PIONEER AFRICAN WOMEN IN LAW
First Woman Lawyer (The Gambia)
By Nirlash Karki
Mariam Jack-Denton, otherwise known as Ajaratou Mariam Denton, was born on December 29, 1952. She is the daughter of prominent Gambian politician/businessman Sir Alieu Sulayman Jack who served two terms as Speaker of the then House of Representatives and was the second Governor-General of The Gambia. Her mother was Lady Yai Marie Jack. Mariam Denton grew up in a large household with five siblings. Sulayman Jack and her daughter were not the only ones in the family who would be active political figures in The Gambia. Her brother Sulayman Bun Jack, served as the Permanent Secretary at the Department of Defense during Dawda Jawara’s government, up until the 1994 Gambian coup d’état.
In 1979, Mariam Jack-Denton was the first Gambian woman to be called to the Bar. She is also a Member of the Nigerian Bar and was part of the first wave of lawyers in the 1970s joining the Gambian Bar that was primarily trained in Africa, a trend which started following the entry of Abubacarr N.M.O Darboe into the Gambian Bar. Mariam’s calling was only the beginning as it prompted a trend that would lead women undoubtedly joining and becoming a substantive part of the Gambian Bar, leading to the increase in the number of women in the Gambian Bar.
Mariam Jack-Denton was a brilliant lawyer from the beginning. She served as State Counsel, Senior State Counsel, and Principal State Council. She would later serve as the Legal Adviser to the Central Bank Governor, where she opened the Legal Unit of the Bank. Her career was halted following the 1994 coup d’état that ousted then-President Dawda Jamara and established the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC) as Gambia’s ruling government. Following such tumultuous events, Jack-Denton started practicing law independently. Her barrister chambers were located in Serign Madou Sillah Street in Banjul and provided pro bono “general barrister and solicitor services to local and international clients.” She held the position of legal advisor to the United Democratic Party. Because of her strong affiliation with the United Democratic Party, Jack-Denton was targeted by the Jammeh government, and in April 2006 when she was arbitrarily arrested at her home and was detained for over 111 days at the Mile II central prisons. The government accused her of plotting to conceal the abortive March 21st, 2006 coup that was masterminded by the former army chief of defense. Jack-Denton’s arrest was contested in the High Court for violating Section 19 of the Constitution of Gambia 1997. She was released from detention by the High Court but re- arrested again in defiance of the court order. The case against her was eventually dropped.
The 2016 Gambian presidential elections finally ousted Yahya Jammeh as the leader of Gambia and elected Adam Barrow as the new President. Mariam Jack-Denton was one of the five individuals nominated by President Barrow to be one of the nominated members of the National Assembly. On the same day, she was confirmed as the new Speaker of the National Assembly, a post her father held for two terms when the legislative body was known as the House of Representatives. She was unanimously elected by the Honorable Members of the National Assembly. With her confirmation, Jack-Denton was entrusted with the difficult task of helping the Coalition government to achieve its objectives in the post-Jammeh Gambia. She was named as one of the 100 most influential African women by Avance Media in 2019. As of 13th May 2020, Mariam Jack- Denton is still serving as the speaker for the Gambian National Assembly.
Mariam Jack-Denton’s story is inspirational and earnest. She started as an anomaly in the Gambian
legal profession but she did not remain so for a long time. A wave of female lawyers followed in her
footsteps, diversifying the demography of Gambian law practitioners. However, her contributions
are not limited to being the first woman lawyer in The Gambia. Jack-Denton also used her legal
expertise to better serve her country especially during tumultuous periods of political upheavals.
She persevered and fought against an oppressive government. Additionally, Jack-Denton has been
a key figure in events like the Legislative Scrutiny Workshop held in 2019 that aimed to advance the
legislative system of the Gambia. Honorable Mariam Jack-Denton has not only been an expert
lawyer but an active agent in bringing forth progress to her country. She is not just a bright star but
a guiding source of light.