Defeated Gambian leader Yahya Jammeh made off with government money, luxury cars

Exiled Gambian ruler Yahya Jammeh 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 said Sunday.

Troops arrive to secure West African country for newly inaugurated President Adama Barrow

Gambia's former president Yahya Jammeh, seen here in September 2006, has gone into exile, and he's taken millions in government funds and luxury goods with him. (Seyllou/AFP/Getty Images)

Exiled Gambian ruler Yahya Jammeh 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 said Sunday.

Meanwhile, a regional military force rolled in, greeted by cheers, to secure this tiny West African nation so that democratically elected President Adama Barrow could return home. He remained in neighbouring Senegal, where he took the oath of office Thursday because of concerns for his safety.

At a press conference in the Senegalese capital, Barrow's special adviser Mai Ahmad Fatty told journalists that the president "will return home as soon as possible."

Underscoring the challenges facing the new administration, Fatty confirmed that Jammeh made off with more than $11.4 million US during a two-week period alone. That is only what they have discovered so far since Jammeh and his family took an offer of exile after more than 22 years in power and departed late Saturday.

People celebrate the arrival of the regional ECOWAS force in Banjul, Gambia, on Sunday. The soldiers are clearing the way for newly elected President Adama Barrow to arrive. (Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters)

'Gambia is in financial distress'

"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 confirmed that a Chadian cargo plane had transported luxury goods out of the country on Jammeh's behalf in his final hours in power, including an unknown number of vehicles.

The coffers are virtually empty. That is a state of fact.- Mai Ahmad Fatty, presidential adviser 

Fatty said officials at the Gambia airport have been ordered not to allow any of Jammeh's belongings to leave. Separately, it appeared that some of his goods remained in 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 recourse to recoup the funds.

Exiled in Equatorial Guinea

The unpredictable Jammeh, known for startling declarations like his claim that bananas and herbal rubs could cure AIDS, went into exile under mounting international pressure, with a wave to supporters as soldiers wept. He is now in Equatorial Guinea, home to Africa's longest-serving ruler and not a state party to the International Criminal Court.

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.

A security officer of former Gambian president Yahya Jammeh cries as he arrives at the airport before flying into exile from Gambia on Saturday. The new administration says he left government coffers empty when he took off. (Thierry Gouegnon/Reuters)

Barrow's adviser disavowed a joint declaration issued after Jammeh's departure by the United Nations, African Union and the Economic Community Of West African States (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.

The declaration also said Jammeh's exile was "temporary" and that he reserved the right to return to Gambia at the time of his choosing.

Although the declaration was written to provide Jammeh with maximum protection, it doesn't give him amnesty, according to international human rights lawyer Reed Brody.

"Under international law in fact you can't amnesty certain crimes like torture and massive or systematic political killings," he said in an email. "Depending where Jammeh ends up, though, the real obstacles to holding him accountable will be political."

Clearing the way for Barrow

Barrow will now begin forming a cabinet and working with Gambia's national assembly to reverse the state of emergency Jammeh declared in his final days in power, said Halifa Sallah, spokesman for the coalition backing the new leader.

The president's official residence, State House, needs to be cleared of any possible hazards before Barrow arrives, Sallah added.

Members of the regional ECOWAS force are seen at the Denton Bridge check point in Banjul. Gambia's defence chief said he welcomes the West African soldiers 'wholeheartedly.' (Thierry Gouegnon/Reuters)

The regional military force that had been poised to force out Jammeh if diplomatic efforts failed rolled into Gambia's capital, Banjul, on Sunday night to secure it for Barrow's arrival.

Hundreds greeted the force's approach to State House, cheering and dancing, while some people grabbed soldiers to take selfies.

Truth and reconciliation 

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.

A woman selling tomatoes laughs in a market at Serekunda, Gambia, on Sunday. Since the exile of defeated leader Yahya Jammeh, people are returning to the country. (Thierry Gouegnon/Reuters)

Defence chief Ousmane Badjie said the military welcomed the arrival of the regional force "wholeheartedly." With proper orders, he said, he would open the doors to the notorious prisons where rights groups say many who have disappeared over the years may be kept.

"We are going to show Barrow we are really armed forces with a difference, I swear to God," Badjie said. "I have the Qu'ran with me."

Some of the 45,000 people who had fled the tiny country during the crisis began to return. The nation of 1.9 million, which promotes itself to overseas tourists as "the Smiling Coast of Africa," has been a major source of migrants heading toward Europe because of the situation at home.

People returning from Barra are seen on arrival at Banjul Port, a day after former president Yahya Jammeh departed the country. Thousands of Gambians had fled in recent weeks for fear Jammeh's refusal to step down would lead to bloodshed. (Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters)

"I think it will be safer now," said 20-year-old Kaddy Saidy, who was returning to Banjul with her three young children.

Barrow, who has promised to reverse many of Jammeh's actions, told The Associated Press on Saturday he will launch a truth and reconciliation commission to investigate alleged human rights abuses of Jammeh's regime. Rights groups say those include arbitrary detentions, torture and even killing of opponents.

"After 22 years of fear, Gambians now have a unique opportunity to become a model for human rights in West Africa," Amnesty International's deputy director for West and Central Africa, Steve Cockburn, said in a statement Sunday.