The Great Gambia Heist

Credit: Edin Pasovic

For more than two decades, Yahya Jammeh ruled over Gambia, a tiny West African country known for tropical beaches and tranquility in a region often rocked by conflict.

Jammeh quickly became a dictator after taking power in a 1994 coup d’etat. His administration was implicated in widespread human rights abuses and several waves of brutal crackdowns on dissent. And his bizarre personality drew headlines around the world after he gave himself five titles and claimed to be able to cure AIDS.

Throughout his years in power, Jammeh flaunted his wealth. His lavish private estate in his home village was home to exotic animals, a military training camp and scores of luxury vehicles. He was known to drive a stretch Hummer around the country and he travelled in private jets.

But most of Jammeh’s financial dealings remained hidden — until now.

In a series of stories, OCCRP exposes for the first time how Jammeh and his associates plundered nearly US$1 billion of timber resources and Gambia’s public funds. Tens of thousands of documents — including government correspondence, contracts, bank records, internal investigations, and legal documents — lay bare the true scale of the theft.

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 $364 million from the state-run telecoms company. He also worked with two Romanian businessmen, Nicolae and Dragos Buzaianu, to secure $325.5 million in illicit timber revenue.

The former president played China and Taiwan against each other to obtain more than $100 million of bilateral aid that was dished out with few questions asked.

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.

Read on below for the details.

Stories

How Yahya Jammeh Stole a Country

Gambia’s fearsome former leader looted nearly $1 billion from state coffers and through illicit timber deals. He used fear, privilege and patronage to further impoverish one of the least developed countries in the world.

27 March 2019 Read the article

The Inner Circle that Helped Jammeh Steal a Billion Dollars

Throughout his military and political careers, Yahya Jammeh assembled trusted groups of confidants, including businessmen, and used them to carry out his embezzlement schemes. His methods of persuasion often involved threats and violence.

27 March 2019 Read the article

Jammeh’s Taiwanese Alliance and the Hezbollah Laundromat

Gambia’s president made millions hustling Taiwan and cozying up to Hezbollah financiers. Under the shield of sovereignty, he misused foreign aid and allowed his country’s economy to be manipulated by militants.

27 March 2019 Read the article

About the Data

OCCRP’s trove of thousands of confidential documents provides comprehensive insight into the financial dealings of former Gambia President Yahya Jammeh. It includes bank statements, contracts, government correspondence, internal reports, and Jammeh’s own directives.

The records primarily cover the five-year period between 2011 and 2016, but some documents reach back to 1998. Jammeh ruled Gambia from 1994 to 2017.

Over several months, OCCRP reconstructed a detailed version of Jammeh’s private economy by mapping relationships between the people, government entities, and local and foreign businesses in the president’s orbit.

The analysis included a review of nearly 10,000 banking transactions and a forensic investigation of how government money flowed between Gambian and foreign recipients. This included identifying irregular and “red flagged” transactions, differentiating between money siphoned in cash or via bank accounts, and assessing various forms of debt. OCCRP relied on financial experts during this process.

Though the records are incomplete and fragmented, they show how public money was controlled through the Office of the President. They also show how Jammeh repurposed the Gambian state to function as a bank run by his office and for his benefit. To do so, he used a currency of political power in a market dominated by only one person: himself.

A TIMELINE OF YAHYA JAMMEH'S RULE OVER GAMBIA

From his successful coup d’etat in 1994 to his late-night flight out of the country in 2017, Yahya Jammeh's time in power was marked by human rights abuses, corruption and brutal crackdowns on dissent.

Project Team

Investigation: Khadija Sharife, Mark Anderson

Coordinator: Jodie DeJonge

Editors: Jodie DeJonge, Ilya Lozovsky, Sharon L. Lynch, Jody McPhillips, Julia Wallace, Miranda Spivack

Additional Reporting: Saikou Jammeh, Attila Biro

Data: Daniela Lepiz, Khadija Sharife, Mark Anderson

Fact Checking: Birgit Brauer, Ivana Jeremic, Bojana Pavlović, Sergiu Ipatii, Milica Saric, Inna Civirjic

Illustrations: Edin Pasovic

Photography: Claire Bargeles

Layout: Kenan Ibrović, Adem Kuric, Michal "rysiek" Wozniak

Promotion: Alex Cooper