Jammeh ‘ran the country like an organised crime syndicate’
Gambia’s former President Yahya Jammeh orchestrated the embezzlement of nearly $1bn 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 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.
“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 (OSF), a pro-democracy and good governance organisation.
The Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) analysed thousands of documents spanning more than two decades, from 1995 to 2016. They revealed how Jammeh’s patronage network diverted, misused, and siphoned public funds from or through the Central Bank of The Gambia, the Social Security and Housing Finance Corp., the Gambia National Petroleum Corp., and other state-owned entities.
“Jammeh was the worst of dictators, but because he ruled a nobody country, nobody cared,” Grey-Johnson said.
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.
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 Côte 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 US Central Intelligence Agency.
In a climate of fear, and with the complicity of a powerful circle in and out of the government, Jammeh’s brazen corruption continued unchecked for more than two decades.
Merely questioning Jammeh’s often erratic rule could result in entire departments being seized. When a senior official at the state-run oil company questioned the president’s office on whether its income could be exempt from taxes, Jammeh responded by seizing control of the company’s bank accounts and diverting its funds for his use.
Central banks are only supposed to regulate local banks, control currency in circulation and set interest rates. Typically, individuals cannot have accounts there. But Jammeh treated Gambia’s central bank as his personal slush fund.
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 Gambia’s own commission of inquiry. The official investigation, led by lawyer Surahata Janneh, has not yet released its final report.
During Jammeh’s rule, the central bank became heavily indebted. One of his government’s first acts in 1994 was to take out a secret $25m loan in the form of a bond. Decades of fraud, hidden debts in the form of bonds and account manipulation followed, draining the bank of its revenues. Almost 40% of the bank’s spending went toward interest payments on debts, according to OCCRP’s analysis.
- The International Gateway Account: This account received revenues from Gambia’s state telecommunications operator, known as Gamtel. The practice of collecting such revenues, earned from long-distance telephone calls and internet services, occurs in every country. In Gambia, however, a disproportionate 82% went to private companies through secret contracts that bypassed the country’s regulatory body. About $363m disappeared this way.
- The Special Vision Account: Once the International Gateway account was emptied, Jammeh turned to this account, also funded by Gamtel revenues and intended to finance his development plan for Gambia. From July 2014 until January 2017, Jammeh’s office diverted about $43m — with $35.7m taken as cash. Jammeh’s close business associates were among the beneficiaries. Other expenses included doctors’ salaries, a donation to fight the West African Ebola outbreak and funding for Jammeh’s personal charitable foundation. The last transaction occurred two days after Jammeh went into exile in 2017.
The State Aircraft Fund: This state travel fund was financed by donor aid from Qatar, tax revenues and other sources. Jammeh’s office withdrew cash from the account without stating any purpose and used it to purchase a luxury jet, buses and vehicles from a close associate.
- The State Security Account: This account was set up by Jammeh’s office with no declared purpose. About $466,000, or 95% of its funds, were diverted from another account called the Consolidated Revenue Fund and used for cash withdrawals, entertainment, travel, payments to Jammeh’s favorite wife Zeinab and other expenses.
- Mineral-related accounts: They collected royalty payments from private mining companies such as Carnegie, Sand Mining, Gamico, and Heavy Minerals. Though this money was intended for the Consolidated Revenue Fund, the payments fell under the control of the president’s office, which oversaw the use of $4.9m.
- The Office of the First Lady: There is no such office in Gambia, but Jammeh created this account, filled it with public revenues and spent the entire $35,706.
- The National Youth Development Fund: Dozens of scholarships were awarded to young African-American women who Jammeh brought to Gambia to compete in the 2007 Miss Black USA beauty pageant, which he hosted. The fund also paid for maintenance on Jammeh’s jet and other expenses. The source of the $4.5m that passed through the account is unknown.
- The Green Industry Account: Although the central bank is not allowed to open accounts for private entities, an account named Green Industry – presumably after a private company of the same name – was created. The source of the funds, which were illegally transferred to the company’s account at Trust Bank, is unclear.
- The Fish Landing Account: Funded by revenue from a 10% fee on fish caught by trawlers in Gambian waters, this account received multiple requests for withdrawals from Jammeh’s office.
Jammeh’s thirst for public money began soon after he captured power in 1994. In 1995, he recognised Taiwan’s independence from China in a strategic establishment of diplomatic ties also made by several other African countries. In doing so, he opened the door to some $100m in foreign aid.
Some of the world’s biggest banks – including Barclays, Citibank, HSBC Bank and Standard Chartered – approved transactions for what would turn out to be Jammeh’s seizure of state funds for his personal use.
In a statement to reporters, Citibank declined to comment on possible legal violations of standard anti-money laundering, due diligence and “know your customer” requirements as well as potential violations of US laws regarding banking secrecy, corrupt practices and even terrorism laws.
Standard Chartered declined to comment and Barclays declined to comment on the record. HSBC did not respond to requests for comment.
Violence, not governance
Jammeh’s favoured officials shared in his prosperity but were also vulnerable to his propensity for violence and punishment.
Many officials who fell out of favour found themselves incarcerated in the country’s notorious Mile 2 prison alongside journalists, political activists, human rights campaigners and those perceived to be gay or lesbian.
Jammeh was a 29-year-old lieutenant in Gambia’s National Army when he directed the bloodless coup that overthrew Dawda Jawara, ousting the country’s first president after nearly 30 years of rule.
The inner circle of corruption
By far the most influential businessman in Jammeh’s inner circle was Mohamed Bazzi, the Lebanese head of the energy and petroleum companies Global Trading Group and Euro African Group. According to the US Treasury Department, he was also a key financier for Hezbollah, the US-sanctioned militant group. For more than a decade, Bazzi appeared to be the architect of many Gambian government deals with the private sector.
“Bazzi has been implicated in almost every big deal connected to Jammeh,” said the OSF’s Grey-Johnson. “In many ways, he was Jammeh’s consigliere for Gambia’s economy and its private sector.”
Bazzi’s Euro African Group, which sourced fuel from French oil giant Total, had the ability to control fuel imports and prices as Gambia’s sole fuel importer. In return, it received a lucrative cut of the action: Euro African Group got $60m from the state oil company in just three transactions between 2015 and 2017, according to bank records.
Bazzi’s businesses were not Jammeh’s only money-making cabal. Nor was public money the only source of Jammeh’s wealth. During his rule, Gambia exported hundreds of millions of dollars worth of rosewood, an endangered timber not found in its own forests.
Jammeh’s partnership with two Romanians created a monopoly on timber exports that allowed them to grab control of the illegal rosewood trade, according to invoices and court records obtained by OCCRP.
From 2011, the country became a conduit of valuable wood to China, where a tonne of rosewood can be sold for as much as $25,000 and high demand can drive the price of a single carved bed frame to $1m.
Virtually all of Gambia’s exports of rosewood to China came from the forests of Senegal, according to Babacar Salif Gueye, Senegal’s former head of forest management. “All of these logs that Gambia re-exports are illegal,” he wrote in prepared remarks for a 2015 Chatham House meeting. “Ninety-nine percent of all rosewood logs exported to China originate from Senegalese forests, not Gambian.”
Gambia produces little valuable timber, according to the United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organisation. Just 3% of the country is densely forested, and much of the wood is “crooked, twisted or otherwise damaged,” the UN body said.
But Jammeh only had to look to the Casamance region of neighbouring Senegal to find vast reserves of the valuable wood. The region is home to the Jola ethnic group, of which Jammeh is a member, and the foermer president has strong ties to the region.
The rosewood made its way out of Casamance and into Gambia. From there, it was exported to China, even though Senegalese law prohibits rosewood logging and the trade is closely scrutinised by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
Along with Jammeh, Senegal’s main rebel group, the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance, benefited from the rosewood trade, causing Dakar to classify rosewood as “conflict timber.” The rebel group is estimated to have earned $19.5m from the illicit timber trade between 2010 and 2014, according to a report by US environmental charity Forest Trends.
Stealing the future
When Jammeh wanted another private jet in 2012, he turned to his country’s pension fund. The fund’s then managing director, Abdoulie Cham, quickly set up a $4.5m credit line for the purchase of a private plane, according to documents reviewed by OCCRP. Cham agreed with Jammeh’s office to complete the transaction using a commercial bank, which would allow “the extreme confidentiality” the president’s office required.
It wasn’t the first seizure of money from one of the few safety nets Gambians have for their futures, nor would it be the last. Gambia’s pensioners have paid the highest price for Jammeh’s looting.
“All my life I have worked for my government, for my country,” said Abubacarr Dem, 79, a retired civil servant who told reporters his career spanned 40 years and four ministries. “I had hoped to live from my social security benefits, but what I am paid at the end of the month is nothing,” he said. “I get 900 dalasis ($25) every month. That is not enough to even buy a bag of rice.”