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Swiss first step to investigate environmental crimes in Gambia

Three years ago, the Swiss NGO TRIAL International filed a complaint against a Swiss businessman operating in the Gambia with the complicity of its former president Yahya Jammeh. The Swiss national is accused of having committed a war crime through pillaging Senegal’s forest cover. Only a few weeks ago, the Swiss prosecutor's office sent a first request for judicial assistance to Banjul.

A patrol of Senegalese soldiers in the forest of Casamance (Blaze Forest)Members of the Senegalese Armed Forces take up position outside a recently captured Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC) rebel base in Blaze Forest on February 9, 2021. © John Wessels / AFP
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In a little over a decade, some 1.4 million trees were felled in Casamance, Senegal’s southern region, according to a US-based NGO, Environmental Investigation Agency, whose  investigation was published on June 3, 2020. At the heart of the business is Nicolae Bogdan Buzaianu, a Swiss national of Romanian origin—now being investigated by the Federal Office of the Attorney General (OAG) of Switzerland, and his Westwood company. The latter had obtained a monopoly on timber exports from Gambia during the rule of Yahya Jammeh.

“We have every intention of cooperating and are cooperating with the Swiss”, declared to Justice Info the Ministry of Justice, after having received a request for legal assistance from the Swiss Federal Prosecutor’s Office in relation to Buzaianu, allegedly involved in the pillaging of ‘conflict timber’ from Casamance. The complaint had been gathering dust for three years on the desk of the Swiss prosecutor, who took action days before the broadcast of a documentary by Swiss television RTS – to which our correspondent contributed.

To our questions, Gambian authorities said they would not reveal specific details of the information requested by the Swiss authorities. “We are in the process of compiling the information and once done will provide it to the Swiss. They want all the information we might have in our possession concerning the illegal timber trade involving Westwood and co,” said Tah Kimbeng, the deputy director of civil litigation at the Gambia’s Ministry of Justice.

War crime

In June 2019 the Swiss NGO TRIAL International filed a criminal complaint against Buzaianu for alleged involvement in pillage, which can constitute a war crime when perpetrated in the context of a war. Senegal’s southern Casamance region has been engulfed since 1982 in what is one of Africa’s longest-running guerrilla wars, claiming the lives of more than five thousand people and having caused the forced relocation of tens of thousands of people. The key financier of the rebellion being the illegal timber trade.   

“TRIAL International welcomes the news and is confident that the case will go forward from now on, as it is a sign that there is an ongoing investigation at the Swiss federal level. The case is historical in many aspects and is a sign of hope towards the end of impunity for economic actors that are illegally participating in the exploitation of natural resources in conflict zones,” said Benoit Meystre, TRIAL’s legal adviser. 

Senegal has since 1998 placed a ban on the trade in a move to deprive the rebellion of the much-needed resource. Yet the trade flourishes through the help of the Gambia, which land separates Casamance from the North of Senegal. The wood gets smuggled and exported through its port to China. And in 2014, Jammeh and Romanian-Swiss nationals Nicolai Buziainu and Dracos Andre Buziainu created a company called Westwood Gambia Ltd, operating a warehouse within the complex of the Banjul International Airport. 

Jammeh made fortunes from the trade. In 2017, after he left power, his successor Adama Barrow launched an inquiry into his assets and finances. The inquiry revealed that Westwood exported at least 15,000 containers of rosewood timber in three years, between 2014 and 2016. The company made US$45.3m in revenue. President Jammeh’s company, Kanilai Family Farms, holding 50 percent shares of Westwood, pocketed a total of $7.8m as dividends. The government received zero. Westwood wasn’t paying tax, owing $5 million.

Violating Trade Convention

The trade in rosewood in the Gambia may wear the face of legitimacy with the involvement of the highest office of the West African country, but the practice was illegal. The Gambia is a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species since August 1977, of which rosewood is one. However, the timber was smuggled into the Gambia from Casamance in Senegal without proper documentation.

Westwood was never fined, penalized or charged in any Gambian court for any crimes. However, the assets belonging to the company and its owners were forfeited after a white paper of a state inquiry “into the financial activities of public bodies, enterprises and offices as regards their dealings with former president Yahya Jammeh” was published in September 2019. Westwood had a gold refinery plant in a business park at Yundum, a suburb some 59 minutes-drive from Banjul, which was seized. The company also had cars that were seized. 

That was all.

Fragile Senegambian relations

This trafficking has seriously contributed to the deterioration of the relationship between the Gambia and its much larger neighbour Senegal.

In 1982, the two countries had a confederation that lasted for about eight years. Senegal needed the Gambia as an easy and short access route from its northern part to its South in Casamance. The Gambia needed Senegalese military for protection. The year before, the country’s first president Dawda Kairaba Jawara was toppled in a rebellion led by self-styled Gambian ‘revolutionary’ Kukoi Samba Sanyang but a quick reinforcement from Senegal restored Jawara’s presidency barely a week later. Despite the challenges, the relationship between the Jawara administration and his Senegalese counterpart was largely good.

However, things started deteriorating during the days of ex-president Jammeh, following his coup in 1994 which was not resisted by Senegal. Frequent border closures ensued, preventing Senegalese trucks from the north access to the south through the Gambia. So did widespread allegations of Jammeh’s direct involvement in sponsoring Casamance’s rebellion. Members of Jammeh’s Jola tribe are seen to be largely involved in it.

A warning to the natural resource pillagers

Kemo Fatty is a Gambian environmental activist who works for Green-Up Gambia. He said holding corporations liable for the pillaging of natural resources is a welcome development. This is a huge step in ensuring environmental justice… We have seen how corporations have profited illicitly from rosewood trafficking (in the Gambia),” said Fatty. 

“This is not just a relief to see action being taken against the perpetrator but also sends a further warning to all people involved in natural resource destruction. We are hoping this will continue and both corporations and government officials will be brought to justice for environmental crimes.”

For Fatty, there is good and bad news. Gambian government is still in the business of certifying rosewood illegally obtained from Senegal for export. This was a conclusion of a state investigation in 2019 and of an independent investigation by local journalists published in April 2022. Consequently, on June 8, the UN body that is implementing the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) suspended Gambia’s license to trade in rosewood.

“Westwood is in the past, but just in 2021—officially—the government of the Gambia exported 73 thousand tons of rosewood. This is as well criminal,” said Fatty.