The Baba Chronicles

For some people, African millionaire Foutanga Dit Babani Sissoko was a dream come true. For others he was a nightmare.

Sanders and others complain that Sissoko had a weird way of conducting business. "If you work for free for him, you're great," notes an Air Dabia employee who asked that his name not be used because he is still hoping to be paid by Sissoko. "But when you try to get paid, then you are seen as a problem. He likes you to come to him like a servant and say, 'Baba, I need to be paid. Please, Baba, I need money.' He wants to humiliate you in front of people. He wants to feel like a prophet or a god."

According to Sanders and two Air Dabia sources who asked not to be identified, one flight crew became so disgusted with Sissoko's refusal to pay them that earlier this year they abandoned their Boeing 727 in London and slipped away with more than $100,000 in cash Sissoko had provided for aircraft repairs and fuel. "I'm not saying what they did was right," says one Air Dabia employee, "but I understood their frustration."

Sanders has been working for Sissoko since January 1996. A lieutenant commander in the U.S. Naval Reserves, the 43-year-old California resident had been stationed in Italy as an air-traffic controller monitoring military flights over Bosnia. His tour of duty was nearing its end when he heard about a West African millionaire who was creating an airline and looking for pilots. Sanders flew to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, to meet him. "When you meet this guy, it is incredible," he recalls. "You walk into the room and everyone is treating him like a god."

The working arrangement, Sanders says, was fairly straightforward: $5000 per month plus medical benefits and airfare back to the United States several times per year. Sanders says he was drawn to the endeavor by a sense of adventure: "We were going to start a new airline. How often does a person get to do that?"

When reports of Sissoko's legendary expenditures in Miami filtered across the Atlantic, some of his overseas employees reportedly grew angry. "How would you feel if you heard about him spending all of this money on cars and marching bands while you haven't been paid in months?" Sanders asks from his hotel room in France. "You'd probably be a little pissed, wouldn't you?"

In May of last year, Jim Wilbert was sitting in the Banjul airport when a group of soldiers approached him. He had been waiting for a plane to take him to neighboring Senegal, where he could catch a flight home to the United States. A pilot and an executive with a Tennessee company that sells used airplanes, Wilbert had been in Gambia for several weeks overseeing the delivery of two Boeing 727s purchased by the owner of Air Dabia, Foutanga Dit Babani Sissoko. The fledgling airline tycoon had begun complaining about the terms of the sale, so Wilbert, hoping to avoid a confrontation, decided it was time to leave.

"As I was waiting," he recalls, "a group of soldiers approached me. One of the men, who was not wearing a uniform, asked me if I was Captain Wilbert, and when I said yes they took me away to a private room in the airport." Wilbert's U.S. passport and other identification were seized, as was his plane ticket to Senegal. "The man said he was a government security officer and he told me that Sissoko did not want me to leave the country."

Wilbert says he protested his detention and asked to see someone from the American Embassy but the request was denied. He was then taken to an oceanfront resort and casino called Amie's Beach, owned by Sissoko. "I was given a room and was placed under guard," he reports. "Later Sissoko came in. He was very angry and was yelling at me that I shouldn't have tried to leave. He then instructed the guards that I wasn't allowed to leave the hotel."

For the next 22 days, Wilbert asserts, he was held against his will while Sissoko renegotiated the price of the airplanes with Wilbert's bosses. "I was held for economic gain by Mr. Sissoko," he says flatly. "I was a tool. Sissoko made it clear he would not allow me to leave the country until the price of the planes was lowered." In order to secure Wilbert's release, his employer, C&S Acquisitions, dropped the sale price by $315,000, according to Wilbert's attorney Brad W. Hornsby. Jokes Wilbert: "I didn't know my body was worth that much."

A lawsuit filed by Wilbert against Sissoko this past June is scheduled for trial in Tennessee early next year. To defend himself in court, Sissoko made sure he hired clout -- the law firm of former United States senator Howard Baker. One of Sissoko's Miami attorneys, Thomas Spencer, Jr., is assisting in the case and denies that Sissoko held Wilbert hostage. "This whole scenario is trumped up," Spencer contends. "He was not a prisoner." Spencer does acknowledge that Sissoko complained to Gambian authorities that he believed he had been cheated in a business deal, and that as a result Wilbert's passport and airline ticket had been seized while officials reviewed the matter. According to Spencer, the incident was nothing more than a simple business dispute that was finally resolved.

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