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In Gambia, the old president’s men are the new president’s men

Jeggan Grey-Johnson
By Jeggan Grey-Johnson
Communications and Advocacy Coordinator, OSF- Africa Regional Office

Posted on Friday, 29 March 2019 16:46

Gambia's President Adama Barrow is having trouble stepping out of his predecessor's shadow. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

The startling revelations by The Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) confirmed what was long suspected, that former president Yahya Jammeh was spectacularly corrupt.

But all the same, the depths of corruption and state capture were resoundingly shocking. Almost $1bn was reported to have been stolen. And this is likely to be only what the renowned anti-corruption investigation outfit was able to uncover.

There are other schemes and dubious and illicit activities that may amount to another billion or more. We simply don’t know the levels to which Jammeh and his enablers stooped to obtain riches and utilise such assets to continue to tighten their grip on the total state capture project and to elongate his absolute rule over the tiny West African country.

The ‘Great Gambia Heist’ narrates a story, backed by solid evidence, of a head of state who conspired with close associates, in and out of the public sector, to commit treason and rob the country blind for as long as possible. Jammeh and his cohorts succeeded in the long game of milking the state coffers dry over a period of two decades.

Public theft and private help

So how was this possible? How could Jammeh have been to get away with grand public theft for so long without anyone noticing or caring to call him out on his rapaciousness? The fact is that he had a lot of help along the way. The key players in the private sector, like Mohamed Bazzi, whose companies channelled at least $10m into Jammeh’s bank accounts between 2011 and 2013, was instrumental in assisting the tyrant loot and launder money through the international banking system in ‘dirty cities’. Despite all of these infractions, Bazzi is still commercially active and politically connected to the new Gambian government under President Adama Barrow.

There were also others who participated in the ‘Great Gambia Heist’. High-ranking government officials facilitated the looting of the Central Bank of the Gambia with total impunity. The likes of Amadou Colley, who was central bank governor at the height of the looting from 2010 to 2017 and has not been charged for his complicity in the plunder, which was blatant, systematic and routine.

Impunity and staying power

Chief protocol officer Alhagie Ceesay admitted to the Janneh Commission (a panel established by Adama Barrow, tasked with investing corruption under Jammeh) that he was a financial mule for Jammeh in the looting saga. He had on numerous occasions picked up millions of dollars, stuffed in sacks and delivered them to State House.

Mamburey Njie, who worked at the Gambian Embassy in Taiwan from 1996 to 2001, serving in various capacities and rising to the level of ambassador, oversaw a windfall $100m in foreign aid repurposed for Jammeh’s benefit.

Both Ceesay and Njie are still in government. The former retaining his high-profile job as chief protocol officer and the latter enjoying a promotion to finance minister. Despite the fact that the Janneh Commission, which itself is mired in controversy and has a credibility problem, received clear evidence of collusion by public servants to defraud and rob the country of resources, such tainted personalities have managed to remain in government.

Barrow in the spotlight

And this has angered many Gambians. The OCCRP report, which was released on 28 March, barely 48 hours before the Janneh Commission’s report was due to be handed over to Barrow, raises many questions about the ability and willingness of the Barrow administration to pursue Jammeh and his associates, and, by extension, its willingness to combat corruption.

The fact that the government refused to comment on the OCCRP report, despite having been keen to ensure that such an investigation was undertaken, is worrying. More worrying still is the limited (and possibly negative) impact that the Janneh Commission has had in its attempt to curb impunity and combat corruption. The commission fell far short of expectations, given that the net recovery of seized assets belonging to Jammeh was only one and a half a million dollars.

Seventy-five percent of the recovered $1.5m went into paying the commission and legal counsel. Of the frozen, seized and sold assets, which included 138 tractors and 458 cars, only $1.3m was generated. Some 725 head of cattle managed to fetch a paltry $166,000.

Conflicts and a lack of clarity

The lead counsel, Amie Bensouda (no relation to Fatou Besounda, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court), was accused of wasteful expenditure of government resources and conflict of interest, given her association with some of the organisations and individuals that are the subject of the commission’s enquiry. Added to this, it is unclear what the process of the auctioning was and who were the successful bidders for Jammeh’s properties. We also do not know how much was paid for each item.

It would serve the country well if the government proactively disclosed this information to clear any suspicions of corruption and conflict of interest in the first post-Jammeh commission, which was established to curb impunity and punish those that were found to be involved in grand public theft. What the government does going forward will be critical. Both reports point to strong evidence that there are grounds for further criminal investigations into those alleged to have been involved in the heist.

But with Barrow’s style of recycling tainted characters from Jammeh’s past, this is doubtful. This will eventually undermine his administration, if it has not already done so. Expecting to draw clean water from a contaminated well is sheer foolhardiness. Then again, it could be a deliberate strategy to pave the way for a second era of grand corruption and impunity. The donor community, ECOWAS and Gambians are keenly watching Barrow to see what he will do next. Will he continue to flatter Jammeh by imitating him? Or will he pave a new path and act, at least by attempting to satisfy the desperate demand for justice and public accountability so longed for by his citizens?

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