How ex-Gambia President Yahya Jammeh's US mansion was seized

Some ama­teur sleuthing and a chance encounter helped uncov­er how the for­mer pres­i­dent of The Gambia had laun­dered his mon­ey by buy­ing a lux­u­ri­ous prop­er­ty in the US.

Now a court has ruled that the $3m (£2.4m) man­sion in the state of Maryland, near Washington DC, should be seized from a trust set up by ex-Gambian leader Yahya Jammeh.

Funds raised by the sale of the house should ben­e­fit those who were harmed by the for­mer pres­i­den­t’s “acts of cor­rup­tion and abuse of office”, the US author­i­ties say.

An inves­ti­ga­tion by the depart­ment of jus­tice (DOJ) found that the mon­ey used to buy the six-bed­room house was raised through corruption.

Maryland real estate is not a shel­ter for funds for cor­rupt rulers who have stolen from their coun­try­men,” said Selwyn Smith, one of the agents over­see­ing the case.

But it was inves­ti­ga­tions by cam­paign­ers a decade ago that first high­light­ed the issue.

Mr Jammeh’s 22-year pres­i­den­cy, which end­ed in 2017, was noto­ri­ous for cor­rup­tion and he also faced alle­ga­tions of exten­sive human rights abus­es includ­ing killing and jail­ing his critics.

More details have since emerged at Gambia’s Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission, which this week rec­om­mend­ed that he be pros­e­cut­ed for “myr­i­ad crimes”. He has pre­vi­ous­ly denied alle­ga­tions of wrongdoing.

Yahya Jammeh and his wife, Zineb, were wel­comed at the White House dur­ing an African lead­ers sum­mit in 2014

During his pres­i­den­cy, Gambian activists out­side the coun­try felt they had a respon­si­bil­i­ty to be the voice of the voiceless.

Sohna Sallah was one of them.

In 2010, a US-based Gambian news­pa­per report­ed that Mr Jammeh’s wife, Zineb, had bought a house in the upmar­ket Potomac neigh­bour­hood, Ms Sallah told the BBC.

But its exact loca­tion was unknown.

The Jammeh house was in an upmar­ket neigh­bour­hood near the US capital

We scoured the archives of house sales in the area and it stuck out to us,” the 49-year-old said, refer­ring to mem­bers of the Democratic Union of Gambian Activists (Duga).

The name of one buy­er — the MYJ Family Trust — seemed odd. “We thought: ‘Somebody’s try­ing to hide that they pur­chased this house.’ ”

Also, Y and J hap­pened to be the pres­i­den­t’s initials.

Not liv­ing far away, Ms Sallah start­ed tak­ing trips down the wind­ing Bentcross Drive to see if she could spot anyone.

We used to dri­ve around and one time the wife was actu­al­ly pulling in and we’re like: ‘Yep, this is the house,’ ” she said with a chuck­le speak­ing from her home in near­by Bethesda.

After that Duga mem­bers, who sus­pect­ed that the mon­ey to buy it was acquired ille­gal­ly, start­ed hold­ing reg­u­lar protests out­side the property.

They hung a Gambian flag on the gates and mocked up a sign say­ing: “For sale, by Gambians.”

Activists tried to grab the atten­tion of oth­ers liv­ing near­by in Potomac

They leaflet­ed the neigh­bours try­ing to make them aware of what Mr Jammeh was accused of doing back home.

Ironically, one of the neigh­bour­ing homes was owned by Equatorial Guinea’s decades-long leader Teodoro Obiang Nguema, the Washington Post report­ed in 2017. He is also accused of cor­rup­tion and human rights abus­es, which he denies.

It is not clear if any­one in this exclu­sive area, where peo­ple val­ue pri­va­cy and secu­ri­ty, was that bothered.

Those inside the Jammeh house were irri­tat­ed and some­times called the police, accord­ing to Ms Sallah.

But the case for seiz­ing the house only real­ly took off once Mr Jammeh was forced to step down and go into exile in Equatorial Guinea after los­ing the December 2016 pres­i­den­tial election.

The new admin­is­tra­tion in The Gambia set up a com­mis­sion to find out about the extent of corruption.

Reporting in 2019, it revealed loot­ing on a colos­sal scale.

Curiosities, such as gold-plat­ed pis­tols, were found among items recov­ered from one of Mr Jammeh’s homes in The Gambia, but it was his prop­er­ty port­fo­lio that caught the attention.

The com­mis­sion dis­cov­ered that the for­mer pres­i­dent had 281 prop­er­ties in the coun­try, as well as the one in the US and one in Morocco, and con­trolled more than 100 bank accounts.

There was no way that he could have afford­ed this on his salary and it con­clud­ed that he had mis­ap­pro­pri­at­ed more than $300m.

The com­mis­sion also uncov­ered that more than $1m had been divert­ed to Zineb Jammeh. Much of that mon­ey had been intend­ed for char­i­ties, includ­ing Operation Save the Children Foundation.

Nearly all the funds of the Foundation were wast­ed on events which from appear­ance were intend­ed to boost the pro­file of Zineb Jammeh rather than help Gambian chil­dren,” said a gov­ern­ment White Paper sum­ming up the com­mis­sion’s findings.

Mr Jammeh was also found to have extort­ed mon­ey in the form of bribes to grant monop­oly licens­es for the import of cer­tain items, such as petrol. In addi­tion, he used the threat of with­draw­ing those licens­es to get more money.

And this was where the funds raised to buy the Potomac man­sion alleged­ly came from.

Building on the work of the Gambian com­mis­sion, the US DOJ detailed how the scheme worked.

In July 2010, the Petroleum Company was told that its monop­oly import rights would cease at the end of the year.

The own­er of the com­pa­ny then approached Mr Jammeh to guar­an­tee those rights until 2014.

Eleven days lat­er, $1m left the Petroleum Company’s account with the Gambian bank Trust Bank Ltd and on the same day the pres­i­dent renewed the monop­oly license, the DOJ’s court sub­mis­sion says.

The fol­low­ing day an account was opened at that bank under the name MYJ Family Trust. Then a total of $1m was trans­ferred into that account in three trans­ac­tions by an employ­ee of the Petroleum Company.

Finally, the mon­ey was wired to a real estate agen­t’s account in the US.

Over the fol­low­ing days, anoth­er $2.5m was trans­ferred to the US and on 20 September the house in Potomac was bought for $3.5m.

This mar­bled bath­room, attached to the mas­ter bed­room, is one of the house­’s sev­en bathrooms

It had all the trap­pings of a grand home in an area described by the Washington Post as one of the nation’s rich­est lit­tle towns. As well as the six bed­rooms, it includ­ed an open foy­er entrance, a movie screen­ing room, a pool, a gym, a guest house and sev­en bathrooms.

It is not clear how often Mr Jammeh stayed there, but his wife was a reg­u­lar vis­i­tor, accord­ing to Ms Sallah.

She would some­times see her in the dis­tric­t’s shop­ping area. But those trips are no more.

And now with the stroke of a US judge’s pen, the house is no longer hers.

Ex-Gambian President Yahya Jammeh and his wife thought that they could hide funds stolen from the Gambian peo­ple by buy­ing a man­sion in Potomac,” US Attorney Robert K Hur said when the civ­il action to seize the prop­er­ty began in 2020.

Responding to the deci­sion to seize the prop­er­ty, Ms Sallah, who first raised the issue more than a decade ago, said she was “very pleased”.

I’m hap­py that some sem­blance of jus­tice has been done.”

Looking to the future “it would be nice ulti­mate­ly if the mon­ey is returned to the cus­tody of The Gambia so that the pro­ceeds of the sale can go towards the vic­tims of [Mr] Jammeh’s crimes”.

The DOJ has said that the prop­er­ty will be sold and has rec­om­mend­ed that the mon­ey be used for compensation.

For the time being though activists liv­ing out­side The Gambia can reflect that their efforts did not go to waste.

Original source of arti­cle: www.bbc.com

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