NAIROBI — As the plane carrying Gambia's disgraced former president prepared to depart the small west African country on Saturday, onlookers caught a last glimpse of Yahya Jammeh's face through the window. He had been forced from the country that he ruled for more than two decades. But, bizarrely, Jammeh was smiling.
According to Gambian officials, he had one big reason to be happy. Before leaving the country, he had managed to steal millions of dollars from the government's coffers. He had loaded a cargo plane full of luxury cars and sent it abroad.
At a news conference Sunday, Mai Ahmad Fatty, a special adviser to the new president, Adama Barrow, told journalists that in a two-week period Jammeh had stolen $11.4 million.
“The Gambia is in financial distress. The coffers are virtually empty. That is a state of fact,” Fatty said, according to the Associated Press. “It has been confirmed by technicians in the Ministry of Finance and the Central Bank of the Gambia.”
Later in the day, a spokesman for Barrow, Halifa Sallah, said at a news conference that "everything is intact,” regarding the central bank, according to a report from Reuters. It was unclear whether Sallah was contradicting the earlier claim by Barrow or only asserting that Jammeh's theft did not extend to the bank.
Jammeh was known for his expensive habits, even as the country he ruled for more than 22 years was mired in poverty, with thousands of people taking the perilous route across the Mediterranean to Europe each year. He owned a fleet of Rolls Royces with his name embroidered on the headrests. A trust linked to the former president purchased a $3.5 million house in Potomac, Md., in 2012. His daughter attends a Manhattan private school that costs more than $40,000 a year.
When he lost an election in December, Jammeh refused to step down. Finally, after thousands of west African troops threatened to oust him by force, he agreed to leave Saturday on a plane accompanied by the president of Guinea. Although he was offered asylum in Morocco and Nigeria, it remains unclear where Jammeh plans to live.
Before leaving, Jammeh tried to negotiate amnesty for any crimes he might have committed during his decades in office. There has not been a thorough investigation into how Jammeh managed to accumulate such massive wealth, but Barrow has suggested that he might launch a “truth and reconciliation” committee into possible crimes.
Scandals involving the enormous wealth and lavish lifestyles of African leaders ruling some of the world's poorest countries are far from uncommon. But recently there has been a slew of particularly high-profile cases.
Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, the son of the president of Equatorial Guinea, is on trial in France for embezzlement and money-laundering. His assets included a $30 million mansion in Malibu and 11 sports cars, among them several Ferraris and Bugattis.
Last month, Bloomberg reported that Joseph Kabila, the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, was linked along with his siblings to more than 70 companies operating in the country, including some earning tens of millions of dollars annually.
Also last month, a scandal erupted in Zimbabwe when Grace Mugabe, the wife of president Robert Mugabe, became embroiled in a dispute over a $1.35 million diamond ring that she had purchased.
Correction: This post has been updated to correct the spelling of the last name of Halifa Sallah.