Abidjan, Ivory Coast – Ivory Coast’s former President Laurent Gbagbo returns home on Thursday to help “reconcile” a country that he left in chaos almost 10 years ago.
The opposition leader is due to fly back on a commercial flight from Brussels after judges at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague earlier this year confirmed his acquittal, as well as that of his youth minister Charles Ble Goude, of crimes against humanity. The two had been accused of instigating the post-election violence that engulfed Ivory Coast in 2011.
The return is seen as a test for the country and a population that still has the bloody conflict fresh in memory, with some analysts saying there are concerns that it could again destabilise the world’s largest cocoa producer.
But Gbagbo’s supporters and members of his Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) party hope that the 76-year-old’s return, after spending most of the past 10 years in ICC custody, will ease lingering tensions.
In the commercial capital, Abidjan, the preparations for Gbagbo’s return were well under way on the eve of his scheduled arrival.
“Gbagbo is a man of peace and of reconciliation,” Benedicte Bleh Ouete said at the FPI’s headquarters while shopping for t-shirts and baseball caps with the leader’s portrait. “For all those who suffered for years when Gbagbo was in exile, his return is a good thing.”
President Alassane Ouattara, who sent Gbagbo to The Hague, has made the presidential pavilion at the airport available for his return.
He has also granted him the status and rewards reserved for ex-presidents including a pension, personal security and the diplomatic passport facilitating his return.
“The fact that Ouattara has asked this to be handled directly by the presidential staff is a strong message,” Assoua Adou, the secretary general of FPI, said on Monday.
A former history professor and longtime opponent of Ivory Coast’s first president after independence from France, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, Gbagbo came to power in 2000 after he won an election in which military ruler Robert Guei did not recognise his defeat.
Gbagbo’s tenure was marred by a failed coup that split the country into a rebel-held north and a government-run south and fuelled outbreaks of violence that pushed him to extend his presidential mandate. When elections finally took place in 2010, Ouattara defeated Gbagbo, who claimed voter fraud and refused to concede.
More than 3,000 people were killed in the months of fighting that ensued between forces loyal to the two men, before Gbabgo’s arrest in April 2011 and subsequent transfer to the ICC.
Supporters of Gbagbo say his return is necessary to reignite a reconciliation process that never got off the ground after the violence.
“Gbagbo is the only one who can bring the people together,” said his 51-year-old son, Michel Gbagbo, and deputy of Yopougon, an FPI stronghold.
Gbagbo first announced his intentions to return on the eve of the October 2020 elections that saw Ouattara win a controversial third mandate.
His return is timely as many Ivorians feel betrayed by Ouattara’s decision to run for a third term in the wake of constitutional amendments introduced in 2016.
Despite investments in large infrastructure projects – including bridges, highways and universities – and an economy that has expanded by more than 7 percent annually for much of the past decade, a large part of the population feel excluded from the economic growth.
That, in turn, has led to allegations of nepotism and corruption, as well as complaints that Ouattara’s rule has primarily benefitted members of his Dioula ethnic group, which hails from the country’s north.
In April, Ouattara said Gbagbo was free to return to Ivory Coast. He did not specify whether Gbagbo had been pardoned from an outstanding 20-year prison sentence given in absentia by an Ivorian court for misappropriating funds from the regional central bank.
Earlier this year, Gbagbo’s FPI fielded candidates in parliamentary elections for the first time in 10 years. Its contenders ran on a joint list with Henri Konan Bedie’s Democratic Party for Ivory Coast, who backed Ouattara in elections in 2010 and again in 2015.
Gbagbo remains a heavyweight in the opposition against Ouattara, said Sylvain N’Guessan, a political analyst and director of the Abidjan Strategy Institute. He still commands a large following with FPI and members of his Bete ethnic group.
But critics are wary that Gbagbo’s return could again raise tensions.
“Why would I want to see the return of someone who caused so much suffering and destruction?” said Samuel Abongo, a 29-year-old Uber driver from Yopougon.
Gbagbo’s supporters suffered too, said Henriette Kouassi, who recently returned to Ivory Coast after seven years in exile in neighbouring Ghana.
“We’re so happy Gbagbo’s coming home.”