Ivory Coast Leader Returns After a Decade Away

Acquitted at the International Criminal Court, former President Laurent Gbagbo could play a role in the current government.

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JUNE 16, 2021, 1:00 AM

Foreign Policy Brief.

Former President Laurent Gbagbo’s return to Ivory Coast raises questions about his political future.

Laurent Gbagbo Returns to Ivory Coast

Former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo plans to return from Brussels to Abidjan tomrrow 17 after a decadelong absence while on trial at The Hague.

On March 31, the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Court upheld Gbagbo’s 2019 acquittal for crimes against humanity. Gbagbo had been charged for his role in allegedly inciting post-election violence and civil war between December 2010 and April 2011, in which around 3,000 people were killed.

Gbagbo was the first head of state to stand trial at The Hague, and he maintained his innocence and his support back home throughout his time away. Gbagbo’s party, the Ivorian Popular Front, has created a welcome committee for his arrival. Despite his long absence, the 76-year-old former leader seems poised to step right back into politics.

Old rivalry. Current President Alassane Ouattara is among those anxiously anticipating Gbagbo’s return. According to the Africa Report, Ouattara was not surprised by the acquittal and is prepared for the return of his political foe.

The two politicians—whose political rivalry ultimately led to war—have not spoken, but their emissaries have reportedly traveled between Ivory Coast and Gbagbo’s residence in Brussels. Ouattara’s public comments indicate the tone of those discussions: Ouattara envisions Gbagbo returning to play a role in national reconciliation, although the details remain unclear.

But some Gbagbo supporters worry Ouattara could use a November 2019 conviction in absentia (for misappropriating funds from the central bank) to curtail the former president’s political ambitions. For example, Ouattara could dangle a presidential pardon in front of Gbagbo to ensure that he doesn’t whip up his still considerable support base against the current president.

Ouattara has used the last decade to consolidate his power, winning a landslide victory after seeking a third term last year, but he still has reason to fear his base fracturing.

Peacemaker? Some analysts hope Gbagbo will use his political clout in Ivory Coast to help the country heal from old wounds. A gifted orator whose socialist leanings attracted the disenfranchised, Gbagbo could use his influence to finally bring reconciliation. The 2010-2011 conflict divided the country along party lines when Gbagbo refused to cede power to Ouattara, leading to civil war.

Some others fear his return could deepen existing divisions. “The wounds are still open … and the authorities are worried that Gbagbo will stir up the crowds again, which is one of his hallmarks,” International Crisis Group researcher Rinaldo Depagne told Radio France Internationale.

Nothing new. For Ivory Coast citizens, Gbagbo’s return just continues a political legacy that has consolidated power among a few elites for decades. Actors such as Gbagbo, Ouattara, and former President Henri Konan Bédié still dominate the political landscape—as rivals or allies, depending on the climate.

Bédié, for example, has at different times been allied to Ouattara and Gbagbo. The latter may have entered politics as an outsider challenging this establishment, but he has become part of its architecture.

The trio ultimately represent a lack of real change in Ivory Coast, where the leadership is increasingly distant from its young population. Gbagbo’s return will likely be triumphant, but it won’t change much.

Published/Updated 16/06/2021