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Inside the ‘fire sale’ of ex-president Jammeh’s 5 aircraft

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Yahya Jammeh ruled The Gambia for 22 years during which time he was accused of massive theft of public wealth. A state investigation into his assets which was published in September 2019 found him liable for stealing at least US$362,000,000.

While in power, Jammeh procured seven aircraft, one of which was scrapped before his defeat to Adama Barrow in December 2016. The six aircraft left were one Ilyushin, two Boeing 727- 100s, two air tractors and one Bombardier Challenger 600.

In May 2017 — a little under two months before the government instituted an inquiry into the assets of Jammeh — the high court of The Gambia froze his assets. But sales and use by the state of a selected number of his assets were being carried out by several institutions while investigations were ongoing.

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The decision to sell some of the assets while the inquiry was ongoing, according to former justice minister Abubacarr Tambadou, was to prevent their further deterioration.

“We have taken the precautionary step to dispose of these vehicles and the aircraft to prevent them from deteriorating further, as a consequence, provide no real value,” he said in an interview published in July 2018.

“If Jammeh has any claim to title, he should come further with that claim. As far as we are concerned, these properties were purchased with state resources. They rightly belong to the state.”

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Punching below valuation by $1.2m

At least one of the early sales of Jammeh’s assets was ordered by the high court. This was the sale of the livestock ordered by Justice Buba Jawo (now deceased) in January 2018. A second order was to release Jammeh’s lands within the Tourism Development Area for use by the state ordered by Justice Ebrima Jaiteh in September 2018.

The early decisions to sell Jammeh’s assets were ‘legally questionable’ as they were ‘controversial’. Before Justice Jaiteh released Jammeh’s landed properties frozen by the court, the high court judge who froze the assets declined to release them two months earlier.

Justice Amina Saho-Ceesay argued that the release of Jammeh’s landed properties within the TDA for use by the state without any forfeiture order from the commission was a “travesty” of justice.

“For the government to descend upon the respondent’s properties at this point in time, in the absence of the conclusion of the criminal investigation and a subsequent order of confiscation, will, with respect, amount to nothing short of a travesty,” the judge said in her ruling in July 2018.

Though the aircraft were officially recorded as Jammeh’s assets, a review of the file before Justice Amina Saho-Ceesay showed they were not itemised among the list of assets frozen by the court.

A little under two months before Justice Amina’s ruling — without any forfeiture order from the commission of inquiry and while the former president’s assets were still frozen — two of his agricultural aircraft were sold to Sankajula Holding Company, a business owned by Momodou Turo Darboe.

Amadou Sanneh, who was the finance minister until 29 June 2018, claimed he was not aware of the sale of the aircraft to Darboe. In 2019, Sanneh’s successor, Mambury Njie, also sold the remaining three aircraft to the same buyer. The total revenue reported by the Ministry of Finance was US$740,000, punching below valuation by at least US$1.2m.

As of 2018, the total indicative value of the aircraft parked on the tarmac at the Banjul International Airport, according to a desktop valuation of US-based Viridis Aviation Partners, was US$2.2m.

Valuation

Sale through an offer

Shortly before the aircraft were sold, a former permanent secretary at the Ministry of Finance, Lamin Camara, told AFP they were working on plans to publicise the former leader’s assets on a designated web portal to invite interested buyers.

“What we are doing is to design a web portal. All the assets will be put there. The information of the vehicles, of the planes, will be posted,” said Camara. This was not done. Former finance minister Sanneh said the commission did not entertain the idea of his ministry’s involvement in the sale of Jammeh’s assets.

“We were marketing the luxury vehicles and the aircraft. Later on, we were told that the commission is responsible for the sale,” said Sanneh. The commission eventually recommended the sale of the aircraft in its final report published in September 2019 by which time the five aircraft were already sold.

In July 2020, Mambury Njie told lawmakers that the “…planes were bought through an offer made by the intended buyers and not by bidding”.

But Momodou Turo Darboe told The Republic: “There was a bid offer. I bid and my offer came on top. I bought the planes…”

Sankajula Holding Company reportedly made at least US$340,000 (D22m in current exchange terms) profit reselling the five aircraft.

In 2018 and 2019, the businessman bought the aircraft through an “offer to the Ministry of Finance” for a combined cost of US$740,000 and sold them at a total price of $1,080,000 or D72m in current exchange terms.

– 2 Air Tractors: The aircraft were registered on July 27, 2005. They were agricultural spraying aircraft manufactured in 2004 and had both flown less than 100hrs total since new. Both aircraft were un-airworthy by 2017.

– Ilyushin Il-62m, C5-Rtg: The aircraft was manufactured in May 1993 in Russia and registered in The Gambia on 8th September 2005. It had flown less than 5000hrs since new. Its maintenance cost as of 2017 was estimated at $2m which was far above its worth.

– Boeing B727-100, C5-Gaf: The aircraft was manufactured in 1966 and registered by the State on September 4, 2008. It was not in operation since 2010 and considered scrap in 2017. 

– Challenger Cl601, C5-Aft: The aircraft was manufactured by Canadair Bombardier in 1985 and became the second VIP state aircraft. It was registered on October 1, 2010. It was taken to the maintenance facility of the ACC Columbia in Cologne, Germany, in 2014. It was reportedly ready for use in 2021.

Boeing B727-100, C5-Gog: This is also a Boeing 727 manufactured in 1971 and registered on 23rd October 2012. The aircraft with a VIP configuration had less than 12,000hrs total time flown since new. It made its last flight in December 2016.

Buyer’s ‘windfall’

In May, 2018 — while the inquiry into Jammeh’s assets was still ongoing and the court freeze order in place — the Ministry of Finance sold the two air tractors with an estimated value of US$900, 000– according to Virdis — to Sankajula Holding Company for US$240, 000. Sources informed The Republic that Turo Darboe sold the two air tractors to the Best Aircraft Deals LLC, of Utah — USA at US$350, 000.

Three other aircraft — Ilyushin with inscription ‘Republic of The Gambia’ and two Boeing 727- 100s were bought by Momodou Turo Darboe in 2019 at a cost of US$500,000. The Republic has gathered that Momodou Turo Darboe sold the Ilyushin to Rada Airlines, a private sector Belarusian airfreight carrier for US$80,000. He also sold the engines 1 and 3 of Boeing B727- 1H2 for $650, 000 to International General Trading Co of Lebanon. The two Boeing aircraft are still parked at the Banjul International Airport waiting to be scrapped.  

When contacted, the businessman said he could not remember how much he sold the aircraft for but he made far less than the money spent on them. “I don’t have the time to check the records but I know I made far less than the money spent on the aircraft,” said Momodou Turo Darboe.

The scrapped remains of the two Boeing 727- 100s are still parked at the airport.

The VIP aircraft ‘gifted’ to maintenance facility

Among the six aircraft Jammeh left behind as he fled to Equatorial Guinea, the 12-seater VIP aircraft Challenger CL601 was said to be in the best condition. It was valued at least US$900, 000 by the US-based Viridis Aviation Partners. But senior officials at the Ministry of Works, Construction and Infrastructure who do not want to be named said the aircraft was abandoned at a maintenance facility in Cologne, Germany. The aircraft was taken to ACC Columbia maintenance facility in 2014– two years before Jammeh’s shocking election defeat to Adama Barrow. 

“The aircraft was kept there for storage pending the government’s decision and after a while, ACC started charging us parking and that has since accumulated,” said a source who claimed the cost incurred on its maintenance now surpassed its worth.

This runs contrary to what former finance minister Njie told lawmakers in July 2020.  Njie said the aircraft had completed its routine maintenance and was ready for use.

“Maintenance checks have now been completed and all payment issues now resolved,” Njie told lawmakers. “This aircraft could be ideal for government use as its operational expense was low at the time and has a quick turnaround time in addition to its convertible use as an ambulance when needed.”

The maintenance facility in Germany said they last had contacts with Gambian authorities regarding the aircraft in 2014 but they are unable to answer questions. The facility’s Cologne manager, Daniel Schulten, declined to share any information about the aircraft, arguing that The Republic is “neither the operator nor the owner”.

Evidence however shows that the maintenance facility has shared bills with the Gambia Civil Aviation Authority as recent as May and June 2019.

According to the receipts, the facility was charging €3000 for every month the aircraft spent at their facility, which accumulated to €144,000 in four years, or less than a third of the aircraft’s projected value, according to the 2018 valuation by Viridis.

Our questions to the Ministry of Finance were not answered until the time of publication. When contacted, the Ministry of Works — without revealing any further information — claimed the file on the aircraft was retired to the National Archives.

“Kindly note that currently, there is no file containing the information you are requesting from the Ministry as all closed files are usually sent to the National Archives in Banjul at the National Records Services,” said the ministry in an email response. However, The Republic confirmed that no files on the aircraft were transferred to the archives as of close of day on 12 April 2024.

The report was first published at https://therepublic.gm/inside-the-fire-sale-of-ex-president-jammehs-5-aircraft/.  The author is a multi-award-winning investigative reporter.

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