Love him or loathe him, the man oozes charisma second to none across the Ivorian political spectrum.
During a speech laced with political innuendos and funny anecdotes about time spent in forced exile, Ivory Coast former president stood tall for over half an hour. His recounts of time spent in jail were met with rousing cheers.
"The ICC was not serious. It was necessary to remove me from office for someone more convenient, so I was sent over there." Laurent Gbagbo said at his home in Mama, his native village in the mid-west of Côte d'Ivoire. Adding, in front of traditional chiefs, party officials and the press: “I don't regret it because if I had come back with a criminal conviction, you would all be ashamed."
The former Ivorian president was definitively acquitted last March by the ICC, where he stood trial for crimes against humanity alongside his former youth minister Charles Blé Goudé.
"Even white people who do not know us and do not understand our little quarrels knew that I was not a criminal. I can be accused of everything, but I am not a criminal," said Laurent Gbagbo to laughter from the audience.
The chiefs majestically draped in colourful loincloths from all over his fiefdom in the mid-west, the cocoa-rich region of the first producing nation of the commodity in the world, entrusted him with a mission to help kick-start unity.
In the Mama public square, villagers waited in vain, dancing and singing, for the ex-president to come and talk to them.
“Gbagbo is back to bring peace to the nation. We are happy. This is a special day. President Gbagbo is free. We want to hear him, just one word." Holding leafy branches as a sign of peace in hand, they sang in unison.
Several thousand people gave him a triumphant welcome on Sunday, June 26. There were no incidents in Mama like his arrival day on June 17 in Abidjan, when police prevented his supporters from getting close to Felix Houphouet Boigny Airport.
Laurent Gbagbo, who was president since 2000, was arrested in April 2011 in Abidjan and transferred to the ICC to be tried for crimes committed following the presidential election in late 2010. The election dispute with Alassane Ouattara led to a bloody post-election crisis that left more than 3,000 dead.
Re-elected in October 2020 for a third term, although he had promised not to be a candidate, Ouattara gave the green light to Laurent Gbagbo's return a few days after his acquittal.
"Without disagreement, there is no democracy," says Gbagbo.
“I thank the eminent guests present today, because in a department or a region when there are debates, they are always at the forefront. Always in the midst. There is no need for bickering anymore. If we find ourselves at the bottom of the pit and one of us manages to find a way to higher grounds, let's help him out. Then, maybe he can send us a rope to pull us out as well. Let's not cast anathema on one another.
"Guikahué, is from the PDCI and so what? It does not matter. My little brother Lokrou Vincent from the PDCI was one of Houphouët Boigny’s ministers, but what does it matter? If we all have to agree all the time, there is no more democracy. Disagreement is the core of democracy. I get on well with them despite our opposing views in politics. Is Djédjé Bagnon here? He was my first employer. I was a student when he hired me to teach in his private college in Divo. I was happy to earn my first salary back then."
Before he departed from Mama, Laurent Gbagbo took part in an early morning traditional purification ceremony during which healers symbolically cleansed him of his former condition as a prisoner, marking his return to the community.
The reconciliation process could soon be underway, as this deeply divided country yearns for peace and prosperity.
Published on 29/06/2021 @21:00
By Claude B Djaquis
Ivory Coast Tribune