Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara offered a hearty welcome to his predecessor Laurent Gbagbo on Tuesday as the rivals met for the first time since the West African country’s deadly 2010-11 conflict.
Gbagbo, 76, has leapt into the spotlight since returning last month from Europe, where he won a landmark case at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
“Cordial and fraternal meeting with my young brother Laurent Gbagbo. We will work to build confidence for the benefit of our country,” Ouattara posted on Twitter.
Rencontre cordiale et fraternelle avec mon jeune frère Laurent Gbagbo. Nous travaillerons à renforcer la confiance, dans l’intérêt de notre pays. pic.twitter.com/HwAUnX6OC2
— Alassane Ouattara (@AOuattara_PRCI) July 27, 2021
At a joint press conference, Ouattara said the “crisis created differences but that is behind us”.
“What is important for Ivory Coast is peace in our country.”
Gbagbo, for his part, called for the release of prisoners held since the crisis, sparked by his refusal to accept defeat at the ballot box to Ouattara.
Gbagbo, who was in power since 2000, was sent to The Hague-based court in 2011 after some 3,000 people were killed in a months-long conflict that followed his refusal to accept electoral defeat at the hands of incumbent Ouattara.
“The mere fact of seeing Ouattara and Gbagbo together is being seen as a sign of healing and a strong image for Ivorians in their quest for peace and national reconciliation,” the opposition newspaper Notre Voie (Our Road) said.
But Gbagbo’s spokesman Justin Katinan Kone urged the public “not to make too much” of the meeting, expected to last about half an hour and to be followed by a news conference.
“This is a courtesy visit to his elder … If it helps to ease the political atmosphere, so much the better,” he said.
“Laurent Gbagbo is in a spirit of openness, dialogue and reconciliation,” Franck Anderson Kouassi, spokesman for Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) party, told AFP news agency on Monday.
“Meeting President Ouattara is exactly in line with our way of thinking.
“Dialogue in our country… will continue, because that is the government’s will,” said government spokesman Amadou Coulibaly.
A onetime international banker, Ouattara, 79, won a landslide victory in the last elections on October 31.
But the credibility of the win was undermined by an opposition boycott.
In the run-up to the vote, many people died in clashes with police after Ouattara unveiled his controversial bid for a third term.
While Ouattara has officially welcomed Gbagbo’s return, hoping it will ease tensions, questions remain whether Gbagbo will stick to the script of statesman or prefer an active political role that may challenge Ouattara.
Gbagbo has said little about what political role he might play back home. He retains strong support among his base of supporters, particularly in the south and the west.
Gbagbo rose in the 1970s as a left-wing campaigner who helped end Ivory Coast’s one-party system following independence from France in 1960.
His years in power were marked by rebellion, civil war, national divisions and repeatedly postponed elections, but he retains considerable grassroots support. His defenders portray him as a champion of the poor and oppressed.
Commentators are also watching the interplay among Ouattara, Gbagbo and former President Henri Konan Bedie, 87, three men who have dominated the political stage for decades.
On July 11, Gbagbo and Bedie – who were also once rivals – announced that they were united in the goal of forging “final and sustainable peace”.
One lingering matter is a 20-year jail sentence for Gbagbo, who was convicted in absentia of “looting” the Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO) during the 2010-11 conflict.
Authorities have hinted that this sentence will be lifted.