Gambia’s former President Yahya Jammeh orchestrated the embezzlement of nearly US$1 billion of public funds and illegal timber revenue during his 22-year rule, looting the treasury in a long-running conspiracy that crippled one of the world’s poorest countries.
While president of the compact West African state of 2 million, Jammeh frequently drove his black stretch Hummer from his official residence in Banjul, the capital, to a lavish private estate in his home village of Kanilai.
His route took him past the central bank, the social welfare office, and the headquarters of the state telecom company. These were some of the institutions Jammeh pillaged by elevating privileged civil servants to prominent positions and empowering a group of corrupt businessmen led by a key Hezbollah financier.
Thousands of documents obtained exclusively by OCCRP lay bare for the first time the massive scale of Jammeh’s corruption.
They show how he hijacked government funds and departments, set up private accounts at the central bank, and built a patronage network while ruling the country through a combination of guile, unbridled power, and violence.
What was not withdrawn in cash by Jammeh’s officials or funnelled to bank accounts controlled by the president went to businesses that received lucrative contracts (or for unknown purposes). Some was sent to foreign shell companies about which little is known.
The transfers may have violated Gambian law.
Just how much of the great Gambian heist ended up in Jammeh’s own pockets – through offshore accounts or bags full of cash – is still unknown.
Adama Barrow, the country’s current president, estimated in 2017 that Jammeh stole about 4 billion dalasis ($90m) from public coffers.
An official investigation known as the Janneh Commission of Inquiry is currently examining financial misconduct during his rule. And at the end of last year, the United States announced that Jammeh had been banned from entering the country, citing evidence that he had been involved in “significant corruption.”
The documents analysed by OCCRP show a web of fraud that far exceeds the figure offered by Barrow, who defeated Jammeh at the polls in 2016 but was only able to oust the former president after neighbouring states threatened a military intervention.
“He ran the country like an organised crime syndicate,” said Jeggan Grey-Johnson, a Gambian activist and communications officer at the African regional office of the Open Society Foundation, a pro-democracy and good governance organization.
In total, Jammeh and his associates looted or misappropriated at least $975m. Among their biggest targets: $363,9m from the state-run telecoms company; $325,5m in illicit timber revenue; more than $100m in foreign aid and soft loans from Taiwan; $71,2m from the Central Bank of The Gambia; $60m from the Social Security and Housing Finance Corp, which manages disability, housing, and pension payments; and $55,2m from the state-run oil company.
Jammeh spent some of the stolen money on his palace in Kanilai, where he had his own private mosque, built a jungle warfare training camp, and kept camels, hyenas, zebras, and other exotic animals.
The looted funds also supported a lavish lifestyle that Jammeh’s average official monthly government salaryof about $6,000 could never sustain.
Jammeh’s powerful inner circle helped him to solidify his power.
He formed lucrative partnerships with foreign businessmen, including Mohamed Bazzi, a Lebanese businessman and financier for the Hezbollah militant group, that would pave the way for the looting of nearly $364m from the state-run telecoms company.
He also worked with two Romanian businessmen, Nicolae and Dragos Buzaianu, to secure $325,5m in illicit timber revenue.
The Gambian people paid the biggest price for Jammeh’s corruption as he stole $60 million from the country’s pension fund.
To this day, Jammeh has never been charged with a crime.
His micromanagement of government affairs allowed him to exert “complete control” over Gambia, said Fatou Camara, who twice served as Jammeh’s press secretary between 2011 and 2013. “Every minister would wait for him before they made decisions,” Camara said.
“Everything had to wait for the Office of the President to agree.”
Jammeh’s human rights abuses and corruption went largely unchallenged by the international community because of his country’s small size and relative obscurity.
A wave of violence across West Africa during his reign – in Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, and Sierra Leone – also helped him fly under the radar.
“The Gambia wasn’t even like a back-burner issue – it was a backwater issue,” said Cameron Hudson, a former West Africa analyst for the CIA.
Much of the time, the money he stole flowed electronically between domestic and foreign accounts.But sometimes the cash literally traded hands.
Beneath the hum of air conditioning units in a loading bay on the central bank’s east side, presidential aides were known to shove suitcases stuffed with dollars, euros, and other currencies into waiting vehicles, according to testimony received by the Commission of Inquiry, the official investigation, led by lawyer Surahata Janneh, has not yet released its final report.