The Gambia, known for its gorgeous landscape, incredible beaches and most recently its premium destination wedding spot. is not only known for its beauty. As this West African jewel has also produced its fair share of globally recognised intellectuals. An example is the first African woman, and second person overall to hold the position of Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Fatou Bensouda. The 51-year old Gambian, in some sense, has an incredibly difficult job to do as Chief Prosecutor of a court with a controversial history for targeting Africa, a notorious former Chief Prosecutor and as a citizen of one of Africa’s last dictatorships; but she also has key elements her predecessor lacked: an African heritage and the faith of many industry experts.
Bensouda was born in Banjul, The Gambia on January 31, 1961 to a polygamous family. Her father had two wives and although he died from diabetes when she was young, she credits him with instilling in her a sense of fairness and justice. He provided equally for both sides of his family, making sure that each of his more than a dozen children appreciated the importance of fairness. “We did not have this unfortunate rivalry that sometimes happens in polygamous families, and we were all very good to one another,” she said. Fatou spent her childhood in Gambia, attending primary and secondary school in the country. She left for Nigeria to pursue higher education and later graduated from the University of Ife, with a Bachelor of Law (Hons) degree. She then attended the Nigerian Law School where she obtained her Barrister of Laws (BL) qualification. The brilliant Bensouda went on to obtain a Master of Laws degree from the United Nation’s International Maritime Law Institute in Malta, becoming Gambia’s first expert in international maritime law and the law of the sea.
Although she spent some time working in various positions, including a stint in banking, it became clear that prosecution was her niche. Bensouda spent the better part of the next two decades climbing the ranks of her home country’s public legal office, working as director of public prosecutions, solicitor general and eventually attorney general. Her international career began when she started work as a legal adviser at the international criminal tribunal for Rwanda, the tribunal that tried to bring to justice those most responsible for the 1994 genocide. In 2004 she joined the ICC as deputy prosecutor working under Luis Moreno-Ocampo.
The challenges of working in a public system with a known dictator are difficult to imagine. President Yahya Jammeh, who began his career as a military officer, has ruled the country since 1994 and was most recently re-elected in 2011. Fatou Bensouda served as his Justice Minister. Given her strong legal roots in Nigeria, many in her industry have been invested in her success. Chidi Odinkalu, chairman of the Nigeria National Human Rights Commission, believes in her integrity. “She qualified here in Nigeria but really made her name in the Gambia,” said Odinkalu. “She had a reputation as a principled but also sensitive and sensible leader of the bar and chief law officer of the country. She even came out of serving her stint at the justice ministry with her reputation intact … in fact she is one of the very few who has.” Odinkalu commended her appointment as Chief Prosecutor of the ICC but acknowledged it would be an uphill battle, “Fatou brings a different set of skills and temperament from her predecessor, and that is a positive thing” said Odinkalu. “She has a pretty difficult job given the state of relations between the ICC and African states – things are quite honestly abysmal… Will she wave a magic wand and cure all the difficulties that exist at the ICC at the moment? No. Can she bring positive disposition over time to transforming the polluted atmosphere in which the institution has been operating in Africa? Absolutely.”
Odinkalu was not the only one with faith in June 2012 when Fatou was elevated from the position of Deputy Prosecutor in charge of the Prosecutions Division of the ICC, a position she had held since 2004. “Fatou is someone who is ready to listen and provide answers. You can sense that this is a different regime from the past, that she wants to listen, and to have a dialogue,” said Alpha Sesay, a Sierra Leonean lawyer based in The Hague for the Open Society Justice Initiative. She has also received recognition for her work. She was listed by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in its annual Time 100 issue. She has also been named by Jeune Afrique, a leading African Magazine, as the 4th most influential person in Africa in the Civil Society category and one of the top 100 most influential African personalities.
Bensouda has wasted no time in setting up new priorities for the court which include improving relationships with African countries, improving the quality and efficiency of ICC investigations and ensuring that any crimes of violent or sexual nature against women and children are reflected in future charges. For Bensouda, attaining such an important albeit difficult international office is a simply part of a bigger plan: “I have always had aspirations about wanting to do something, but I wanted to do something for the victims, for the underdogs, and if it has to take me to this level to do that, I welcome it.”
Bensouda is married to a Gambian–Moroccan businessman and they have two children. Ventures Woman looks forward to Fatou Bensouda’s achievements on the international front.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained…