Gambia’s ousted dictator is living the good life in a palace in Equatorial Guinea

Gambia’s ousted dictator is living the good life in a palace in Equatorial Guinea

Land has been set aside for Gambia’s Jammeh in Equatorial Guinea’s picturesque Moka Valley

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For a town of 7,000 in the middle of Africa’s densest jungle, Mongomo boasts an impressive list of attractions. Carved out of Equatorial Guinea’s virgin rainforest is a private airport, a football stadium that hosted games for the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations, a deserted three-lane highway leading to a “six-star” hotel in the nearby city of Oyala, and a new international-standard golf course, its pristine fairways cutting through the plant life that encroaches everywhere else.

The Presidential Golf Course is named in honour of Teodoro Obiang Nguema, the country’s long-standing dictator and self-styled “Guarantor of Peace and Propeller of Development,” who has a well-documented record of jailing and torturing political opponents.

Backed by his country’s vast oil wealth, Obiang, who grew up in Mongomo when it was a rural backwater, has spent the past few years turning the area into a vanity project.

But for the moment at least, opportunities to bask in Mongomo’s faux grandeur seem mostly to be enjoyed not by Obiang, but the former president of another African country who took up residence in Equatorial Guinea after being deposed earlier this year.

An investigation by Foreign Policy suggests that former Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, whose own record of corruption and abuse is being scrutinised by his successor’s administration, has been using Obiang’s personal sanctuary as a sanctuary from Gambian law.

Greeted by near-silence

After his brutal, 22-year reign came to a spectacular end in January, Jammeh was welcomed by Obiang, whose country is not a signatory to the statutes of the International Criminal Court.

Jammeh had lost an election in December, conceded defeat, but then refused to step down. He finally fled Gambia on his presidential jet on January 21 as troops from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) massed on the border, threatening to oust him by force. Since then, little has been heard of the ex-Gambian dictator beyond claims from the country’s new government that he took $11 million (Dh40 million) from state coffers and a fleet of luxury cars as his parting shot.

His arrival in Equatorial Guinea was greeted by near-silence in his new homeland, save for a single protest banner reportedly unfurled in Malabo, the country’s island capital.

Hung outside the offices of Convergence for Social Democracy, Equatorial Guinea’s tiny and much-harassed opposition party, it declared, “We do not want another dictator in our country.” Police later tore it down. But while Jammeh may be keeping a low profile — a difficult adjustment, perhaps, for someone used to having his portrait plastered everywhere — FP has narrowed his likely whereabouts to one of Obiang’s presidential palaces in Mongomo.

“Obiang has three palaces in Mongomo — all big, gaudy-looking places like Saddam Hussain had,” said Tutu Alicante, a human rights lawyer from Equatorial Guinea, who now runs EG Justice, a Washington-based human rights group. “We’ve heard from contacts that Jammeh is in one of them.”

A diplomat in Malabo independently confirmed that Jammeh is in an “Obiang-owned villa” in the region of Oyala and Mongomo while several non-governmental organisations and human rights groups indicated that they viewed Alicante’s intelligence as credible.

Earlier this month, the French publication Jeune Afrique reported that Jammeh had requested land to farm in Equatorial Guinea, something he had planned to do in retirement in Gambia, where he owned a large farm in his hometown of Kanilai.

According to Alicante, land has been set aside for him in the Moka Valley, a picturesque tract of mountains and waterfalls which, like Mongomo, is away from Equatorial Guinea’s oppressive coastal humidity.

“The ruling family already [has] land here themselves, and they’ve given a chunk to him,” he said. It’s unclear whether Obiang intends to farm eventually or if he will continue to live in Mongomo.

To date, Jammeh and Obiang have not been seen playing rounds of golf, but an unauthenticated photo that emerged this month shows the two admiring what appears to be Jammeh’s new farm. They previously had a cordial relationship, with Obiang making a state visit to Gambia in 2013. They have also been neighbours before, owning adjacent mansions in the wealthy suburb of Potomac, Maryland, according to The Washington Post.

Coup attempts

An unverified photo shared widely on social media shows Jammeh and Obiang admiring what appears to be Jammeh’s new farm in Equatorial Guinea.

But they have more in common than expensive second homes. Both spent decades in office after seizing power in coups. Jammeh ruled for 22 years while Obiang, who has been in office since 1979, is now the world’s longest-serving president. And both have had coup attempts launched against them, which helps explain why Obiang is building Oyala, described by the diplomat in Malabo as “an entire new city carved out of nowhere.”

In February, the country’s entire administration officially relocated to Oyala from Malabo, despite the new city remaining unfinished. Like Naypyidaw in Myanmar, it’s designed to be an alternative capital for the regime to hole up in during an uprising from within or a coup attempt from without. As Obiang put it in a rare BBC interview in 2012, “We need a secure place for my government and for future governments.”

In a region where deposed dictators can quickly find themselves in search of retirement homes, Obiang seems to have recognised that his personalised capital can give him diplomatic power. “I think he saw that Jammeh was behaving outrageously badly and that there was a chance to help out,” said Simon Mann, a former mercenary who tried to overthrow Obiang in the infamous Wonga Coup of 2004, and whom Obiang later pardoned from a 34-year jail sentence in 2009.

Mann added that like his old friend and mentor, the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, Obiang’s fearsome reputation is partly the result of an act. In person, he said, Obiang is “pleasant” and has a philanthropic side.

But there are those who are determined to force Obiang to reverse his most recent act of Pan-African philanthropy.

Gambian lawyers and human rights activists have already launched a campaign to extradite Jammeh and force him to stand trial at an international court. Gambia’s new president, Adama Barrow, has been coy about whether Jammeh should be put on trial, wary of being seen as prejudging his predecessor’s guilt. But the new president has pledged to form a truth and reconciliation committee to investigate crimes during the Jammeh era, and his police force is reportedly looking into the cases of at least 30 people who disappeared or were killed under the previous government.

Last month, the head of Jammeh’s intelligence agency, Yankuba Badjie, also appeared in court along with nine other officers accused in last year’s slaying of Solo Sandeng, an opposition leader who died in government custody.

A fortnight after their court appearance, Sandeng’s body was found in an unmarked grave. Police had reportedly been informed of his whereabouts by one of the accused, the agency’s operations director, Saikou Omar Jeng. Gambian officials say now that Jammeh’s former henchmen are facing murder charges, they may directly point to him.

Building a case

In Sandeng’s case at least, Jammeh can hardly claim ignorance. Last year, when both Amnesty International and the United Nations called for an investigation into Sandeng’s death, Jammeh famously told them to “go to hell.”

In words that may one day come back to haunt him, he said it was “common” for people to die in custody in Gambia.

But building a case against Jammeh is far from the only obstacle. Even if Barrow were to call for his extradition back to Gambia, Obiang is under no obligation to comply. The only thing that is likely to sway him, regional analysts say, is pressure from the regional bloc that ousted Jammeh.

— Washington Post

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