Gambia’s longtime president has begun recruiting mercenaries with ties to other West African regimes in the wake of his stunning election defeat, sources tell BuzzFeed News.
President Yahya Jammeh is ignoring regional pressure to step down and recruiting foreign fighters as he faces one of the biggest tests in his 22 years in power, according to an ex-soldier being recruited and a West African intelligence official.
Jammeh, an eccentric megalomaniac best known for claiming to have invented a homemade herbal cure for AIDS, made a dramatic U-turn a week after losing the Dec. 1 election. After initially conceding defeat, he pledged to stay in power until a recount in a bizarre televised address. His appeal of the election is due to be heard on Jan. 10 by the Supreme Court, which hasn’t heard a case in years.
“Jammeh is ready to fight to the teeth and spend money to stay in power,” said a former Liberian army commander who asked not to be identified for his safety. The commander — who fought for deposed Liberian dictator Charles Taylor before later working as a mercenary during decades-long conflicts in Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast — described an effort across the Liberian diaspora in West Africa to recruit former soldiers and rebels.
The reasons Jammeh’s forces are recruiting mercenaries remain unclear in the authoritarian state, which briefly blocked the internet for its 1.9 million citizens after the vote and has since forced at least two private radio stations to shut down and arrested several outspoken opposition supporters. Jammeh could be amassing these ex-soldiers to help him resist calls to be taken to court for his alleged crimes and abuses in power. Or he could be plotting an attempt to remain in power by force.
“There’s about 20,000 decommissioned [Liberian] soldiers and rebels throughout Liberia, Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Ivory Coast,” said the former commander. “They’re all very poor and living in refugee camps so many will take any chance to make some money with the skills they have, which is fighting.”
“They don’t care what side of a fight they are on and will work with former enemies, nobody cares about this as long as they’re getting paid,” he said. “That’s all that matters.”
The effort has been led by a former Liberian general and one-time Taylor loyalist who has recruited ex-fighters for other conflicts in West Africa and personally met with Jammeh in Gambia in mid-December, according to the former commander, who was briefed on the meeting by the general.
In that meeting, the commander said, Jammeh offered to hire as many fighters as could be delivered from the Liberian diaspora as a backstop to any efforts by the international community to enforce the outcome of the election that deposed Jammeh.
“There’s a vast recruitment of ex-Ivorian militants and Liberian mercenaries underway, headed by former officers of Charles Taylor,” a senior intelligence officer in Ivory Coast told BuzzFeed News by phone. “These recruitments are taking place in southwestern Ivory Coast, around San Pedro, Grabo, Tai, and Toulepelu.” The towns mentioned are on or near a porous border with Liberia, where mercenaries frequently slipped in during Ivory Coast’s own 2012 civil conflict.
“There’s between 300 to 400 people who have signed up for a fee ranging between $100 to $300 a day,” added the intelligence officer, who said Ivorian officials were “working out how to stop them.”
Gambia’s Information Minister Sherrif Bojang did not respond to requests seeking comment by Thursday.