Ivory Coast ex-leader Gbagbo heads home after war crimes acquittal

Former president Laurent Gbagbo was returning to Ivory Coast on Thursday for the first time in nearly a decade, after he was cleared of crimes against humanity and his once-bitter rival welcomed him back in the name of reconciliation.

Gbagbo left the country in humiliation in 2011, after his refusal to accept electoral defeat sparked a conflict that ended in his arrest and transfer to The Hague.

The 76-year-old’s homecoming will be a key test of stability in Ivory Coast, the world’s biggest cocoa producer and the wealthiest country in francophone West Africa.

Gbagbo boarded a commercial flight to Abidjan from Brussels on Thursday morning, his spokesman Justin Katinan Kone told AFP.

The Belgian capital has been his home since the International Criminal Court (ICC) acquitted him in a shock decision in 2019. An appeal against the ruling failed in March, paving the way for his return.

Gbagbo was ousted in April 2011 after around 3,000 people died in the months-long conflict that followed his refusal to accept electoral defeat at the hands of Alassane Ouattara, the current president.

Today, Gbagbo has been recast in the role of statesman, called upon to help national reconciliation after elections last year left scores dead.

Ouattara, 79, has facilitated his return, issuing his rival with a diplomatic passport and promising him the rewards and status due to ex-presidents.

– Police disperse supporters –

Ouattara is letting Gbagbo use the presidential salon at Abidjan airport upon arrival, where he will be welcomed by relatives and the leaders of his Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) party.

The party held talks about the scale of celebrations with the government, which preferred a more discrete event. 

Communications Minister Amadou Coulibaly said Wednesday that gatherings by Gbagbo’s supporters had been authorised.

However the road to the airport was blocked to those without a plane ticket or other authorisation, and police used tear gas to disperse dozens of angry Gbagbo supporters gathered along it, according to AFP reporters.

“We want to welcome Gbagbo,” one woman shouted in frustration, while a man said he was “more determined than ever” to see the ex-president.

Gbagbo spokesman Kone said “we are surprised by this unjustified reaction”.

He added that “arrests have been carried out” and that buses of Gbagbo supporters coming in from the provinces had been blocked from entering Abidjan.

“This is out of step with the spirit” of cooperation between the government and FPI “which had prevailed until now,” he added.

After leaving the airport, Gbagbo is scheduled to travel through the city to the Attoban neighbourhood, where his old campaign headquarters are located. Hundreds of people had gathered at the headquarters in the early afternoon Thursday, AFP reporters said.

Between the airport in Abidjan’s south and Attoban in the north, Gbagbo’s motorcade is scheduled to pass through several areas where crowds of supporters are expected to gather to cheer him on. 

– ‘Wants to play his part’ –

But not everyone is overjoyed at his return. 

Groups representing the victims of the 2010-2011 post-election violence have condemned the “impunity” he has received and planned to protest in Abidjan.

They also point to a 20-year jail sentence Gbagbo was given in absentia for “looting” the Central Bank of West African States during the conflict.

Authorities have already hinted that this sentence will be lifted.

First elected in 2000, Gbagbo’s tenure was marked by division and rebellion in the former French colony nation once seen as a beacon of stability in West Africa.

Elections that should have been held in 2005 were postponed six times until 2010, when he lost to Ouattara. Conflict erupted, leading to his arrest in April 2011 and transfer to the ICC in November that year.

His party insists he is returning in peace. In March, it took part in legislative elections, ending a decade-long boycott of the ballot box.

His attorney Habiba Toure, who is travelling with the ex-president, told AFP in Brussels that Gbagbo “is happy, enthusiastic and wants to play his part to try to reconcile Ivorians. He needs to talk to his people.”

Attention has also turned to a rising Islamist threat after jihadists killed four soldiers near the border with Burkina Faso.

FPI secretary-general Assoa Adou said “Ivory Coast must find itself” because it is “now in danger of destabilisation by jihadists”.


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