US moves to seize Gambia ex-leader Yahya Jammeh’s $3.5 million mansion
The US Department of Justice has filed a motion to seize a US$3.5 million mansion from Yahya Jammeh, the former strongman of The Gambia, just one of 281 known properties registered in his name or in which he holds shares.
The mansion was purchased through a trust set up in his daughter’s name, Mariam, using millions of US dollars embezzled from The Gambia’s public funds and business bribes, according to the complaint.
The filing goes further to allege that Jammeh, his family and associates were using shell companies to conduct global money laundering operations, the reason behind him buying the Potomac, Maryland mansion, which is why the government has applied to seize the property.
“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, Maryland,” said US Attorney Robert K. Hur for the District of Maryland. “The United States will not allow criminals to profit from their crimes and will seek justice for crime victims both here and abroad.”
Jammeh seized power in a bloody coup in 1994, and ruled The Gambia with an iron fist until he was voted out in December 2016 and was persuaded to leave the country in 2017. His bloody rule caused 76,000 to flee The Gambia, according to UN statistics, while many have testified to numerous forced disappearances, rapes, and murders during his 23-year reign.
The 29-page motion states that Jammeh was a lowly-paid military officer in the Gambian army before he seized power. In 1994, his presidential salary was US$53 per month, which was later raised to US$3,295 per month in 2014.
“He operated over 100 private bank accounts directly or through the aforesaid companies or foundations,” according to the document. “Neither Jammeh nor his wife Zineb appear to have family wealth to explain how he acquired these assets,” it added.
In 2016, The Gambia ranked 172nd out of 186 countries on the UN Human Development Index, which rates countries based on their progress in education, health, and the environment, among other areas.
Jammeh is currently in exile in Equatorial Guinea.
Internal machinations in telecom bribes
Jammeh received payments from businessmen who wanted to enter the telecommunications sector, who are identified as Businessman 1 (One) and Businessman 2 (Two) in the complaint.
Telephone Management Services Firm (TMSF), a company owned by Two, signed on to provide telephone and internet services in The Gambia from 2007. One worked as intermediary between TMSF and Jammeh.
The motion states that the Gambian Jammeh Commission of Inquiry that was launched in 2017 and issued its findings in 2019, found in 2007 that Jammeh allowed 50 percent of shares in Gamtel, the state-owned telecommunications company, and subsidiary TMSF, to be sold for $35 million, lowballing the actual valuation of the company.
Not only did Jammeh approve shares, but a multi-year telecommunications contract with another entity held by TMSF was signed.
Two “is alleged by others to have had no prior experience in the telecommunications field at the time his company was awarded this contract”, according to the document.
However, Jammeh terminated TMSF’s contract the following year, and although Two asked for him to return the US$35 million for the Gamtel shares to One, Jammeh only gave One US$5 million.
But One’s fortunes changed in 2011, when Two interceded on his behalf and One was once again allowed to provide management services to the Gambian government through his new entity, Successor Telephone Services Management Firm (STSM).
Jammeh’s office handled this contract, and ordered STSM to pay all Gambian government proceeds to a special offshore bank account.
“Bank records show US$5,026,805 was deposited into this account. Jammeh then proceeded to spend these funds for his personal use,” according to the filing.
Fiddling the petroleum books
Businessmen One and Two also made deals with the Gambian government in the petroleum sector. One was given exclusive rights to import petroleum into the country through his business called Petroleum Company, but was informed in 2010 that this monopoly would end.
One asked for a letter from Jammeh that would guarantee petroleum import rights until 2014.
Ten days after this request, the complaint states that US$1 million was transferred out of the petroleum company account—the same day that One received the letter from Gambian Secretary General Mustapha Yarbo, affirming that he had exclusive import rights until 2014.
In information found by the Commission and stated in the complaint, funds were deposited into bank accounts during an eight-month period in 2013.
“Petroleum Company made five bribe payments to Jammeh totalling US$2,550,000 in order to maintain its monopoly rights in The Gambia and in direct response to Jammeh’s threats to revoke the company’s exclusive contracts,” it stated.
Overall, in the span of a year and a half, Petroleum Company and its officers paid or facilitated payment of more than US$7,514,000 in bribes to Jammeh, according to the document, citing records of funds deposited into bank accounts.
One “did not dispute these payments, but testified to the Commission that the payments were actually made on behalf of Two so that his Telephone and Internet Services Management Firm would be allowed to conduct business in Gambia”.
Mansion money from ill-gotten gains
In August 2010, one day after Petroleum Company was given the fuel importation monopoly rights, the company opened a bank account in the name of one of Jammeh’s trusts and transferred US$1 million into it.
Two days later, Petroleum Company deposited large quantities of cash into the Jammeh trust in three separate transactions that added up to another US$1 million. Five days later, the trust account wired US$1 million to Wachovia Bank in Bethesda, Maryland, to the account of Paragon Title and Escrow Company, a real estate title and escrow company operating in Maryland.
Between August and September 2010, a total of US$3,562,610 was transferred to the US bank, which was used to purchase the mansion on 20 September 2010, including closing costs.
According to the real estate website Zillow, the 11,000-square-foot mansion, which is not currently for sale, includes a pool as part of its 2.3-acre property.
The two-story, six bedroom home has en suite bathrooms, 10 arched doorways, a “state-of-the-art theatre”, six-metre ceilings, guest house with room for staff, and a seven-car garage.
“The seizure of this property is just another example of our continued efforts to protect the US financial infrastructure by denying a safe haven for foreign kleptocrats,” said Alysa Erichs, acting associate director Alysa of Homeland Security.
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