The opposition Social Democratic Front (SDF), destabilised by the mass exodus of its militants, most of whom have become the target of separatist militias, is divided over its participation in the local elections of 9 February.
Charles Blé Goudé – ‘I walk with my head held high and my hands clean’
Five months after his acquittal, the former youth minister under President Laurent Gbagbo and former leader of the Jeunes Patriotes is preparing to return home to Côte d'Ivoire. From The Hague, he talks about life in prison, his relations with Laurent Gbagbo and Guillaume Soro, and his new political ambitions.
Charles Blé Goudé no longer likes to set foot outside. The former Ivorian leader and charismatic “street general” who electrified meetings and mobilised young people now avoids the crowd. The six years of imprisonment he endured have taken their toll on him. Since his acquittal of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC) last January, Laurent Gbagbo’s former minister of youth is savouring his victory, albeit he has yet to leave the Netherlands.
Only a few kilometres from Scheveningen prison, Goudé now spends his days in an upscale hotel, guarded heavily by security guards. He might not be imprisoned, but he is not totally free either. His time is spent reading, watching series, enjoying the latest zouglou releases and reflecting on an often unclear future.
While waiting for a possible appeal by the prosecutor, ICC judges granted him a conditional discharge. Goudé is prohibited from talking about his case, as in not a word about the post-electoral crisis of 2010-2011, or about his specific role in the decade of violence. He only says that he has “regrets” after statements that have left him “traumatised”.
Currently acquitted of all charges, Goudé, 47, no longer wants to hear about the Jeunes Patriotes and is trying to rebuild his image and his name. Dressed in a dark blue suit, a well-adjusted tie, with his volubility intact and a piercing look, he promises to bounce back again as a force to be reckoned with. He dreams of a future as a statesman and has not lost any of his old reflexes. He regularly changes his telephone chip, as he did in his days in hiding. He is not quite the same but he hasn’t changed much either.
When the ICC judge announced that you were acquitted on 15 January, you remained stoic. What was going through your mind?
Charles Blé Goudé: I remembered all those who said that going to the ICC was a journey without return. I have always had confidence in justice and, at that moment, I believed I had been right.
During your five years in Scheveningen, did you have any moments of despair?
I was never afraid because the facts were in my favour. But I knew it would take time for the truth to come out. I was happy that this was finally happening. I would not leave my children a tainted name and, for my supporters and for Côte d’Ivoire, they now know that their son is not an international criminal. I walk with my head held high and my hands clean.
If everything you were accused of was false, how do you explain being prosecuted for crimes against humanity?
It’s a question I’ve always refused to ask myself, otherwise I would have lost my morale. It was my destiny.
Do you have any resentments?
I did everything I could to make sure that the prison would not be used to bring me down morally. I’ve come out of it without resentment or hatred. Unfortunately, most great men were initially rejected by their time, it is with time that they were understood.
How did you spend your days?
Prison is not a resort! Believe me, I wasn’t happy there. But, to paraphrase Nelson Mandela, prison is not only a place of confinement, it is also a place of education. All these years, I have tried to make sure that it is not a waste of time, but a gain. Rather than feel sorry for myself, I took the opportunity to read and learn.
What were you reading?
The Bible. I fear the Supreme Being. I also read some political essays, and especially my file. Because Charles Blé Goudé’s first lawyer was Charles Blé Goudé. I want to be the main actor in my life. I’m like a river, I like to make my own bed.
What was your relationship like with other ICC prisoners?
Behind bars, I was a hairdresser and a cook. Prison taught me two things: patience and solidarity. Laurent Gbagbo, Jean-Pierre Bemba, Bosco Ntaganda, Dominic Ongwen… We are a family now, our ties are sacred. For five years, we shared everything, ate and played ball together.
What position did you play for?
I’ve always been an attacker!
Since your release, how is your relationship with former president Laurent Gbagbo?
He’s my father. These years in prison have brought us even closer. We had already been through a lot together. In 2000 [presidential election], when he was running against Robert Gueï, I stood beside him. In 2002, when we were confronted with an armed rebellion, I was by his side. And finally, at the ICC, in this bottomless pit, I was there. That is my loyalty. What binds me to him is a cause, it is values, it is a fight.
Do you consider yourself to be his political heir?
No, I want to be in control of my story. Laurent Gbagbo was nobody’s heir and I want to be like him. He is a man who, like me, is still in detention while he sacrificed his life for Côte d’Ivoire. We owe him a lot, starting with democracy.
And does he want you to be his successor?
Those who think that Laurent Gbagbo will name a successor do not know him. Many think they know who he is: they have coffee with him, they laugh with him – the president is very warm – and they say: “He is my friend.” But they are wrong. Laurent Gbagbo likes those who chart their own path, who take action, not those who follow in the footsteps of others.
How is he?
I know he’s in Belgium and he’s fine. Very good, even.
Does he call you?
We talk to each other when needed. At the moment it’s not. We had plenty of time to talk to each other in prison. Now he needs to rest and regain his health.
What are his political ambitions?
You have to ask him that. In any case, Laurent Gbagbo knows what he wants, what is good for his country and for himself.
Isn’t there a risk that his return will create unrest? That’s what some people fear….
On the contrary, I believe that Laurent Gbagbo can still make a significant contribution to Côte d’Ivoire.
You were considered one of the toughest people in his regime. Do you understand what you were accused of? Violent speeches, hate slogans…
You can never get unanimity. For some, you are a hero; for others, you are the devil. I believe I have done what is right for my country. There was a misunderstanding between different clans, that’s what led us to war. Today, I reach out to those who did not understand me yesterday.
Do you regret the speeches against foreigners, and in particular the French?
I am still waiting for someone to show me the speeches in which I am anti-French and ask for them to be chased out. This is all propaganda.
Has prison changed you?
It changes all men. Plus I got older.
Have you become wiser?
No. I’m not that young anymore, but I didn’t say I was wise.
In August, your party, the Congrès pan-Africain pour la Justice et l’Egalité des Peuples (Cojep), will hold its congress. Are you hoping to be back [in Côte d’Ivoire] by then?
Cojep will be 18 years old, which is the age of maturity. In August, we will evaluate our journey and conclude that Charles Blé Goudé must be part of it again. Don’t forget that before our acquittal everyone was attacking Laurent Gbagbo and me. Be careful, in politics, you never know what can happen.
Will you still engage in politics when you return to Côte d’Ivoire?
You don’t retire at 47. Never declare a politician finished until you see him buried.
Were you buried too soon?
Many have tried to do that to me. But I’ll end up going home and taking my share. I am patient.
To be in politics, you need money. Diplomatic cables revealed by WikiLeaks said that you were a “successful businessman”, owner of bars, petrol stations. Is this still the case?
It’s all lies! Search all the banks, you won’t find anything! During the crisis, I was even told that my accounts abroad were being frozen, but they finally lifted these sanctions because they never existed.
Do you dream of becoming president?
One day, I would like to lead my country. But I have plenty of time. I know that Côte d’Ivoire is waiting for me.
Would you like to be a candidate in 2020?
What happens in Côte d’Ivoire is not based on an electoral calendar… 2020, 2025, it does not matter.
During the crisis, you predicted Guillaume Soro for the 2015 presidential election….
Let me get out of the situation I’m in first.
Guillaume Soro is an old acquaintance. Before he was the leader of the rebellion you fought, you led the Fédération Estudiantine et Scolaire de Côte d’Ivoire (FESCI) with him.
We were in school together and we also campaigned side by side at the FESCI. It’s a past I don’t deny. I was his national secretary. For two and a half years, when he was travelling, I had to ensure his safety. That’s something. It creates sacred bonds. I will surprise you: do you know who called me “the genius of the Kopo”? It was Guillaume Soro! Then our paths diverged.
Could they cross again?
Those of Henri Konan Bédié and Alassane Ouattara ended up meeting again, didn’t they? Yet they were fierce opponents.
Has Guillaume Soro reached out to you since your release?
I spoke to him on the phone. He congratulated me. He told me that he was very happy that I was released.
Do you receive any other calls… From Hamed Bakayoko, for example?
No, but if he calls me, I’ll be happy to talk to him. I have no animosity towards him.
Soro, Bakayoko, Blé Goudé… Is this the new generation of Ivorian politicians?
It’s obvious! The time will come when we will have the responsibilities.
Laurent Gbagbo and Henri Konan Bédié seem to be getting closer. Is that a good thing? You spent your life fighting Bédié and under his presidency you went to prison eight times.
Let’s not move too fast. Two politicians who yesterday did not understand each other met. I am delighted about that, but there are natural alliances and others that are unnatural. That being said, I am reaching out to everyone. Even Alassane Ouattara.
The head of state does not exclude running for a third term. He has had the right to do so since the adoption of the new constitution in 2016. What do you think of that?
The problem is not just what is allowed or not allowed. It’s an ethical issue.
Are you afraid of new tensions as the election approaches?
We must learn from our history. Our young people have never witnessed a peaceful transfer of power. Bédié left during a coup d’état, Gueï was driven off the streets, Gbagbo was bombed by France. I no longer wish that for my country. Let’s stop reducing its future to our personal ambitions. History will not forgive us. I propose that we hold a forum for Laurent Gbagbo, Alassane Ouattara and Henri Konan Bédié to sit around a table and discuss. There are worrying signals. It’s getting heated for nothing. In municipal elections, there have been deaths, legislative elections, there have been deaths, regional elections… What’s the problem? For years, these problems were attributed to Gbagbo and Goudé, but during the last election we were in prison. So we are not the problem.
This article was first published in Jeune Afrique