By Lamin Jahateh
In late 2019, one of Guinea Bissau’s most notorious alleged drug tycoons fled to The Gambia following leaked information of his imminent arrest. He has since been living in The Gambia in a cozy multi-million dalasi property he purchased. Fast forward, in 2021, another alleged heavyweight drug trafficker, who was being pursued by Bissau authorities, sought sanctuary in Banjul. Efforts to ‘quietly’ extradite him from The Gambia failed in the eleventh hour. Another one, known in Bissau as Escobar, has allegedly laundered drug money in The Gambia the total sum of which is more than the annual national budget of Gambia’s anti-narcotic agency.
As the battle against the cocaine trade in Guinea Bissau gets tougher, the heavyweights in the trade look for a safe haven or a possible alternative frontier to expand their business. The Gambia looks very appealing. Lamin Jahateh reports.
It is known as Africa’s narco-state by the United Nations and the United States of America. A major hub for cocaine from South America to Europe. Elites from the military and politics, aided by their criminal entrepreneurs, control the drug trade.
Guinea Bissau has the perfect conditions for drug trafficking: a bearable level of instability, a corruptible elite, and long-standing connections with Latin American traffickers.
Despite the state’s complacency, and even its purported active role in the trafficking economy, Bissau cringes at the appellation of the country as a narco-state. Therefore, successive governments expressed commitment and even seemingly took active steps to fight against the trade.
As the battle against the cocaine trade in Guinea Bissau gets tougher, albeit seasonally, some of the suspected big dealers look for a safe home or a possible alternative frontier to expand their business. The recent movement of suspected heavyweights traffickers from Bissau to The Gambia suggests that the latter is increasingly attractive.
But why The Gambia and why now?
“It may not be due to any one particular reason,” said a senior intelligence officer with over 20 years of experience in drug and related crimes investigation.
“The Gambia offers a good option since the change of government. Under the previous regime, even though the big man [Yahya Jammeh, the former president] was said to be involved in the drug trade, his stance on drug trafficking was very tough. The judicial system was also somehow, and the governance system as a whole was not very predictable. At that time, when you commit a crime of drug trafficking, you are not assured of the due process of the law.”
Despite his zero tolerance for drugs, the former president was said to have profitable links with the region’s drug trafficking networks. He had been implicated in drug trafficking together with some top officials in his government.
The officer continued: “With the change of government, we have now become a democratic state. The judiciary is trying to be independent of the political leaders. The law enforcement is also trying but there are many challenges because we are a poor country. I know for certain that experienced criminals study each country’s legal system to know how to manoeuvre it even before they set up their criminal enterprises in that country. Once they are satisfied that even if they are arrested, they will go through due processes of the law, and on grounds of technicality, they may get acquitted, then they come in. The other reason is susception to corruption. Once there is also the perception that they can bribe their way out, they come in.”
The officer, who does not want to be named, believed these are largely the factors why The Gambia may become a viable alternative for organised criminals.
However, the Minister of the Interior Seyaka Sonko has expressed Gambia government’s determination to “dismantle any organised crime network in our jurisdiction”.
The recent arrest and seizure of alleged traffickers and drugs, respectively, by the Drug Law Enforcement Agency of The Gambia (DLEAG) has so far proven the preparedness of the agency for the task.
Over the years, a number of Bissau-Guinean nationals were arrested for attempting to smuggle, mostly pellets or a few kilos of cocaine, through the Banjul International Airport to Europe. Others were arrested with a few grams of cocaine or crack cocaine on the streets of The Gambia.
Whether human couriers, transactional traffickers, or other types of associates, there are tycoons behind these lowlies in the drug trade. Those that barely have any physical substance of cocaine on them. These are the ones anecdotally establishing their nodes in The Gambia.
One such tycoon is 46-year-old Braima Seidi Bá, a Bissau Guinean national, who holds Portuguese citizenship.
Allegedly Guinea-Bissau’s most notorious criminal entrepreneur, he fled Bissau in late 2019 for sanctuary in The Gambia when he was to be arrested for the alleged importation of 1,869 kilograms of cocaine. The seizure of this cocaine, imported in August 2019, was the largest in Bissau’s history, according to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (GI-TOC).
Given his connection to the Bissau army, the seizure of Seidi Bá’s drug was only possible because the different military factions that backed the different cocaine tycoons began to fall apart.
“When Seidi Bá was to be arrested, it was a senior officer in Guinea Bissau’s Judicial Police that tipped him off. He then managed to go into hiding; he was hiding in Bissau for days if not weeks before coming to The Gambia. He was believed to be hiding in the house of a serving female state minister in Bissau,” an anonymous intelligence source with knowledge of Seidi Bá’s case in Bissau said.
The Judicial Police (JP), which is under the Ministry of Justice, is primarily responsible for investigating drug trafficking, terrorism, and other transnational crimes in Bissau. They have refuted the allegation of having any hand in Seidi Bá’s escape.
With Seidi Bá out of Bissau, his trial was held in absentia. Eventually, he, as one of the two identified ringleaders, was convicted and sentenced to 16 years in prison in April 2020. However, in October 2020, barely seven months after the verdict was handed down, the Court of Appeal in Bissau handed down a judgment drastically diluting the sentences, before the Supreme Court finally fully and controversially acquitted him in June 2022.
Despite the acquittal in Bissau, Seidi Bá continued to reside in The Gambia; although he regularly visits Bissau.
He quickly consolidated himself in The Gambia by investing in properties. One Bissau-Guinean businessman who regularly travels to The Gambia claimed that in mid-2021, Seidi Bá was residing in a hotel that he (Seidi Bá) owns in Senegambia, Gambia’s bustling tourism area. While efforts to verify this proved futile, what could be ascertained is that Seidi Bá has bought at least one luxurious holiday property in the Senegambia area. The four-room property is valued at over US$200,000, equivalent to more than D12.3 million at the current exchange rate.
A source at DLEAG said a raid was conducted on Seidi Bá in a rented apartment where he was living in Kololi at the time but he was not found in possession of drugs. The entire apartment was searched. They only found him with a girl, believed to be a sex worker from Senegambia, together with his friends.
According to a Global Initiative research report, the role of suspected criminal entrepreneurs like Seidi Bá is not to sell cocaine directly to end users but to coordinate the entire trafficking, from importation and market linkage to distribution through the network. These include arranging the transport of drugs from Guinea Bissau in smaller quantities for onward transport to end-markets in Europe and other African countries by local couriers. Such criminal entrepreneurs are barely found in possession of drugs.
But Seidi Bá is not alone.
Seidi Bá had apparently just paved the way. Nuno Miguel Sanhá followed.
Better known as Samory, Nuno also fled to The Gambia in November 2021 when he was standing trial for kidnapping, drug trafficking, criminal association, money laundering, and use of prohibited weapons, according to media reports in Bissau.
The reports said Samory, and Carlos Elitiano Silva (alias Ely), a high-ranking officer of the Rapid Intervention Police, the equivalent of the Police Intervention Force in The Gambia, allegedly stole about 980 kilograms of cocaine and €170,000 belonging to a former Bissau Guinean senior army officer, General António Indjai. The general is a longstanding player in Bissau’s politics and narcotics trade and an international target of arrest of U.S. since August 2021.
It is not uncommon in the drug trade for the different groups to steal or attempt to steal from each other. The matter of the stolen cocaine was discovered in an operation dubbed ‘Operation Red’ which led to the trial of at least 10 people, including Samory.
Samory escaped arrest and fled to The Gambia at the commencement of the trial, sources at the JP of Guinea Bissau said.
While in The Gambia as a free man, Samory has been seen frequenting the same bars and establishments that his Bissau Guinean compatriot, Seidi Bá, was known to favour. Videos seen by GI-TOC show Samory at nightclubs in Senegambia that Seidi Bá also used to attend.
Efforts by the authorities in Bissau to extradite Samory failed at the eleventh hour.
On 9th November 2021, a request was sent to The Gambia by the JP for the arrest and rendition of Samory to Bissau.
JP is credited for ‘doing an amazing job’ fighting against drugs in Bissau in spite of the myriad challenges, especially political interference due to the influence of drug traffickers. However, some analysts said the agency is sometimes content with only going for the small, politically and militarily not-connected fishes.
Following the request from Bissau, the DLEAG of The Gambia swiftly acted.
We ran our search for him [Samory] and within 48 hours, we were able to arrest him,” said DLEAG’s director of intelligence and international cooperation, Lamin J Gassama.
Samory was arrested on 11th November 2021.
Like Seidi Bá, when Samory was raided in a rented apartment in Bijilo where he was living, no cocaine was found on him. Bijilo is in an affluent neighbourhood in the heart of Gambia’s tourism area with hotels, expensive holiday villas and apartments.
The Gambia has a tripartite memorandum of understanding with Guinea Bissau and Senegal, and based on that, Banjul is supposed to render Samory to Bissau.
“It was supposed to be a covert intelligence operation – that is to arrest Samory quietly and hand him over to Bissau without anyone knowing that he was arrested in The Gambia,” Gassama explained.
The arrest was indeed quietly done. Unlike the recent arrest of Paolo Jabbie, no press release or article was ever written about Samory’s case in The Gambia. Notwithstanding, the end result of extraditing Samory back to Bissau was never achieved.
Through his Gambian connections, Samory hired lawyer Lamin S Camara who filed at the high court in Banjul on 15th November an injunction, a restraining order, against the handing over or extradition to Bissau. Barely 24 hours after the case was filed, a ruling was delivered in favour of Samory by Justice Oledi Uko Oduma.
Court documents show that the state parties in the case, the Attorney General and DLEAG, did not attend the hearing.
DLEAG said they only became aware of the judgment two days later, on the 18th November. At this time, JP officials from Bissau were already in The Gambia to pick up Samory.
“We handed him over to the Bissau people; the handing over note was signed by both of us [DLEAG and JP officials from Bissau]. They had already left when the court judgment came to my desk that we should not extradite Samory.
“I quickly called my men at the Giboro border and instructed that the Bissau officials who were going with Samory be stopped and Samory be returned,” Mr Gassama affirmed.
It was at the border that the handing over note was annulled with a handwritten cancellation note signed by both the JP and DLEAG officials there Samory was returned to officials of The Gambia and with disappointment, the JP officers left for Bissau.
“Since then, he was detained for some time and granted bail,” Gassama said.
Samory’s bail condition required a title deed by a Gambian national and this was fulfilled.
However, the connection or the relation between him and the surety could not be ascertained.
He continued to report on police bail to DLEAG. When the court in Bissau eventually cleared him of all charges, he was also freed in The Gambia.
Like Seidi Bá, Samory also continued to live in The Gambia.
Escobar is also around
Early September this year, the trial commenced of Paolo Jabbie and three Bissau-Guinean nationals who were all charged with various offences related to possession of illicit drugs and money laundering.
While the 1.220gram of ecstasy drug that they were allegedly found with is seemingly insignificant, the alleged leaders, Paolo Jabbie, who is nicknamed Escobar, and Nadine Pereira, were alleged to have spent millions of dollars of drug proceeds in buying properties and expensive cars in The Gambia.
According to court documents, they were found in possession of huge cash in various currencies, including sixty-five thousand nine hundred and forty euros (£65,940), and five thousand three hundred dollars ($5,300).
The duo also laundered, allegedly, a cumulative total of more than US$2,825,583, equivalent to about D170 million between 2021 and early 2023, barely two and half years. They bought at least 17 properties in expensive gated communities or high-end tourism areas, including sea-view and forest-view apartments.
Their property purchases alone within this period is estimated to be more than the 2023 annual budget of DLEAG that is prosecuting their case, and represents more than 60% of the budget of the Judiciary of The Gambia.
In addition, through the alleged proceeds of drugs, the duo purchased expensive vehicles, including a Benz G Wagon, Benz GLE, Range Rover, Jeep, Porsche, and BMW. Each of these vehicles cost millions of Dalasi.
The case is currently ongoing at the Magistrates Court in Banjul.
Meanwhile, in August this year, two other Bissau–Guineans, Abulai Seidi Bá and Seidi Bá Ndey Jatta, were also arrested by operatives of DLEAG with 104 blocks of cocaine. They were also living in The Gambia.
In September 2022, DLEAG made one of the biggest seizures of cocaine in The Gambia in recent years. A total of 734 blocks of cocaine weighing more than 800 kilograms was discovered and seized. It was the second-biggest inland seizure of cocaine in The Gambia.
The bulk of the cocaine was found on a property belonging to one Omar Fofana, a Gambian national and a tourist taxi driver in the Senegambia tourism area.
So far, there is no concrete information about the source of the cocaine.
“We cannot precisely say where the drugs came from,” said Mr Gassama. “Investigation was done, and we are currently prosecuting the case.”
However, an operative of the drug squad who is said to be familiar with the case, said there are hints that the cocaine came from Guinea Bissau. Omar had reportedly told operatives in the interrogation that the cocaine was supplied to him from Bissau.
But besides the mystery about the source of the cocaine, very little is known about the source of Omar’s investments. Apart from his main occupation as a tourist taxi driver, Omar registered a car rental company, Cruise and Comfort Limited, where he owns 75% of the shares. The other 25% is owned by his brother and his sister serves as the company secretary. He rents out expensive cars, including the new models of Benz, Range Rover, and Jeep.
For legal and ethical considerations given that the case in court is active, certain facts are left out in this article.
Currently, there are a number of high-profile drug trials ongoing in The Gambia. These include the case of Banta Keita which has been going on for the past 18 months with no end in sight.
Despite an international arrest warrant on Banta, there are reports that he is living in Guinea Bissau under the protection of some high-ranking people in the military. According to one such report, Banta managed to cross the border between Giboro and Selete in the troubled Senegalese region of Cassamance and finally to Guinea Bissau. A DLEAG source confirmed that Banta has two Bissau-Guinean nationals as accomplices in his alleged involvement in the importation of 2.9 tonnes of cocaine in The Gambia in January 2021. Not much is known about the two alleged accomplices.
While these high-profile drug cases are ongoing, a senior lawyer said that DLEAG has a history of negotiating certain drug-related and money laundering cases out of court. Although plea bargaining, as it is known, is legally allowed, there is no mechanism or guideline in The Gambia that regulates it.
Out of the 1,629 drug trafficking cases recorded by DLEAG from January 2021 to April 2023, almost all those successfully prosecuted are the ones caught with pellets or grams of cocaine, or bundles of cannabis and contraband drugs.
One of the main criticisms against DLEAG of recent is that the agency goes all out on lowly drug users and traffickers while the heavyweight dealers, the affluent ones, have their cases plea bargained and walk free.
Whether the Bissau Guinean nationals linked to international drug trafficking are operating in The Gambia independently or have Gambian associates remains a subject of intelligence inquiries. But their presence and the seizure of large quantities of cocaine in The Gambia in recent years is leading to claims that the country is poised to be a new drug hub.
This report was supported by the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime (GI-TOC), in a collaboration between West African investigative journalists. However, the journalism is fully independent, and the article’s narrative does not necessarily express the views of GI-TOC.
Braima Seidi Ba is allegedly one of the most notorious criminal entrepreneurs in Bissau leading the cocaine trade. Photo credit: GI-TOC
Photo credit: Getty Images
Bags of cocaine