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Côte d’Ivoire: Laurent Gbagbo’s return to the political arena

By Vincent Duhem
Posted on Thursday, 2 December 2021 16:06

Côte d’Ivoire’s former president Laurent Gbagbo attends the opening of his new party's congress in Abidjan on 16 October 2021. © SIA KAMBOU/AFP

Four months after returning home, Côte d'Ivoire’s former president, Laurent Gbagbo, has created a new party. What are the 76-year-old’s real aspirations?

Cheers from the crowd, an adrenaline-fuelled meeting, flashes that crackle, television cameras with all eyes on you… It has been more than 10 years since Gbagbo experienced such moments that define the life of a politician.

Thus, when he entered the Hotel Ivoire’s conference room on 16 October, the former Ivorian president was inevitably moved. Wearing a midnight blue suit, he waved to his supporters, walked slowly up the steps, took his place in front of the podium, then sat in a comfortable armchair.

There was a double meaning to this event. On that day, Gbagbo also launched his new party, the Parti des Peuples Africains-Côte d’Ivoire (PPA-CI), and returned to the political arena. Four months after ending a decade-long exile, he is once again at the centre of the game.

Instrument of conquest

For a long time, Gbagbo had been thinking about creating a new political party. The idea began taking shape when he was still in power. He then pondered it during the first years of his detention in The Hague, mostly for strategic and personal reasons. “Although the Front Populaire Ivoirien [FPI] is the pure product of his guts, Laurent Gbagbo has never been a party man, a man of the apparatus. He always sees beyond. In his eyes, a party is only an instrument of conquest,” says one of his closest collaborators.

The internal quarrels finally convinced him that he could not wait any longer. In January 2020, Pascal Affi N’Guessan visited him in Brussels for the first time since the end of the post-election crisis. Following Gbagbo’s arrest, the former prime minister occupied the field and sought to take over from his former mentor. This provoked a leadership war in Abidjan.

He consults a lot, listens to everyone, but he never gives the whole story. He will never give you a yes or no answer.

Gbagbo only agreed to receive him at the insistence of some of his collaborators, who were convinced that Guessan wanted to make amends. However, this did not happen. The man whom the Ivorian justice system considers to be the FPI’s president then offered him a deal: Gbagbo could get his seat back on the sole condition that he was appointed vice-president. “In that moment, he understood that he had to turn the page on the party. He did not want to give in to this blackmail and suspected that he would never win his case in court,” says a witness.

Would Gbagbo have decided to abandon the FPI otherwise? Those close to him believe that he would have, given that – for a long time – he had wanted to free himself from certain members of the FPI, who were dragging him down, and be its sole instigator.

He did not go about setting up the party until he returned to Côte d’Ivoire. Even though Gbagbo has remained the same, always lightening the mood and putting his colleagues at ease, he is not very talkative when it comes to sensitive issues. “He consults a lot, listens to everyone, but he never gives the whole story. He will never give you a yes or no answer,” says one of his right-hand men.

As a result, when he publicly announced his intention to create a new party on 9 August, most people were surprised. At 76, he still seems to possess the characteristics that make him – alongside Alassane Ouattara – a reference in Côte d’Ivoire: intelligence, malice, a dose of vice and a well-rooted ego.

Nevertheless, he faces an important challenge. Although he can rely on some of the FPI’s structures, the PPA-CI’s political line is still unclear and must be established. To achieve this, Gbagbo relied on a team made up of loyal and new faces, thus slightly changing the habits of some old hands.

Less political figures

Gbagbo and Assoa Adou, president of the Conseil Stratégique Politique, both determine the party’s major orientations.

17 people are involved, including:

  • Conseil are Sébastien Dano Djédjé (who was appointed first vice-president and chaired the party’s founding congress on 17 October);
  • Laurent Akoun (one of the FPI’s ideologists);
  • Stéphane Kipré (the former head of state’s son-in-law) and Georges-Armand Ouégnin, the former head of the opposition platform Ensemble pour la Démocratie et la Souveraineté (EDS). Kipré played an important role while Gbagbo was in exile in Europe, as he supported him financially and mobilised the diaspora around him. As for Djédjé, he has always been very loyal and understands the former president perfectly.
  • Hubert Oulaye, who was appointed the party’s executive president at the end of October, will have the onerous task of implementing the Conseil Stratégique’s directives.
  • The former civil service minister, who heads the EDS, will be supported by Damana Pickass. Gbagbo feels that the PPA-CI’s new secretary-general is the perfect person to lead and establish the party. “Laurent Gbagbo firmly intends to rejuvenate the party. His promotion is evidence of this. Pickass has always been very loyal. He is a solid member of his system,” says a senior PPA-CI official.

Several other less-political figures surround the former president, including Habiba Touré. This multi-talented woman is Gbagbo’s lawyer, chief of staff and spokesperson. She is also the deputy of former minister Justin Koné Katinan, the party spokesman. The lawyer has not known Gbagbo for long, however, the two became close during his last years in detention, and especially during his stay in Brussels. The former president now has great confidence in her.

Auguste Emmanuel Ackah, who is much more discreet, remains an essential pawn – in this scheme – as cabinet director. Although he has known Gbagbo since 1982, he has never really been part of the FPI apparatus. He is a free agent who went to The Hague once a quarter, and to whom the former president always liked to entrust discreet missions. In recent years, he was – for example – one of the few who could pass messages between Gbagbo and Simone. As ambassador to Ghana from 2007 to 2011, he is described as a man of consensus, balanced and upright.

Divorce from Simone

There is one big absentee from this list: Simone Gbagbo. Laurent’s return home sped up the couple’s divorce proceedings. On the day of his arrival in Abidjan, the protocol was quickly derailed.

Ultimately, the former first lady’s presence crystallised tensions. Like the party’s other vice presidents, she was supposed to welcome Gbagbo at his offices, located in the FPI’s former headquarters in Attoban, in the commune of Cocody. However, she decided to go to the airport instead, which caused some trouble. “She wanted to make a political move,” says a person close to the former president.

A few days later, Gbagbo announced that he was filing for divorce. The procedure is currently ongoing before the court of first instance in Abidjan-Plateau, where Laurent and Simone have had an opportunity to express themselves. According to our sources, they met a second time in early August, in a more private setting and in the presence of a third person.

“As soon as Laurent came to power, Simone wanted to be part of history. She marked her territory, played on her historical status, creating confusion between the political and marital institutions. When Simone spoke, people wondered whether they should listen to the wife or the party leader. It was time to set the record straight,” says an evening visitor to the ex-president.

Gbagbo left his residence at the Riviera-Golf to Simone; she has been living there since his release from prison in 2018. The former president lives in a villa that belongs to his current partner, Nady Bamba. He has set up offices and a reception room there, and even met with the figures who will form the organs of his new party.

He spends most of his days at the villa and receives few guests. He is a notorious insomniac – a fault that he has passed on to all his children – and has a different rhythm of life, just like he did during his presidential years, when he took his meals at the palace around 4pm. Despite this, Gbagbo, who only drinks decaffeinated coffee, always seems extremely focused – to those who meet him.

Pantouflage

His second wife, Nady, is extremely present. Apart from family members, the only way to get in touch with Gbagbo is through her. Although she is always there to protect her husband, she is not afraid to act as an intermediary for certain people close to the government.

“She fights to present an image that is the opposite to the one that Simone had. The image of a submissive woman, who is constantly behind her man, but she has a very strong personality. She watches and observes everything, with much more distance and tact than the former first lady. She does not want to play the leading role. Gbagbo trusts her completely, because she does not present herself as a political adversary. He’s a slacker. He needs someone at his side that will manage and organise his life,” says a person familiar with the couple.

At the end of October, Gbagbo went to his village of Mama, leaving the tumult of Abidjan for a week. There, behind the walls of his residence, time seems to stand still. Nature has almost taken over, as the fish ponds that Simone installed are empty and ivy has grown everywhere. However, the former president’s return to his homeland has brought the place back to life.

The bullets embedded in the door of the villa that he had built for himself after his accession to power have been removed, and work has begun. While waiting for his house to be fully restored, Gbagbo is staying in the modest adjoining building, which was built in 1990.

He made mistakes, but he has nothing to atone for. He did not wage war against anyone, did not create a militia, was not behind any coup attempt. He knows the reasons why he was in prison and why he was kept there for so long.

While in Mama, Gbagbo was able to attend his grandson’s baptism. He also went to the funeral of the mother of Dr. Christophe Blé, his personal physician, in the department of Guibéroua on 5 and 6 November. It was an event which he would not have missed for anything in the world, as the two men have known each other since the 1990s and are extremely close. He also took the opportunity to hold working sessions with his main lieutenants to refine the PPA-CI’s agenda and put an end to the friction that the allocation of posts has caused. Rivalries between Oulaye and Adou on the one hand, Katinan and Touré on the other.

What is one looking to achieve when they are 76, especially when they have known everything? Those close to him repeat over and over again that “his main concern is to contribute towards creating a climate of peace. This requires true reconciliation, even if this cannot be decreed.” In each of his media appearances, one has the sense that he wants to take revenge on history and restore his reputation.

“He made mistakes, but he has nothing to atone for. He did not wage war against anyone, did not create a militia, was not behind any coup attempt. He knows the reasons why he was in prison and why he was kept there for so long,” says one of his old friends.

And on the political front? When he created his new party, he was ambiguous. “My ambition today is to leave, but not to abandon you, because I will always be an activist in our party, a grassroots activist. I no longer need to hold demonstrations. After this journey, I have come to the realisation that I need to leave, but not abruptly,” he said, while reiterating that he would never stop being involved in politics.

He was sarcastic, even when discussing his conviction for the so-called BCEAO heist. “Gbagbo was sentenced to 20 years, so will we ban him from being president? (…) A conviction that I reject, that I do not recognise, is not my problem. Even if I am told tomorrow that I am not president because of this false conviction, the party must be able to continue its journey,” he said. “I haven’t ruled anything out,” he told France 24, when asked about this subject.

Offensive stance

“In truth, he is preparing his exit. A beautiful exit, even if some of the old-timers are pushing him to run in 2025,” says one of his close friends.

“Gbagbo may dream of being a candidate, but Ouattara will never let him run,” says another man who knows the duo well. In addition to the judicial cut-off, the possibility of re-establishing an age limit for running in the presidential election remains on the table. “It is a serious hypothesis. However, a vote in the National Assembly cannot come too soon, as it could risk weakening ADO,” says our source.

Gbagbo maintains regular phone contact with Henri Konan Bédié. This strategic, rather than ideological, alliance between their parties continues. On the other hand, his relations with Ouattara are much less fluid than they were after their tête-à-tête on 27 July. The two men talk much less. Even though Gbagbo now regularly mocks his ‘elder brother’, he has never expressed bitterness, say those close to him.

“Laurent Gbagbo has adopted an offensive stance. He wants to position himself, to assert himself to his electorate. He does not want to submit to Ouattara or provoke him. What he wants is the political and democratic struggle,” our source tells us.

Is this the reason why Gbagbo, according to those close to him, has still not received the allowance that is owed to him as a former president? The presidency confirmed this information, adding that the prime minister’s office cannot release the funds until they have received certain documents. According to our sources, the blockage is in fact due to Gbagbo’s marital situation. According to Ivorian law, he must provide his marriage certificate and a “certificate of non-registration of divorce”. It seems clear why Gbagbo, who is in the midst of a separation, cannot do this.

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