The 22-year reign of one of Africa’s most eccentric and self-serving dictators came to an end last month when the president of Gambia — whose full title was His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh Babili Mansa — finally ceded power to his democratically elected rival and fled to a similarly tiny fiefdom farther south along the continent’s western coast.
Teodoro Obiang Nguema, now his host, has led Equatorial Guinea for 37 years, making him the world’s longest-serving head of state. Both men came to power decades ago in coups, and brutally quashed dissent while enriching themselves and their families. Investigations by activist groups and Western governments have found evidence that both siphoned off vast quantities of money from state coffers. With that money, they lived lavish lives, amassing dozens of expensive cars and houses around the world while the majority of the people in their countries continue to live in poverty.
If their proclivities weren’t already similar enough, it so happens that both men own palatial multimillion-dollar houses right next door to each other, at 9908 and 9909 Bentcross Dr., in a luxurious subdivision of Potomac, Maryland, about 20 miles from downtown Washington.
Bentcross Drive is a ribbon of mansions. Their looping driveways, manicured lawns, tennis courts and swimming pools are guarded almost universally by iron gates with passcodes and security cameras. Prominent signs warn against trespassing.
The subdivision, Falconhurst, is home to doctors, lawyers, business executives and even professional basketball players. Calbert Cheaney, whom the Washington Bullets (now Wizards) picked sixth overall in the 1993 NBA draft, sold 9908 Bentcross to Jammeh’s family trust for $3.5 million in September 2010, according to public property records. A 2013 CNNMoney.com article titled “Where the money makers live,” listed Potomac as the most affluent town of more than 25,000 people in the United States — and Falconhurst is a warren of its richest.
The World Bank’s latest figures indicate the average Gambian earns $460 a year. Equatorial Guinea has the highest per-capita income of any sub-Saharan country, but is so unequal that two-thirds of the population lives in extreme poverty and infant mortality rates are some of the worst in the world.
Falconhurst, as fate would have it, is wedged between two major thoroughfares: River Road and Democracy Boulevard.
Neither Jammeh’s nor Obiang’s house had cars in the driveway last week, and D.C.-based activists from Gambia and Equatorial Guinea said that both residences usually remain unoccupied. Sohna Sallah, vice chairwoman of the Democratic Union of Gambian Activists, said that as far as she knows, Jammeh has been to the Potomac house twice since it was purchased, while his wife uses it on a monthly basis for shopping excursions and to see their daughter, who attends boarding school in McLean, Virginia.
The listing for Jammeh’s house on Maryland’s property records portal says it has 11 bathrooms. The house is 8,818 square feet and sits on 2.3 acres of land. Obiang’s house on Bentcross is bigger, at 9,261 square feet, and was bought for $2.6 million in 2000. The Obiangs also own a second house in Potomac that is, relatively speaking, more modest.
In fact, none of the houses are exorbitantly expensive by U.S. standards. But they are only three out of a constellation of villas owned by the two men’s families in far-flung locales including Morocco and Malibu, California.
The ambassadors of both Gambia and Equatorial Guinea did not respond to repeated requests for comment on their states’ roles in purchasing or using these houses.
Tutu Alicante, a U.S.-based activist concerned with human rights in Equatorial Guinea, explained why leaders such as Obiang and Jammeh would want to buy houses in Potomac in the first place.
“There are big public relations firms in Washington that specialize in catering to dictators, if you can believe it,” he said. “Someone like Obiang comes to the U.S. maybe twice a year, say, for a checkup at the Mayo Clinic and an appearance at the U.N. General Assembly meeting. After the General Assembly meetings in New York, the firms bring them down to D.C. and connect them with corporate leaders and help them whitewash their image with shiny events.”
“The most disgusting days in this country are the days of the U.N. General Assembly,” echoed Kambale Musavuli, a human rights advocate from Congo. “Banks, P.R. firms, marketing firms falling over themselves to court them.”
One U.S. bank played a key role in helping Obiang launder money from his country’s oil boom into immense privately held wealth. In a 2004 inquiry, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations found that accounts in Riggs Bank, which closed in 2005, were the destination for Equatorial Guinea’s oil revenue. Senior government officials held more than 60 accounts at the Washington branch of the bank, valued at up to $700 million.
The bank would then transfer massive sums of cash to offshore shell companies it created for Obiang, who could then spend the money on a house in Potomac, for instance. The Senate committee also found that some of Obiang’s money came from oil funds explicitly established to be redistributed among Equatorial Guineans.
Obiang has escaped prosecution in part because going after heads of state presents an array of complications. A Justice Department official who was not authorized to speak with news organizations and spoke on the condition of anonymity said, “In addition to possible immunity issues, heads of state sometimes have significant control over the degree to which their law enforcement officials can cooperate with U.S. investigators. Moreover, it can be very difficult to convince witnesses and others with evidence of foreign corruption to come forward — they often are worried about their economic well-being, and sometimes even their safety or the safety of their family members.”
On the other hand, Obiang’s son and presumed heir has been the subject of sweeping investigations in the United States, France, Switzerland and the Netherlands regarding his multitudinous assets. In 2014, Teodorin, as he’s known, settled a case brought by U.S. federal prosecutors and agreed to sell a $30 million mansion in Malibu and a Ferrari, but was allowed to keep a Gulfstream jet and $2 million worth of Michael Jackson memorabilia including a diamond-studded glove, a jacket the star wore in “Thriller” and six life-size statues. He also avoided criminal prosecution. In a statement, prosecutors said Teodorin “received an official government salary of less than $100,000 but used his position and influence as a government minister to amass more than $300 million worth of assets through corruption and money laundering.”
The United States doesn’t have an “ill-gotten wealth statute” that would allow investigators to act on the simple suspicion that a government employee couldn’t possibly be earning enough to afford certain assets. So even though Yahya Jammeh isn’t a head of state anymore, it might still be very difficult for U.S. authorities to mount a case for seizing his property.
“To bring a civil forfeiture case, we need evidence of the crime and the link to the asset we seek to forfeit,” said the Justice Department official. Evidence can be hard to come by, but nongovernmental organizations that work in Equatorial Guinea, for instance, have helped U.S. investigators by convincing witnesses of corruption to come forward.
Sallah, the Gambian activist, said she was returning to her country for the first time in eight years to try to collect some of that evidence. She’s hoping that officials from the central bank will be confident enough of Gambia’s weeks-old democracy to help her pinpoint instances of illegal withdrawals Jammeh made from the state treasury.
That would be the first step to challenging Jammeh’s ownership of houses like the one on Bentcross Drive. Jammeh’s house is listed as belonging to “Trustees of the MYJ Family Trust,” which activists like Sallah have long known is tied to Jammeh’s family, but now they can endeavor to make the link tangible. When asked how many other foreign power brokers own property in Falconhurst, Eric Stewart, a real estate broker who has sold houses in Potomac for 25 years, said the common practice of listing caretaker trusts as owners makes it hard to tell.
Stewart is trying to sell the house on the other side of Obiang’s on Bentcross, which currently belongs to Serdal Adali, a Turkish businessman whose company provides “full contingency support to US Military and Coalition forces” in places like Iraq. Adali once served jail time and was barred from Turkish soccer stadiums for match-fixing when he was on the board of the wildly popular Istanbul club Besiktas. Adali bought the house from Ayman al-Hariri, the billionaire son of Lebanon’s slain former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri and heir to his father’s huge construction company.
Falconhurst is flush with money, both ill-gotten and not. But Nixon Clermont, a part-time cabdriver who grew up around Potomac, said he feels a twinge of disgust when he drives around the neighborhood and sees what he takes to be evidence of misused state wealth.
“I’m from Haiti, man. In Haiti, my people can’t find the food to eat,” Clermont said. “Our ambassador used to live here. Paid for with money that could have saved people. It makes me so angry, man. So sad.”
Julie Tate contributed reporting to this article.