The daughter of a civil servant and a housewife, Fatou Bensouda grew up in the West African city of Banjul, the capital of Gambia. Her father, Omar Gaye Nyang, was also a prominent wrestling promoter.
Bensouda had her pretertiary education in The Gambia and her tertiary education in Nigeria at the University of Ife, where she obtained her Bachelor of Laws (Hons) degree. She continued to the Nigeria Law School to obtain her professional qualification as a barrister-at-law and later obtained a master’s of laws from the International Maritime Law Institute in Malta.
After her law school in Nigeria, Bensouda returned to The Gambia to begin a career as a public prosecutor in 1987. In 1998, she was appointed by the then government of Yahaya Jammeh to become Gambia’s justice minister and attorney-general, a job she later quit to run the International Bank for Commerce as its general manager in Banjul.
On the international stage, Bensouda gained prominence as a trial lawyer at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, Tanzania, where she subsequently became the court’s senior legal advisor.
In 2004, she was selected as a deputy prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC) and spent eight (8) years at the international tribunal. She spent most of her time heading the ICC’s prosecution division and leading the court’s most high-profile cases.
She successfully led the prosecution of Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga, who was found guilty of abducting children as young as 11 and using them as ‘child soldiers.’
She reached the peak of international justice in 2012 when she was appointed as the chief prosecutor of the ICC. This was after she was elected by consensus by the Assembly of States Parties to serve in this capacity.
The appointment made her the first woman and the first African to head the team of prosecutors. She served between June 2012 and June 2021. Under her leadership, she secured convictions against Lord’s Resistance Army commander Dominic Ongwen and Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda. But others said she failed them on former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo. While ICC head, Gbagbo was cleared of crimes against humanity.
“We were not there just to prosecute a leader, we were there to do justice,” she told France 24 following the criticisms. “Nobody will say crimes have not been committed in Ivory Coast.”
Bendouda’s work has however earned her several awards. She was awarded the distinguished International Commission of Jurists’ International Jurists Award in 2009. She also was awarded the 2011 World Peace Through Law Awar, the Whitney Harris World Law Institute, the American Society of International Law’s Honorary Membership Award in 2014, and the XXXV Peace Prize by the United Nations Association of Spain in 2015.
In 2012, Time Magazine listed her as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. The New African Magazine also named her one of the most influential Africans and the Foreign Policy Magazine named her one of the leading global thinkers in 2013.
Forbes Magazine also named her as one of Africa’s 50 Most Powerful Women in 2020. Bensouda and her team got nominated for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, in recognition of their accomplishments and work in advancing international criminal justice.