PIONEER AFRICAN WOMEN IN LAW
Mary Mamyassin Sey
First Woman Judge (The Gambia)
By Mariama Koroma
Sey, Mary MamYassin (née Williams), is a Judge of the Supreme Court of The Gambia in West Africa. She was born in Banjul, The Gambia on 21 March 1952. Her father Daniel George Williams was a pharmacist and her mother Elsie Mac Williams (née Mac Mason) was a teacher. On 18th September 1980, she married Abdoulie Sey and their union was blessed with two children, a girl Anita-Yata Sey and a boy Yusufa Sey. Justice Sey began her early primary and secondary education at the St. Josephs’ Convent in Banjul and after passing her Ordinary-Level exams, she proceeded to The Gambia High School in Banjul for her Sixth Form Advanced-Level education in English Language & Literature, French and History. She was appointed as Head girl of the school during the period 1971–1972. Upon attaining her A-Levels she proceeded to Fourah Bay College in Freetown, Sierra Leone where she pursued a Degree in Psychology, Sociology and English. In 1976, she graduated with a B.A Honours Degree in English.
Her professional career started from September 1976 when she was appointed by the Ministry of Education as a graduate teacher at Lamin High School where she taught English Language, English Literature and History. However, the idea of pursuing a Law Degree had constantly been on Justice Sey’s mind and so in September 1979 she applied to the Establishment Office in Banjul for a transfer from the Education department to the Attorney General’s Chambers as a Cadet Administrative officer. A year later in 1980, she was awarded a scholarship by the British Council to pursue an LL.B Honours Degree at the University of Wales, Institute of Science and Technology (UWIST) in Cardiff, Wales.
After completing her education abroad, Justice Sey returned to The Gambia in 1984 to take up an appointment in the Judiciary as a Magistrate. Then in September 1988 she proceeded to the Nigerian Law School in Lagos, Nigeria where she obtained her Barrister at Law Certificate. She was called to the Gambian Bar in 1989 and after a short stint in private practice as a Legal Practitioner, she broke new grounds when in October 1998 she was appointed as the first female High Court Judge of The Gambia. However, the “honeymoon” did not last long as she resigned in February 2003 because she had encountered a lot of interference on the Bench from the Executive arm of Government. After her resignation, she secured appointments with international organisations such as the UN, ECOWAS, the British Council and the Commonwealth Secretariat and she has worked in various jurisdictions all over the world such as Liberia and Sierra Leone in West Africa, Swaziland in Southern Africa and Vanuatu in the South Pacific as Legal Adviser and Judge respectively.
Between March 2004 -July 2004, she participated as a Judicial System Monitor with the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) where her main responsibilities were monitoring Court proceedings, including the administrative aspects of the process. Thereon, from August 2004 to August 2006, she became a Legal Adviser to the Executive Secretary of the ECOWAS Office in Liberia on legal matters relating to the implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in Liberia from August 2004 to August 2006. She was later appointed in 2007 by the British Council under the Justice Sector Development Programme (JSDP), to work as a Judge of the High Court of Sierra Leone from March 2007 to October 2010. In Sierra Leone, she presided over both Criminal and Civil Cases. In November 2010, Sey was appointed by the Commonwealth Secretariat and assigned to the Kingdom of Eswantini (Swaziland) on a two-year contract. She was later re-assigned by the Commonwealth Secretariat to Vanuatu, South Pacific Islands. In September 2012, she rose to become the first African and only female Judge on the Bench in Vanuatu and she held that position until she left in May 2017 to assume her current position as a Judge of the Supreme Court of The Gambia. Her assertiveness and hard work made an impact in the Supreme Court of Vanuatu and changed the narrative of having all male Judges.
Sey’s assignment to Vanuatu by the Commonwealth Secretariat in 2010 was a milestone in pushing forward the gender dynamic and empowerment of women in the country. In her role, she handled a vast amount of high-profile cases most notably the trial and conviction of 14 members of the Vanuatu Parliament (out of 52 including the Deputy Prime Minister, the Speaker and 5 Ministers). See Public Prosecutor v Kalosil Judgment as to verdict  VUSC 135; Criminal Case 73 of 2015 (9 October 2015). They were sentenced to between three and four years’ imprisonment respectively for the crimes of corruption and bribery of officials, (see Public Prosecutor v Kalosil - Sentence  VUSC 149; Criminal Case 73 of 2015 (22 October 2015). In her judgments, she maintained a firm view that “…corruption offences, if left unchecked, can quickly erode and eventually undo the work ethic of public officers in any nation. Needless to say that a Government cannot survive, no matter how good its aims and intentions are, if corruption exists within its ranks.”
The then Speaker of the Vanuatu Parliament and acting President of Vanuatu at the time, Arcellino Pipite, attempted to abuse the Presidential pardon power under the constitution by pardoning himself and the other MPs who had been found guilty of corruption. This act appeared to contravene the Constitution, which states that the President’s powers to pardon can only be used after sentencing and not before. It was therefore overturned by the Court. In the course of the trial of the 14 MPs, Sey faced many challenges involving threats and intimidation which became exposed when a key member of the opposition stated that “the government is trying to deport the Justice.” Two factors militated against her as a Judge in Vanuatu, namely, being an African and a woman in a male dominated society. However, that did not stop her from acting fearlessly by being both assertive and outspoken in her judgments.
Her professional experience spans over 42 years, with 35 of these years in the legal field at the Bar and on both the lower and higher Judicial Bench. Interestingly, Justice Sey’s life seems to be marked by “firsts”, as she is currently the first female President of The Gambia Judges Association (GJA) which was registered in The Gambia in 2019. Sey’s life has stretched beyond civic and professional duties to include a strong religious lifestyle. Justice Sey participates fully in Church activities in the Anglican Diocese of The Gambia and in 2019 she was appointed by His Lordship Bishop Yaw Odico as the first female Chancellor of the Anglican Diocese of The Gambia.
Her remarkable achievement has made her the proud recipient of an award as Woman of Substance in the Gambia 2017 from The American Chamber of Commerce, Gambia (AmCham). Also in 2017, The Gambia Bar Association (GBA) presented an award to Justice Sey with the following citation: “Outstanding Professionalism Award” presented to Justice Mary Mam-Yassin Sey High Court of The Gambia in appreciation of your dedicated service and efforts to ensure professionalism and independence of the Judiciary of the Gambia.” In addition to pursuing a professional life marked with excellence, Sey actively participated in the publishing of The Gambia Law Reports [1997-2001] GR as a member of The National Law Reporting Council.
Sey’s life has been very inspiring, as she has accomplished amazing things such as being the first female High Court and Supreme Court Judge of The Gambia, first African female Judge on the Bench in Vanuatu, first female President of The Gambia Judges Association, first female Chancellor of the Anglican Diocese of The Gambia and she is a pioneer and a role model to many.
Jele, Lunda. “Judge Mary Sey leaves SD” Times of Swaziland. 6 July 2012. This website contains details of places and dates
Justice Sey has worked. Contains profile details.
Dziedzic, Anna. “Pacific courts need more women judges” The Interpreter. 15 August 2019.
This website contains a first ethnic Ni-Vanuatu woman appointed to the high judicial office who followed the footsteps of Justice Mary Mamyassin Sey, who served as Vanutau’s first female judge.
McDonnell, Siobhan. “Dirty politics in Vanuatu” Australian National University. 14 October 2015. Contains the case of the 14 Ministers of Vanuatu and their dirty politics.