Fri, Apr 12, 2019 - Page 8 News List

Greater transparency on aid needed

By James Baron

Months after assuming the presidency of the Gambia in 1996, Yahya Jammeh made a bold foreign policy maneuver, cutting ties with China in favor of Taiwan. No observer of Taiwan’s diplomacy under then-president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) would have been laboring under any misapprehension as to the motives for the switch.

The term “dollar diplomacy” had yet to gain currency as the default description for Taiwan’s approach to foreign relations, with euphemisms such as “pragmatic diplomacy” being preferred for the anything goes attitude that had really began to take hold under Lee’s predecessor, Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國).

Yet, semantic sleights of hand aside, Jammeh’s intentions were unambiguous. He was out for as much as he could wangle from the get-go; and when Taipei finally called time on his ever-more voracious leeching in 2013 — and then only because the temporary diplomatic truce between Taipei and Beijing under then-president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) was in place — Jammeh had siphoned off tens of millions of dollars in Taiwanese “development aid.”

“A financial lifeline” is how Gambian-American academic Abdoulaye Saine described Taiwan’s largesse. With a detailed account of Jammeh’s systematic looting of state coffers published by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) this week, Saine’s assessment was a colossal understatement.

By the time he bolted to neighboring Equatorial Guinea in 2017, following a final feeble attempt to cling to power, Jammeh had embezzled more than US$1 billion in state funds. More than US$100 million of that plunder had come via grants and loans from Taiwan. And that is just what has been traced. The actual figure is almost certainly a lot higher.

Money earmarked for “medical cooperation” and grandiosely titled initiatives such as the President’s Empowerment of Girls Project ended up being funnelled into all manner of nefarious undertakings. In 2009, at least US$3 million was paid by the Ma administration to a Taipei-based arms supplier for weapons that Jammeh intended to ship to the government of indicted war criminal Omar al-Bashir of Sudan.

Jammeh’s purpose in supporting a regime that was committing mass atrocities against civilians in South Sudan and Darfur is unclear, but Taipei went to great lengths to ensure its hand in this sordid affair remained fully gloved.

In private correspondence obtained by the OCCRP, then-ambassador to the Gambia Richard Shih (石瑞琦) advised the office of the president that the deal would be executed in instalments in order to ensure a “low profile.” The ruse appears to have worked: A comprehensive 2014 report into the origins of weapons in Sudan by Swiss research group the Small Arms Survey turned up no trace of Taiwanese merchandise. It is possible Jammeh found another buyer. Sudan, in any case, remains one of the world’s most heavily armed countries.

The OCCRP report also unearthed details concerning the establishment of a Citibank account that appears to have been little more than a slush fund for Jammeh to dip into as he saw fit. Mega International Commercial Bank was one of several institutions to wire funds to the account, which received US$35 million between 2000 and 2001, the first year of Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) presidency, and was eventually overdrawn to the tune of US$58 million. Most of the money came from Taiwan, and a large chunk ended up in the pockets of Mohamed Bazi — considered to be a key financier for Hezbollah.

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