Côte d’Ivoire: The case that led to the fall of Alain-Richard Donwahi

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Timber Trafficking

By Vincent Duhem, in Abidjan
Posted on Monday, 11 July 2022 16:05, updated on Tuesday, 12 July 2022 18:41

Arrested in November 2021, Ibrahim Lakiss, an Ivorian-Lebanese logger, is suspected of having set up a racketeering system with the complicity of numerous regional officials and private operators. This is an investigation into a state scandal that cost the minister of Water and Forests, Alain-Richard Donwahi, his job.

This is part 2 of a 6-part series

The Ivory Trade Center (ITC), located in the heart of the wealthy Cocody commune, is one of the new chic spots in Abidjan. The Ivorian branch of the auditing and consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) has set up its offices there. The affluent like to relax in this small shopping centre with its marble floors and the adjacent Sofitel Ivoire hotel, with its French Monoprix shop, its pricey wine cellar and its upscale restaurants. It is a place for business meetings and Sunday brunches. And, on rare occasions, a place to get arrested.

9 pm on Saturday 20 November 2021. Investigators from the Major Crime Unit (ULGC) were about to get their hands on a logger they had been tracking for almost a week. His phone was located more than a hundred kilometres away, not far from Niablé, in eastern Côte d’Ivoire, but the source was positive. The man they are looking for was there, sitting on a terrace with his wife, a cigar to his lips, a gold watch on his wrist. Ibrahim Lakiss runs the biggest sawmill in Abengourou. The precise extent of his fortune is uncertain. But, in the milieu, he is said to be a billionaire.

Ibrahim Lakiss on one of his plots of land, near Abengourou, in eastern Côte d’Ivoire, in April 2021. © DR

He was taken to the Sebroko camp in the Attécoubé district of Abidjan, where the ULGC is based, and two weeks later was transferred to the Abidjan prison (MACA), where he is still being held. Ibrahim Lakiss is being prosecuted for criminal association, corruption, extortion, unauthorised deforestation of forest land, money laundering, illicit enrichment and moral harassment. His arrest is the result of an investigation that lasted several weeks and uncovered an almost mafia-like system that shook the Ministry of Water and Forests, right up to its minister, Alain-Richard Donwahi. In-office since 19 July 2017, he was replaced on 20 April by Laurent Tchagba and is no longer part of the government.

Coming from one of the prominent families that have ruled the country for over sixty years, Alain-Richard Donwahi had already been criticised for his management of the Ministry of Defence, which he held from January 2016 to 2017. At the time, the former executive of the Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI) was under pressure to join the Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace (RHDP). A hedonist and motorbike enthusiast, he regularly travels by helicopter to his stronghold of Nawa, where he is the president of the regional council. He is also one of the important dignitaries of the Grand Lodge of Côte d’Ivoire (GLCI). The lawyer Sylvère Kuyo, who succeeded Hamed Bakayoko as Grand Master, made him his deputy.  Alain-Richard Donwahi did not respond to contact from Jeune Afrique.

Letters and complaints

It all began at the end of 2020. Noting that his land north of Bouaké was regularly looted, a logger, industrialist and exporter of lengue wood decided to take the matter to the authorities. He sent a series of letters to the Prime Minister’s office, various ministries, the State Inspectorate and the President of the High Authority for Good Governance. A complaint to the gendarmerie finally led to some arrests. But the looting continued, until the day the file was transmitted to the major crimes unit (ULGC). Headed by Colonel Inza Fofana, aka ‘Gruman’, the ULGC officially depends on the Directorate General of the Police, but in reality, it is headed by the Minister of Defence and brother of the President, Téné Birahima Ouattara. And by October 2021 the investigation was picking up…

A huge trafficking operation of lengue wood, the cutting of which is regulated and even prohibited since 2013 on a large part of Ivorian territory (above the 8th parallel), was quickly uncovered, benefiting four companies, SNG, Hung Ivory Coast, Sexin Ressources, Kysy Entreprise. Two are Chinese-owned, one Vietnamese-owned and one Lebanese-owned. Although not on the Ministry’s list of approved processing units, they were operating with release permits. Issued by the Ministry, these permits typically allow private operators to purchase stocks of illegally cut timber after they have been seized by the authorities. The Chinese companies had managed to obtain them by greasing a few palms. They then used the permits as justification for further illegal shipments of timber.

Several Chinese traffickers were arrested at the end of October 2021, and their sawmills were closed. At one of the sites, the ULGC officers come upon a document that would change the course of the investigation: a book of detailing sums paid to various officials of the Ministry of Water and Forests, and to agents of the ports of Abidjan and San Pedro through whom the illegally cut timber was shipped to China.

Facsimiles of a release authorization signed by Alain-Richard Donwahi and an investigation report on the trafficking of lengue wood © DR

“We discovered that a real Chinese mafia had flourished and that part of the ministry was corrupt. The key figure in the whole operation was none other than Alain-Richard Donwahi’s chief of staff”, explained one of the people in charge of the investigation in the darkness of an Abidjan bar. Youssouf Traoré, who is also a prefect and a close collaborator of the minister, having worked with him when Donwahi was in charge of defence. Strangely, all the Chinese traffickers were released shortly after their arrest without being prosecuted.

If Ibrahim Lakiss is not involved in the scandal, his name comes up regularly during the various hearings. And he has aroused suspicion and become a target in the investigation. And it is towards him that the investigators decide to direct their investigations. Lebanese of origin, aged just under 50, he comes from a family well known in Côte d’Ivoire – it was established there at the beginning of the 20th century -, particularly in the coffee and cocoa industry.

High spheres

Born in Akoupé, a small town in the east of Côte d’Ivoire, 140 kilometres from Abidjan, Ibrahim quickly turned to the timber industry in the late 1990s. A party animal and a gambler, the Ivorian-Lebanese is easygoing and charismatic. He made a name for himself among the elites of the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI). One of his patrons is Lazare Koffi Koffi, Minister of Youth, Vocational Training and Employment from 2000 to 2003, then of Water and Forests in Laurent Gbagbo’s last government.

Over the years, Ibrahim Lakiss has become something of a mogul in his own right.  He has several permits to carry weapons and collects large motorcycles. He is the proud owner of the first Cadillac Escalade imported into Côte d’Ivoire. At the beginning of 2010, he created the New Forestry Company of Idenie (NSEFI) and opened his own sawmill in Abengourou. “He had built up a solid network of contacts in the police and the judicial system,” explains one of his former friends, who says that Lakiss sometimes acted as an informer.

Lakiss’ business has not suffered from the change of regime. He still frequents the upper echelons of power, ministers, judges, businessmen, sportsmen and members of the security apparatus. When he was in detention in Sebroko at the end of 2021, Lakiss was visited by the deputy director-general of the police, as well as by the Abidjan police prefect. The information reached the ears of the Minister of Defence, who summoned those concerned to warn them.

A lavish lifestyle

In recent years, Lakiss’s influence and wealth had increased further. He has ten mobile phones – one for the footballers, another for the ministers. In addition to a spacious flat in Marcory, in Zone 4, where about 70% of expatriates – many French and wealthy Lebanese who have been living in Abidjan for a longer period of time – live, he has bought himself a villa in the luxurious Beverly Hills district in Cocody, where the country’s affluent elite flock. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Kandia Camara, is his neighbour.

In his Abengourou stronghold, the Ivorian-Lebanese, who appreciates big cars, has built a glittering residence where he likes to entertain and show off his wealth, lounge in his swimming pool, his private bar, have fun with his pet monkey, enjoy smoked salmon and fine wine in the evenings.

This lavish lifestyle is out of place in the timber industry. How could he amass such a fortune? Speaking to investigators, Water and Forest agents put forward an explanation. They describe Ibrahim Lakiss as a kind of minister, the centrepiece of a cabinet noir within the ministry itself. “He gave instructions to the head of the Special Surveillance and Intervention Brigade (BSSI), requesting and dictating mission orders, distributing administrative documents, and determining the number of vehicles to be assigned to a given mission. He was also able to transfer officials at will, including directors,” reads an investigation report consulted by Jeune Afrique.

The police, participants in the major racket

Created by decree in January 2018, the BSSI has been operational since August 2020. Its 650 men depend directly on the Ministry of Water and Forests. It has been presented as the latest tool in the fight against deforestation, which Donwahi has championed.

But, according to several judicial sources, his influence was especially important with the forest police, to the point that he had managed to divert them from their main mission and turn them into an instrument for a vast system of racketeering in the timber industry, mainly Lebanese. “The principle was to send the police to control specific targets, often competitors of Lakiss, and to impose heavy fines on them, which were then negotiated down by Lakiss himself,” explains the investigation report mentioned above. The damage to the state is estimated at 40 billion CFA francs, about 60 million euros, in just over a year.

In particular, investigators recovered a WhatsApp conversation on the phone of the forest police director. “Hello son, Yu Yan just got the 10kg in order,” he wrote. The recipient is none other than Ibrahim Lakiss. “Make him understand that this is not for you, that it’s for the boss, that he has to manage you himself, that you have just saved him, otherwise after the mission, he would have a dose,” he replies. It is clear from several other exchanges between the two men that the head of the forest police regularly reported to Lakiss on some of his missions.

How could such a system have been established and what did Minister Alain-Richard Donwahi know about it? Is he the ‘boss’ to whom Lakiss refers in his message? During his interrogation, one of the arrested Chinese operators had confirmed that certain bribes handed over to allow his illicit activities to continue were intended for the minister. These facts were not confirmed by the minister’s chief of staff before the investigators. At the end of January, Alain-Richard Donwahi was received by the Minister of Defence, who is following the case closely and keeping the President informed, and expressed his great astonishment at the suspicions directed at him.

Former Minister of Water and Forests Alain-Richard Donwahi during the “1 day, 50 million trees” operation in the protected Anguededou forest, 29 October 2021. © Luc Gnago/REUTERS

Troubling elements

A number of facts obtained by Jeune Afrique cast doubt on this version. They attest, at least, to a certain closeness between Ibrahim Lakiss and the minister. First, there are undated photos of the two men posing together. In some of them, Alain-Richard Donwahi is accompanied by the wife and children of the Ivorian-Lebanese businessman.

There are also two voice messages sent to Jeune Afrique where the voice has been authenticated by three sources as being that of Ibrahim Lakiss. He refers to the payment of a fine by the Italian company Tranchivoire. “The head of Tranchivoire told me that he met with the chief of staff yesterday. He had proposed an insignificant amount of 4 million CFA francs. The chef-cab offered him 10 million. Mr Minister, we cannot condone this when the certified company has admitted the facts for 60 million. The 60 million must be maintained. They are in need. They are stuck, they are going to pay”, we can hear. The discussion is not dated, but according to a forestry official, it dates back to August 2021. “Tranchivoire was working in a protected forest without respecting legislation. We issued an official report and the company admitted the facts in committee, agreeing to pay a fine of 60 million euros,” he said.

The last troubling element is that according to several documents consulted by JA, Alain-Richard Donwahi has repeatedly authorised BSSI to make some of its staff available to Ibrahim Lakiss for a ‘control mission’. For what reasons? When contacted by JA, the businessman and his lawyer refused to comment before the end of the investigation. Donwahi did not respond to our requests either.

A water and forestry officer has his own idea. He remembers this episode from October 2021. “At the request of Lakiss, we went to carry out control missions in several protected forests. The minister was informed and gave his approval,” he says. The particularity of these forests is that at the time they were to be ceded to private operators who, in exchange for these concessions, would carry out development work. “Lakiss had his eye on these forests. He told everyone that the minister had promised them to him. The aim of the control missions was to prevent the companies that were exploiting these areas from cutting wood until he could do so,” adds our source.

President calls for an audit

All this is false and has been fabricated by his competitors,” replies a person close to Ibrahim Lakiss, who condemns a relentless attack. Lakiss is a fuse that has been blown while the real organisers of the trafficking have not been worried. Why were all the Chinese arrested released a few days later? Why was none of the Water and Forestry officials targeted? Yet they are the ones who sign the mission orders.” What about Lakiss’s supposed proximity to Alain-Richard Donwahi? “He was his supervising minister, so it is normal that he had contact with him,” says this source. “Lakiss is neither the first nor the only one to act in this way. The problem is that he has talked too much, to the point of exasperating the water and forestry agents and the operators in the sector. As a result, he is taking the blame for everyone,” said a member of the BSSI.

The investigation is continuing to sort out the truths and the falsehoods. Initially opened before the economic and financial criminal division of the court of the first instance in Abidjan, the judicial procedure was entrusted in early January to the Court of Cassation, the highest court in the Ivorian administration. At the request of the Ivorian head of state, the General State Inspectorate began a full audit of the Ministry of Water and Forests in late February.

In addition to Lakiss, three other people could be concerned: Youssouf Traoré, the minister’s chief of staff, Lieutenant-Colonel Kader Coulibaly, head of the BSSI, and Colonel Raphaël Yao Oka, director of the forestry police. The latter two were quietly dismissed at the end of 2021. All were summoned on 13 April to the offices of the Court of Cassation for a confrontation during which Lakiss denied all accusations.

An embarrassing affair, a worrying situation

“This scandal is very embarrassing, especially for Donwahi,” said a person close to Alassane Ouattara. “It is above all a political story. It is not worse than the others. Every time a reshuffle is expected, there is a case against him in the press. And Lakiss has paid the price,” says a person close to Donwahi.

For several forestry experts, this scandal is especially revealing of the way the forest is managed in Côte d’Ivoire. “It is a resource that belongs to the state and is shared with private operators. The forest law is so restrictive that 75% of logging can be considered illegal. This encourages shady deals and individual enrichment. For a long time, the Société de développement des forêts (SODEFOR) had the upper hand in this system. But since his arrival, Donwahi has regained control, without necessarily changing the system,’ explains a forestry expert.

But the situation is worrying. Côte d’Ivoire has only 3 million hectares of forest left, compared to 16 million in the 1960s, due to massive deforestation caused by cocoa farming and illegal logging. According to experts, if nothing is done, there will be no forests left by 2030. So there is only a decade left to reverse the trend, or make the most of this lucrative business…Or to make the most of this juicy business.

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