- Title: In Jammeh's estate, Gambia begins hunt for missing wealth.
- Date: 13th July 2017
- Summary: VARIOUS OF SOLDIER PLAYING GRAND PIANO
- Embargoed: 27th July 2017 15:01
- Keywords: Kanilai Yahya Jammeh Adama Barrow Economy Corruption
- Location: KANILAI, BRIKAMA AND BANJUL, GAMBIA
- City: KANILAI, BRIKAMA AND BANJUL, GAMBIA
- Country: Gambia
- Topics: Government/Politics
- Reuters ID: LVA0026PJW1UF
- Aspect Ratio: 16:9
- Story Text: Authorities in Gambia have begun to seize properties belonging to the country's exiled former leader Yahya Jammeh, in an ongoing drive to regain assets that officials say Jammeh acquired using state funds.
Kanilai is one of the properties recently visited by authorities. The heavily fortified property was littered with evidence of the eccentric authoritarian's extravagant lifestyle.
In a warehouse on Jammeh's sprawling country estate - silver platters are piled up beside dusty crates of empty champagne bottles with labels commemorating the 1994 coup that brought him to power.
"It has been alleged that so much property has been amassed by the former president to himself for personal aggrandizement, but I will not be in a position to be judgmental. I could only speak on what I've seen so far on face value. But then the extent of all of these things would come out at the end of the exercise when a determination would have been made in terms of the property in issue, and that would be left to whatever recommendation is made with respect to the properties that may be confiscated or otherwise," said Gambia's Justice Ministry Registrar General, Alieu Jallow.
Jammeh - accused by his opponents and rights groups of widespread human rights violations and corruption - fled Gambia in January as regional forces descended on the capital Banjul to enforce the results of an election he lost.
He now resides in Equatorial Guinea and new President Adama Barrow is attempting to exert his control over the country by reversing some of Jammeh's worst abuses.
A task force was appointed in May by the Justice Ministry charged with tracking down Jammeh's assets and presenting findings to a commission of judges.
"There are vehicles, you have containers here, in the house you have air conditioners, chairs, and so worth, and all those things should be in the possession of the attorney general, " said Modou Moussa Ceesay, Gambia high court bailiff charged with taking inventory of Jammeh's remaining possessions.
Kanilai - with its farm, mosque, tanks, multiple residences, a jungle warfare training camp and a vast private safari park housing exotic parrots, zebras, hyenas and camels - is Jammeh's most elaborate estate.
Building materials and a crane next to an unfinished new palace testify to plans to embellish it further.
By the end of his 22-year rule, authorities believe Jammeh had acquired some 200 residential and business properties in the tiny riverside nation, nearly half of whose 1.8 million people live in poverty.
But despite its grandeur, it represents only a fraction of his total holdings, and the task force, composed of 11 court, police, intelligence and military officials and helped by a Central Bank financial intelligence unit, has a tough job ahead.
Officials are still at an early stage in their investigations with more questions than answers, like how the former government allegedly siphoned off more than $100 million from state firms. But a panel of three independent commissioners plans to appraise the task force's findings in a series of public hearings from this month.
The finance ministry has already said it intends to sell some of Jammeh's ill-gotten properties as tourist sites as well as four airplanes.
Those living in Kanilai say they welcome the investigations into Jammeh's assets and hope it will go towards bringing justice.
"Our budget, there is nothing there. Everything is corrupt. In Gambia, everything is corrupt. People are tired. We need changes, and we believe that this new government must bring the changes. That's the hope we are praying. Both day and night we are praying that. The kids are roaming, they have no food, they are homeless, you never know," said a former worker at Kanilai bakery, one of Jammeh's businesses, Mamadou Tounkera.
However, picking through the past in the aftermath of such a stark reversal of political fortunes presents unique challenges.
Despite his brutality, Jammeh retains fanatical support in some circles, especially around Kanilai.
Although Barrow has officially been in office since January, this month's visit there by the officials was only the first time civilian authorities from the new government had set foot on the property since Jammeh fled.
Further complicating matters is the fact that Jammeh's personal economic interests appear to be inherently intertwined with Gambia's tiny economy, described by the International Monetary Fund in July as "broken".
A list of suspected Jammeh assets seen by Reuters includes 14 businesses - everything from media to insurance to farming - and that number is set to grow.
However, a former politician close to Jammeh said he expected he had already spent or given away most of his wealth.
Many Gambians believe Jammeh drew out exit talks for days in order to pack his belongings, including a cargo plane from Chad loaded with luxury cars.
Now believed to be with Jammeh in Equatorial Guinea, those assets too are likely now out of the reach of investigators.
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