know them, because we didn’t interact a lot. Some of the other girls that I’ve met — like, as we can see in the report, there are two other women that accuse him, but they have decided to remain anonymous. I have met one of them, and I’ve met other women in private. But again, within the culture that we live in, rape is not something you want to own publicly.

AMY GOODMAN: What gave you the courage to say your name?

FATOUTOUFAHJALLOW: Because it’s my story. Because it’s my truth. And nobody can tell it better than I can. And it’s time for someone to own it. It’s time for someone to start the conversation. I did not want to be part of the people that would protect my perpetrator, who, I believe, have done it to so many other people. Knowing the consequences of it, I wanted to say my name, because there are faces and actual human beings behind these stories.

AMY GOODMAN: You charged the former dictator with rape?

FATOUTOUFAHJALLOW: I charged him with rape.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And the other two women whom you mentioned, are they still in the Gambia?

FATOUTOUFAHJALLOW: One is not; one is, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, this is all part of the — being raised in the truth and reconciliation commission. I wanted to turn to Sergeant Omar Jallow, a member of the Jungulers, Yahya Jammeh’s elite hit squad. During Gambia’s Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission, Jallow testified on the killing of 56 West African migrants in 2005.

SGT. OMAR JALLOW: When we arrived at the ground —


SGT. OMAR JALLOW: — Solo said these people are mercenaries. The order from the head of state, the former president, Yahya Jammeh, is to — they are all to be executed.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Sergeant Omar Jallow, no relation to Toufah. Reed Brody, I wanted to bring you into this conversation right now. Put this story — I mean, Toufah is astounding in her bravery and the wherewithal to escape the country and then to speak out. And you’re planning to return.

FATOUTOUFAHJALLOW: Planning to return next month to the truth and reconciliation commission.

AMY GOODMAN: Put Gambia in a geopolitical context, where it is, Reed, and the significance of this truth and reconciliation commission, what it took to get to this point.

REED BRODY: Well, Yahya Jammeh was the ruler of Gambia for 22 years. Gambia is a tiny country, almost totally surrounded by Senegal, with the exception of its Atlantic — 60-mile Atlantic front. Yahya Jammeh lost an election. He first accepted the results, then refused to accept them. And he only left the country after Gambians actually rose up in a “Gambia Has Decided” movement. And other West African countries, who were fed up with Yahya Jammeh, fed up with his interference with rebels in Senegal, land mines in Senegal, drug trafficking, corruption, forced him to step down two years ago.

And then the government decided to establish this landmark truth commission, which is — it’s like a soap opera. I mean, people are coming, as you saw, on live TV. I mean, you get into a taxi, you go to a home, and people are watching these people testify. They’re going to have a special hearing on sexual violence next month, where Toufah will testify. As you mentioned, in our report, we showed that Jammeh had an entire system of bringing women to his office to visit him. He would see women in crowds and tell his assistants to bring them to him. And then he sexually abused them. But we’re also hearing, witness after witness, Jammeh’s own hitmen confessing to having participated, on Jammeh’s orders, in the killing of distinguished journalist and editor Deyda Hydara, in the killing of two Gambian-American citizens who were ordered to be, and who were, chopped to pieces.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to a bit more of the testimony, to Staff Sergeant Amadou Badjie, another member of the so-called Jungulers, which was the name for Yahya Jammeh’s elite hit squad. During Gambia’s truth commission, he testified on the killing of two Gambian Americans.

STAFF SGT. AMADOU BADJIE: Yahya Jammeh said, “Let’s kill these people and cut off — and cut their flesh into pieces.”

ESSA M. FAAL: Cut them up into pieces.

STAFF SGT. AMADOU BADJIE: Cut them up into pieces.

ESSA M. FAAL: Like they would do meat.

AMY GOODMAN: Again, this is broadcasting live throughout Gambia.

REED BRODY: That’s right. And people are watching this. People are — this is the topic of conversation in the Gambia. And also in Ghana. Interestingly, the 56 migrants who were assassinated, these were 56 West African migrants who were trying to get to Europe. Their canoe was beached in the Gambia. They were all arrested. And 55 of them were killed. One of them escaped to tell the tale. And because of him, we are able to see that the Jungulers killed not just Gambians, but 44 people from Ghana, nine people from Nigeria, Togo, Ivory Coast, Senegal. So, Jammeh is accused not just of murdering Gambian citizens, not just of raping Gambian citizens, but also murdering the citizens of five other West African countries.

AMY GOODMAN: And where is he?

REED BRODY: So, now Jammeh is in Equatorial Guinea, which is, as you know, Amy, is one of the long-standing dictatorships in Africa. As part of the deal to finally get — as troops were coming in and as the Gambian people were surrounding him, trying to get him out, he fled to Equatorial Guinea, which is ruled — been ruled for over 40 years by Teodoro Obiang, and who has vowed to protect Yahya Jammeh. So we’re hoping that the testimony of people like Toufah, the testimonies at the truth commission, the testimonies of the victims are going to build a political will so that all of Africa, all of West Africa, comes together to request that Yahya Jammeh be delivered to justice.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Toufah, you are going to testify next month against Jammeh as part of the truth commission. Talk about what you’re going to say.

FATOUTOUFAHJALLOW: First of all, I want to be at the truth and reconciliation commission because I want the issue of sexual assault to be part of what we write as a history, what we count as a history. I’m going to talk about my story and the stories of other women and the two women that are also in the report, to put a face to the atrocities that have been committed on Gambian women. You know, sometimes it is often forgotten how the women populace have really suffered under Yahya Jammeh, how we were used as pawns and tools politically and in the bedroom and in the State House, like the protocol girls themselves. Sometimes I see them as victims, because they were used as a machine for Yahya Jammeh. We were used to vote for him. We were not given the opportunity to actually take important roles in the society. So, I wish to be there to express these sentiments and to tell my story the way it is, to make it a national conversation.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you so much for both being with us. We’re going to do Part 2 of this conversation, and we’re going to post it online at Toufah Jallow is a Gambian feminist and anti-rape activist, returning to Gambia to tell her story. She’s taken refuge in Toronto, Canada. Reed Brody, known as the “Dictator Hunter,” is a counsel and spokesperson for Human Rights Watch. He is currently leading the prosecution of the ex-President Yahya Jammeh.

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