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Côte d’Ivoire: The heirs of family-style politics

By Luc-Roland Kouassi, Luc-Roland Kouassi

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Posted on June 26, 2023 09:19

jad20230621-ass-civ-heritiers-politique-1256×628-1687369697 Jean-Louis Billon, Jean-Marc Yacé, Yasmina Ouégnin, Richard Donwahi and Marcel Amon-
Tanoh © MONTAGE JA: Vincent Fournier for JA; Cocody Town Hall; V.Fournier/JA; 
Facebook Alain-Richard Donwahi; Issam Zejly for JA; Freepik
Jean-Louis Billon, Jean-Marc Yacé, Yasmina Ouégnin, Richard Donwahi and Marcel Amon- Tanoh © MONTAGE JA: Vincent Fournier for JA; Cocody Town Hall; V.Fournier/JA; Facebook Alain-Richard Donwahi; Issam Zejly for JA; Freepik

Born into large families with household names, they are now trying to make a name for themselves – often by embarking on political careers in their own right.

“Say, aren’t you [insert household name]’s son or daughter?” Since Côte d’Ivoire’s 1960 independence movement (and perhaps farther back than that), these names have been a part of Ivorian history: Yacé in Jacqueville; Ekra in Bonoua; Ouégnin in Moossou, and so on.

Almost every region of Côte d’Ivoire has its own ‘extended family’, which has been at the heart of the strategy of the first Ivorian president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, to consolidate his power: by weaving an oligarchic patchwork around him in order create a great Ivorian bourgeoisie.

These dynasties have been in place for more than six decades, gradually building up considerable wealth. “These names are familiar to everyone because they have been in Côte d’Ivoire’s school textbooks for years,” says Sylvain N’Guessan, a political analyst.

As children, their heirs rubbed shoulders with Houphouët-Boigny’s barons, and even with Houphouët-Boigny, making it easier for them to enter politics.

Family battle in Cocody

Yasmina Ouégnin, goddaughter of Côte d’Ivoire’s first president and daughter of Georges Ouégnin (Houphouët-Boigny’s former director of protocol), is a case-in-point.

In 2011, at the age of 32, she became the youngest member of parliament in Côte d’Ivoire, winning the Cocody constituency under the banner of the Parti démocratique de Côte d’Ivoire – Rassemblement démocratique africain (PDCI-RDA).

She was re-elected in 2016 in the same constituency, this time as an independent candidate, and this year she is running for mayor of Cocody in the municipal elections on 2 September.

In this posh Abidjan commune, the PDCI did not nominate her, but instead picked incumbent mayor Jean-Marc Yacé, another heir. He is the nephew of Philippe-Grégoire Yacé, the first president of the National Assembly and a fellow fighter with Houphouët-Boigny.

He is also the nephew of Marie-Georgette Ouégnin, wife of patriarch François Ouégnin, Yasmina’s grandfather…making Jean-Marc Yasmina Ouégnin’s distant uncle.

Family agreements

Although the Ouégnins and Yacés are long-standing allies, the duel for the Cocody mayoralty will have the air of a family war. Will it break down the oligarchy? “No,” says Sylvain N’Guessan.

“Families will surely face off against one another, but the pacts between them remain solid,” he says.

Blood ties, matrimonial alliances, and other convergences of interest are not easily undone. That’s when they are not outright formal pacts, like the one made in 1963 between Charles Bauza Donwahi and Seydou Diarra, who shared the same prison cell after being accused of plotting against Houphouët-Boigny.

The former was president of the National Assembly under Henri Konan Bédié while the latter was prime minister under Laurent Gbagbo. The two men had promised to take care of their respective families after each other’s deaths. Diarra kept that promise: when Donwahi died in 1997, he took his ally’s son, Richard, under his wing.

Thanks to his mentorship, the latter was able to become minister of water and forests in Amadou Gon Coulibaly’s government.

Under the RHDP banner, he now chairs the regional council of Nawa, in the south-west of Côte d’Ivoire, a region where his father was several times a member of parliament. On 2 September, he will stand for a second term.

In April 2022, following revelations about the role of the ministry of water and forests in a case of timber trafficking, R. Donwahi was dismissed from the government. However, a month later, he was elected president of COP15. It was a golden parachute that made many people in Abidjan cringe.

Wealthy heirs

Are these heirs bulletproof? “They have an atomic shield,” says N’Guessan.

One example is Marcel Amon Tanoh, son of Lambert Amon Tanoh, former minister of education under Houphouët-Boigny, and Françoise-Florentine Yacé, another sister of Philippe-Grégoire.

He had a fall-out with President Alassane Ouattara during the 2020 presidential campaign, where he openly criticised his decision to run for a third term. However, the former foreign affairs minister in the Gon Coulibaly government reconciled with the president and finally found a home at the head of the Conseil de l’entente – where his management has since been severely criticised.

These heirs also derive their political power from the large fortunes they have inherited. Jean-Louis Billon, the son of Sifca founder Pierre Billon, is one of the richest men in Côte d’Ivoire.

A member of the PDCI’s political bureau, he is also the MP for Dabakala, in the Hambol region in the north of the country. He has made no secret of his presidential ambitions – if his mentor Henri Konan Bédié gives him a chance one day.

Thierry Tanoh (no relation to Amon Tanoh), current vice-president of the PDCI, is another ambitious young man from the former single party.

It would be an understatement to say that Billon and Tanoh know each other well: the two men are in fact the sons-in-law of Charles Gomis, former Côte d’Ivoire ambassador to France and former aide to Ouattara.

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