Benin: Lionel Talon’s very secret network

By Jeune Afrique
Posted on Wednesday, 12 October 2022 11:13

Photo by JA

Businessman Lionel Talon, who is the CEO of the Société de Financement et de Participation, the family holding company, makes sure to cultivate his relationships in other spheres of influence.

Within the inner circle of Benin’s President Patrice Talon, mentioning his son’s first name elicits the same response: the two men move to different corridors and stick to their own field of expertise. The 36-year-old son, Lionel, likes to be in front of the cameras when he receives a VIP reception at the sports and cultural centre Eya, which he founded in Cotonou. However, this businessman with a passion for football and music is also very secretive.

His close friends insist that he does not interfere in politics – just like the head of state does not interfere, or at least no longer interferes, in the family group’s affairs.

Nevertheless, Lionel Talon has been entrusted with managing a significant amount of activities that were once run by his father, as has his sister Karen, with whom he is very close. He manages establishments in every sector; from hotels to fertilisers, and he also maintains close bonds with some of his father’s trusted collaborators.

Below are Lionel Talon’s friends:

Lionel has many contacts within the economic sphere. In the field of white gold, the president of the board of directors of the Société pour le Développement du Coton (Sodeco) knows he can count on his predecessor Eustache Kotingan, who is now the head of Benin’s Conseil National du Patronat (CNP) after his election last May. The latter had – since June 2020 – already been acting as the CNP’s interim head, until the then-first vice-president, Sébastien Ajavon, was ousted.

A chartered accountant by training, Kotingan had long been Patrice Talon’s right-hand man within the Société de Financement et de Participation (SFP), the family holding company headed by Lionel and which owns many subsidiaries: the Associated Cotton Industries (ICA, of which Sodeco is a branch); the Société d’Investissement et de Gestion Immobilière du Bénin (SIGIB, the Novotel hotel by Cotonou’s main shareholder) and the Société des Huileries du Bénin (SHB).

At the head of the state’s instigation, the SFP has invested in constructing a luxury eco-lodge to welcome tourists who want to visit Pendjari Park in the northern part of the country. However, the project is currently dormant due to the increase in jihadist attacks in this region that borders Burkina Faso and Niger.

To make progress, Lionel relied on the advice of Britain’s Patrick Honey, the CEO of Halcyon Hospitality Advisors Limited, which specialises in hotel development. In addition to his consulting activities within the context of creating this ‘safari lodge’, Honey is also involved in developing two complexes in Benin: one in Avléké that is supported by the Thai company Banyan Tree Holdings, and the second near the Door of No Return in Ouidah, which the Bank of China has financed to the tune of 109bn CFA francs ($161m).

Within the government, Oswald Homeky, the minister of sports, is the closest (if not the only) to the Beninese president’s son. Aged 41, he belongs to the same generation as Lionel, with whom he became friends several years ago. He is also close to First Lady Claudine Talon as he regularly interacts with her and even spends weekends with her family. Homeky has supported the head of state for a long time: While the latter’s presidential terms were limited to two as inscribed in the Constitution, the young minister is a ‘quadra to follow’ ahead of the 2026 election.

Another key figure in Patrice Talon’s guard is Mathieu Adjovi, who is also very close to his son. The Union Progressiste (UP) parliament member is also president of the Association Interprofessionnelle du Coton (AIC). In this capacity, he works closely with the younger Talon, whom he advises, particularly within the context of the latter’s functions at Sodeco. According to people close to him, Lionel sees him as an “uncle”.

Lionel is the president of the Coton Sport Football Club (FC), the team from Ouidah formerly known as Taneka FC from Natitingou. The club is the defending champion of the Benin Super League (2021-2022 season) and has high hopes for the coming season. Lionel mainly relies on Victor Zvunka, whom he appointed as coach in June 2021. The former French international, who was a defender with Olympique de Marseille in the late 1970s, met Zvunka at the end of 2020 during a meeting in Cotonou between European coaches and Beninese club presidents. The relationship quickly developed, so much so that Lionel did not want to enter into contractual discussions with others.

In August, there were rumours that Lionel wanted to run for president of the Beninese Football Federation. Although some of those close to him strongly advocated for this, in the end, he decided to officially support Mathurin de Chacus, who ran unopposed and was re-elected on 20 August for a four-year term.

Lionel also befriended Samuel Eto’o in 2019 when the former Cameroon international visited Cotonou for an award ceremony. Ever since Oswald Homeky introduced them, they regularly discuss issues, such as football, their businesses and politics.

Beyond the world of football, he has also been very close – for several years – to Masai Ujiri, president of the Toronto Raptors, one of the leading figures within the NBA championing US basketball on the African continent. Born in England to a Kenyan mother and a Nigerian father, Ujiri is the head of Giants of Africa, an NGO founded in 2003 that operates in 16 African countries, where it finances the construction of basketball courts and offers intensive training camps and scholarships for young talent.

The two men co-organised the ‘Benin Dreams Big’ event on 6 and 7 August at the Eya centre in Cotonou. This event, which will now be held every year, consists of two days of masterclasses and meetings between Beninese players and US professionals. Ujiri, who was in May 2022 alongside Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame in Kigali for the second edition of the Basketball Africa League (BAL), is working on other projects in Benin.

 

The son of the Beninese president regularly organises or co-organises musical events, at his Eya centre (where he recently welcomed A’Salfo) and on other stages in Cotonou – he works in collaboration with Ulrich Adjovi, the leader of the group Empire, who is known as one of the kings of the night. In the course of these encounters, he has made friends with many artists: one of them is Nigeria’s Wizkid, the prince of Afrobeats, whom Lionel Talon met in 2018, during the ‘229 Urban Vibes’ festival. In the weeks that followed, he even travelled to Johannesburg to attend the star’s concert on the Global Citizen Festival stage.

Lionel Talon also met Davido at 229 Urban Vibes. Born in Atlanta but raised in Lagos, Davido comes from a wealthy family. The two men have remained in constant contact and regularly talk over the phone.

Lionel Talon has also become friends with Mr Eazi, the Nigerian artiste, who now lives in Ghana, and regularly visits Benin. He met Lionel when having dinner at one of Cotonou’s fine restaurants, and the two men have remained friends ever since. A fan of Mr Eazi’s music, Lionel has brought him to Benin several times. The artiste has, among other things, recorded several tracks in the Eya centre’s studio and shot clips in the Ouidah region, where the Talon family originates.

In 2019, a video showing Lionel at a party on a yacht with a group of friends caused controversy. Some very quickly made the link between, in particular, the antics attributed to Karim Keita, the son of former Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. Those close to him categorically stated that Lionel does not have a relationship with the former Malian president’s son. He is also reluctant to associate with the children of African presidents in any way.

The one exception is Ivan Kagame, the son of the Rwandan president, with whom he became friends after being introduced by a mutual friend. The younger Kagame even invited Lionel to his sister Ange’s wedding in Kigali in August 2019.

Last August, President Kagame appointed his son to the board of directors of the Conseil d’Administration du Rwanda (RDB). Liban Soleman, Ali Bongo Ondimba’s former chief of staff and another person close to Lionel, also sits on this board.

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