Yahya Jammeh, the authoritarian former ruler of the Gambia who went into exile at the weekend, stole millions of dollars in his final weeks in power, plundering the state coffers and shipping out luxury vehicles by cargo plane, a special adviser for the new president has claimed.
Jammeh, who took power in the former British colony in 1994, initially accepted his defeat at an election in December but then reversed his decision and clung to power until forced out by a regional military force and international pressure.
President Adama Barrow, the opposition politician who conclusively won the polls and was sworn in last week in neighbouring Senegal, is expected to return shortly.
Barrow took refuge in Senegal because of concerns for his safety when it became clear Jammeh was unwilling to give up power.
At a press conference in Senegal, Barrow’s special adviser, Mai Ahmad Fatty, told journalists the president “will return home as soon as possible”.
Fatty claimed Jammeh made off with more than $11.4m (£9.18m) during a two-week period.
“The Gambia is in financial distress. The coffers are virtually empty. That is a state of fact,” Fatty said. “It has been confirmed by technicians in the ministry of finance and the Central Bank of the Gambia.”
Fatty also said a cargo plane from Chad had transported luxury goods out of the country on Jammeh’s behalf in his final hours in power, including an unknown number of vehicles. Fatty said officials at the Gambia’s airport had been ordered not to allow any of Jammeh’s belongings to leave.
Separately, it appeared that some of the former president’s assets remained in the west African state of Guinea, where Jammeh and his closest allies stopped on their flight into exile.
Fatty said officials “regret the situation”, but it appeared that the major damage had been done, leaving the new government with little chance of recouping the funds.
The exile of Jammeh and his family is being hailed as a victory for democracy in Africa, amid fears of a new wave of authoritarianism across the continent.
“The news out of Gambia is a boost for African democracy. It reinforces important principles about leaders standing down after losing power,” said Prof Nic Cheeseman, an expert in African politics at the International Development Department of Birmingham University.
However, Cheeseman said the Gambia was a distinctive case due to its relatively small size, Jammeh’s lack of allies and a tendency among regional powers, such as Nigeria, to bolster their own democratic credentials by holding other west African states to higher standards.
“These conditions don’t hold for other countries or for other regions, and so a similar process is unlikely to take place elsewhere in quite the same way,” he said.
Anti-corruption campaigners said the allegations against Jammeh were a reminder of continuing deep problems with predatory rulers and officials who are frequently able to retain illegally obtained assets.
Jammeh, who is accused of ordering the detention, torture and murder of hundreds of opponents, is now in Equatorial Guinea, home to Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, Africa’s longest-serving ruler. It is unclear how long Jammeh, who confounded analysts with rapidly shifting foreign alliances and claims that herbal remedies could cure Aids, will remain there.
Equatorial Guinea is not party to the international criminal court (ICC), which will substantially diminish the chances that Jammeh will be held to account for abuses committed under his repressive rule.
Last year, a series of protests in the Gambia led to the detention of more than 90 opposition activists and supporters. One prominent opposition politician, a father of nine, was beaten to death in custody.
A boy rides a bike near a Senegalese Ecowas vehicle as they arrive at State House in Banjul. Photograph: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty
Jammeh’s dramatic about-face on his December election loss to Barrow, at first conceding and then challenging the vote, appeared to be the final straw for the international community, which had been alarmed by his moves in recent years to declare an Islamic republic and leave the Commonwealth and the ICC.
Barrow’s adviser contradicted a joint declaration issued after Jammeh’s departure by the UN, African Union and west African regional bloc Ecowas that bestowed a number of protections upon Jammeh, his family and his associates – including the assurance that their lawful assets would not be seized.
“As far as we’re concerned, it doesn’t exist,” Fatty said.
However the possibility that Jammeh might be able to retain the assets he has allegedly stolen from the Gambia will dismay anti-corruption campaigners.
The declaration also said Jammeh’s exile was temporary and that he reserved the right to return to the Gambia. This appears unlikely in the short term at least.
Barrow would begin forming a cabinet and working with the Gambia’s national assembly to reverse the state of emergency Jammeh declared during his final days in power, said Halifa Sallah, spokesman for the coalition backing the new leader.
The president’s official residence, State House, must be cleared of any possible hazards before Barrow’s arrival, Sallah added.
The regional military force, which had been poised to force out Jammeh if diplomatic efforts failed, rolled into Gambia’s capital, on Sunday night to secure it for Barrow’s arrival.
Hundreds greeted the force’s approach to State House in Banjul, cheering and dancing, while some people grabbed soldiers to take selfies.
The troops would remain in the country “until such time the security general situation is comprehensively redressed”, Barrow said.
Marcel Alain de Souza, chairman of the regional bloc, said part of the Gambia’s security forces needed to be “immobilised”, and he confirmed Jammeh had recruited mercenaries during the standoff.
The former leader also had requested “a sort of amnesty” for him and his entourage and had wanted to remain in his home village, De Souza said.
With Jammeh gone, a country that had waited in silence during the crisis sprang back to life. Shops and restaurants opened, music played and people danced in the streets, agencies reported.