Fatou Jagne-Senghor, popularly referred to as ‘the Senegambian Iron Lady’, is a Senegalese-based Gambian rights activist serving as the West Africa Director of British human rights organization, Article 19.
She has built a reputation as one of Africa’s most prominent defenders of human rights, freedom of expression and media, and has lobbied for policy reforms on international platforms. During the two decades of dictatorship in The Gambia, Fatou used her voice and influence to compel the international community and groups to highlight the situation in the country and act against the Jammeh regime.
She also fought for the rights of political detainees, and always work to ensure that women’s rights are at the forefront of all her advocacy.
Last year, Fatou was awarded the prestigious honour of Chevalièr dans l’Ordre National du Mérite (France’s highest civilian award or Knight) by the French government for her role in fighting for Gambia’s freedom and democracy.
In this exclusive interview with The Chronicle, Fatou talks about the plight of women in post-Jammeh Gambia and her disappointments, and reflects on her advocacy work to end dictatorship in the country.
Q: Fatou thank’s for this interview and welcome to The Chronicle. Last Friday marked the International Women’s Day. As a woman and a human rights defender, what did you celebrate?
A: I celebrate all women across the world who were not able to celebrate like us because of oppression and because of what they were going through. And we celebrated all those women who were voiceless and to say that International Women’s Day is a milestone. We needed to celebrate the achievements but also to take stock and always have in my mind that there were millions of women across the world who were not able to understand the meaning of this celebration because they were in difficult situation, because they were oppressed, and because they faced gender-based violence from their families and at work places. So my thoughts are with those women. I also would like to take the opportunity to encourage those resilient women who are fighting against injustices across the world and who inspire others to continue the fight because it is very important. In many places women are still fighting to have their rights recognized, especially in traditional communities.
Q: Talking about oppressed women, The Gambia had gone through oppression for two decades until 2017. We had political persecution, incommunicado detentions, tortures, extra-judicial killings and things like that. Today Gambia marched out of that phase to another phase – freedom. What does this freedom mean to you as a defender of human rights and as a Gambian woman?
A: Today I think I can say we have a sense of relief. Relief that you and I are able to sit inside The Gambia and have this interview. It means a lot to me as a free expression believer. I will also like to really pay tribute to Gambian women. We don’t say it loudly I think. Gambian women played a critical role through these processes. They’ve been there supporting families. They’ve been there in the political parties, in the news rooms side by side with men and sometimes taking very prominent roles to ensure also that despite the repression, despite the dangers, they stood up and were also part of this journey. But you know when change happened we tend to see women’s role as secondary, supporting role. I can tell you women played a critical role in strategizing for this change to happen, in providing morale support and also be in the front line when men were in jail. That was the case in UDP when most of their executive members were in jail. Women took it up themselves to continue the battle. You see other women very vulnerable in some communities we met through our work, their loyalty to their beliefs also made the difference for those struggling to continue. The other thing which in itself continued to be a problem is the violence that was targeted against women during those oppression. Now we have the TRRC and I’m sure more revelations will come. We will get more into what happened, the atrocities because there were a lot of sexual violence and abuses in the detention centers. You know also in public places especially at the highest offices – the presidency, young women were abused during that repressive regime. The regime also used women to spy on other Gambians and we have documented all those atrocities like how women were used to perpetrate violations. I think this is also something that reminds me that the journey was very long. We are in a process and I am very happy that we are having this conversation as a nation to try and understand our past, read the page properly through the TRRC but also see together what we can do to ensure that never again shall we go through what we went through in the past. But I believe that never again can only happen if we don’t perpetuate impunity by sparing those involved in atrocities. Today we are celebrating that we are free, but freedom is illusory when justice is not done. So we are free, we are a step ahead but we need to go beyond.
Q: How about political participation and political inclusion of women? How would you rate the ‘New Gambia’ and this new government when it comes to women’s political participation as well as inclusion?
A: I think that is the poorest score by this government. I think Gambia could do better given the role women play, but even looking at what standards are across the region, across Africa and across the world, you see we are really behind. Politicians have more leverage in the appointments; from ministerial positions to board rooms. We don’t see women in this country holding decision making positions.
Q: You think that is an oversight of those in power or it’s just people not coming to grasp with what it actually means to include women in these processes?
A: I don’t think they can have any excuse. When women were needed they played a critical role. There are Gambian women who are well educated within the country and beyond. There are many women within the country who can serve in those positions. And I cannot see that as an oversight. I think that is a problem of not looking properly at gender equality, not looking at the place of women in our society properly. And I think the missing link and is very disappointing that our government especially those working with the government at the highest level are not putting efforts to ensure that we have equal representation.
Look at the Cabinet. We only have two women. It was four and that has been reduced to two and it doesn’t seem to bother anybody. In parliament it was very little representation and now we lost one. It’s a problem!
It’s a problem that we have to resolve. Local government is also the same. When people talk about gender and women representation they only look at parliament or ministerial positions, but it goes beyond to the directorate level, permanent secretary level and in the board rooms. You have public service entities in this country where you don’t have women as chairs of boards. You don’t have many women directors of public institutions. Is it that they are not competent? There are so many Gambians who are competent, who are experts in their own rights and who are not given the chance to head some of those institutions. This is lack of vision. There are also issues around policy but policy is guided by vision. If you want an equal and inclusive society you have to have the vision and that vision should be translated into policies to ensure that across the board.
Q: You talked about the resilience of oppressed women in this country. There are people who stood for them when things were tough and dangerous and gave them a voice. At the heart of that resistance and standing up for people, there was always Fatou Jagne-Senghor. Now looking back at your sacrifices and the risks you took to come into the country and publicly speak against dictatorship when that was considered suicidal at the time, would you do it all over again?
A: Well I’m thankful that I was able to do what I did for my country. I believed that we needed to work together. For me the important thing was to have that connection between people who were in the Gambia – the professionals – we didn’t do things on our own. We had to work with people together and the moral professional support that I received even from people who were within the country had boosted my morale, to continue what I was doing. I was able through the work I do to be able to support in my own way. And then being in Senegal, it was easier because we strategically used the media because we knew that there was no media in this country that was free to tell as it was and everybody was watching Senegalese media. At least we managed to put the Gambia’s agenda out there for it interest Senegalese media, Senegalese public about the atrocities that were happening in the Gambia so that they could see that not everything was rosy in The Gambia. We managed through the years to get some of the media including influential media to start talking about The Gambia. And I think that helped us a lot to boost the campaign that we were doing with other people in the diaspora against the repressive regime of Yahya Jammeh. But also for me as a human rights person since I left University I have been only working on human rights. It was obvious that I could not see my country being in that very difficult situation and I continued to preach human rights in other countries. So it was a personal commitment and I was also very much encouraged by my organization, my colleagues across Africa in the Dakar office but also people here I was working with. The journalists, the lawyers … taking up cases, providing support to many journalists, doing so many leverages… all these helped me feel that I wasn’t alone in the struggle.
Q: And because of the risks associated with it and because of the power of the Jammeh regime so many people started the fight but at some point they went quiet, they gave up because they became so exhausted. You never stopped. What kept you going?
A: I think for me what I tried to do was that the fight was not about being always in the limelight. What was important was how we navigated, how we messaged our campaign and how we talked to people across Africa to have interest in our struggle and to get support. If you look at some of our campaigns we got supports from all editors across Africa and we worked with the African Commission even though they were quite timid. They’d not react but we made so that we built it over the years. We didn’t want to be seen doing campaign as a person but we were campaigning against violations and that helped us to shape our message in a way that people who were working with us were not afraid. Sometimes we had situations where people would give up and withdraw from the campaign because they didn’t want to be seen as against the government. I used to be scared from time to time. But I used to take a lot of precautions. I remember from 2006 to especially when we had cases after that attempted coup, was when the situation got really really rough. And after Deyda Hydara’s killing, the situation got really really rough sometimes. I remember I’d only come to Gambia for African Commission meetings. So it took a toll on me because I skipped a lot of family events.
Q: So you restricted your movements for security reasons?
A: Yeah, I restricted some of my movements like I would not come to every family events. I was careful all the time. Most of my movements to The Gambia were restricted to professional activities. And after a while I decided to limit some of my movements like I would come to The Gambia and I would not go out in the evening. I would restrict myself to just activities that also would not be too risky for me. What I said to myself was that if something happened it would have to happen in certain confinement. I didn’t want to give the authorities any chance by for example going out all the time. I’d fly in and my colleagues would keep eyes on me to make sure I was ok. And each time I was leaving the country, I’d alert colleagues so they could make sure I was out ok. So it was really not easy moments.
Q: How about friends and family also avoiding you and not wanted to be seen with you?
A: Yes there were such cases but there were also cases when people would encourage you in your work, even though they did it discreetly. But the most difficult part was like … I remember in 2009 when President Jammeh went after communities over that witchcraft issue, I was six months pregnant and had to come to The Gambia for a session
I remember that after my statement at the session and I think it was an emotional and bold statement, two African Commission commissioners came to me and said ‘are you safe?’ I said I was okay. They were scared
They asked when I was leaving. I said leaving for where and then one of them said she cried because my statement was so touching. They begged me to leave the country immediately for safety reasons. And many other people including colleagues were scared.
So what I used to do as a strategy once I made such statement was to disappear from the crowd and retreat to my hotel room. I think at some stage also I built some resilience that the authorities couldn’t follow everybody. I am sure they used to attend our meetings. At the commission they used to come especially at the latter part. They used to come, they used to spy on people. And interestingly, sometimes you’d see people you knew and you asked them what you were doing here. I remember there was a very critical session after the attempted coup in 2014/15 and then the session following that was quite tough. In that session we made a statement and I think that was when I decided really to tell the African Commission commissioners that they should not hold the session here because Gambia had not be complying.
Q: And finally among the key issues that you and a lot of people fought for, for decades was the issue of freedom of expression – for people to be free to speak out and to speak up. Under Jammeh, that was not possible. Now we have the Barrow administration and whenever people this government’s success stories, they respond that people are now free to speak freely. Are you comfortable with this new freedom we now have to speak?
A: I think progress has been made in terms of the freedom people fought for. And I think the government is aware of that. It is conscious and I think that is a kind of a win for them and of course they are supporting it in reality. But what they need to do now is to make it more sustainable and also guarantee properly through legislation that will ensure that they mean business.
The government and the president have committed in rhetoric to the importance of strengthening media freedom. Now what they need to do is to finalise the reform process which I think is long overdue
We are happy to hear that both the Ministry of Justice and Information are in the final leg and probably before the summer we will at least have the repeal of the draconian laws. I keep saying that the repeal should have been the first thing to be done. It was not done in the first year but we are hoping that before the end of the third year, all the draconian laws are going to be out of the books and we will ensure that progressive laws are enacted, especially in the broadcast sector. We’ll also ensure we have access to information law which will really show the full commitment. When we have that we can say the government is fully committed not only in rhetoric but also they have finally enacted series of laws and policies that really will enable the media to operate freely and also for the public to have proper access to public information.