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A surprise guest in the 31 October Ivorian presidential vote: Laurent Gbagbo

By Benjamin Roger
Posted on Friday, 30 October 2020 17:31, updated on Monday, 2 November 2020 10:31

Supporters of former President Laurent Gbagbo react as they gather outside the Independent Electoral Commission in Abidjan, Ivory Coast 31 August 2020. REUTERS/Luc Gnago

Silent since his arrest in April 2011, Ivorian former president Laurent Gbagbo waited until the last minute to speak. It was a way to prove to Ivorians and his great rival, President Alassane Ouattara, that he can still influence the political game.

His close friends swore it a few days ago – Gbagbo would not speak until he is completely free and back home in Côte d’Ivoire. But, as he explained in an interview granted from Brussels to TV5 Monde, he finally decided to speak because of the “disaster” which, according to him, is waiting for his country after the presidential election scheduled for Saturday, October 31.

“I see that quarrels lead us to the abyss. As a former president of the republic, it wouldn’t be responsible if I kept quiet,” he explained, wearing a dark suit and with his hair whitened by time.

Why did he make this choice? First of all to show that he is still there and that he still intends to influence the Ivorian political game. Regardless of his stilted words and the visible fatigue caused by his nine years of detention in The Hague: with this interview, ‘Le Woody de Mama’ – ‘ the king of Mama’, the village he was born in, as he is known – is back.

READ MORE Côte d’Ivoire: Where is civil society ahead of the presidential election?

In these troubled times, he says, he wants to “explain what seems to him to be the right direction”, satisfying in passing his many supporters in Côte d’Ivoire, these ‘Gbagbo or no one’ supporters who, for years, have been watching for the slightest sign of their exiled mentor.

Finally, Ouattara’s public appearances in recent days, in which the head of state regularly discussed Gbagbo’s case, pushed him to respond.

Calming tensions

As the spectre of a new post-electoral crisis looms 10 years after the one that ousted him from power and led him behind the bars at the ICC, the ex-president said he is playing the card of calm. “People need to sit down to discuss and negotiate. There is still time to do so…. There is still time to do that… With discussion and negotiation, you can solve a lot of problems,” he said.

According to those around him, Gbagbo wants to avoid exacerbating a tense situation that has already resulted in some 30 deaths since August. “He doesn’t want to add fuel to the fire,” said one of his relatives. “He is a true statesman, who puts peace and the interests of the people before his own personal interests.”

Acquitted in the first instance of the crimes against humanity of which he was accused – a decision that the prosecutor’s office has appealed – the former president also knows that he is risking a great deal by engaging too head-on in the arm wrestling between the opposition and Ouattara. “He especially does not want to be accused of sowing disorder in Côte d’Ivoire and jeopardise his fate when he finally sees the light at the end of the tunnel,” said one of his collaborators.

In his interview, the founder of the Front Populaire Ivoirien (FPI) therefore refrained from clearly calling his compatriots to civil disobedience, as the opposition had done in mid-September.

A relief for the presidency, which is well aware of Gbagbo’s capacity to mobilise, even from a distance. Scenes of jubilation in the streets of Abidjan on the evening of his acquittal, 15 January 2019 attested to this.

Nevertheless, Gbagbo assured that he “understands and shares” the anger of the opponents of Ouattara’s third term: “It is he who committed the crime. It is he who did not respect the constitution. It must be said very clearly […]. The cause of everything that is happening now is the lack of respect for the constitution. When there is a term limit, the term limit must be respected.”

Persistent resentment

Without a doubt, Gbagbo still holds a stubborn grudge against Ouattara, whom he accuses of trampling on democracy and of having “really lacked elegance” by refusing to issue him a passport to return to Côte d’Ivoire.

Basically, as the former head of state repeated several times, what he wants is to return home. “It’s as if I was still a bit of a prisoner. As long as I’m not back, my acquittal will maintain a feeling of unfinished business,” he says.

READ MORE Côte d’Ivoire: Ouattara kicks off an atypical presidential campaign

In recent months, especially since the easing of his parole at the end of May, various intermediaries claiming to be close to the head of state have approached him to discuss the future. Well-known personalities have sent messages of calming tensions.

Before his death on July 8, former prime minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly had been working on Gbagbo’s eventual return. His successor, Hamed Bakayoko, has also tried to make a rapprochement through Nady Bamba, Gbagbo’s second wife, who lives with him in Brussels.

Passing messages

Ouattara also asked his Nigerian counterpart Mahamadou Issoufou to pass the message on to his predecessor that he was willing, once re-elected, to facilitate Gbagb’s return if the latter remained neutral during the campaign.

Gbagbo never followed through. The former president is very upset and told his confidants that he has no intention of giving in to this “blackmail”.

“His return has never been linked to the fact that he keeps quiet or silent,” denies a minister, who adds that Ouattara “is surprised” that Gbagbo “has never taken any initiative to enter into direct contact with him,” including after the amnesty granted in August 2018 to Simone Gbagbo and 800 detainees, including many FPI cadres.

In recent days, Ouattara had publicly raised the Gbagbo case in various interviews with French media. “Laurent Gbagbo will return. He was acquitted at first instance by the ICC, but there is an appeal process, and as soon as it is completed, I will make arrangements for him to return. But he was convicted for the looting of Banque Centrale des États de l’Afrique de l’Ouest (BCEAO) and there are victims who have opened proceedings here for the killings during his presidency. If I don’t do something, he will go directly to prison. I don’t intend to pardon him, but to make a decision that facilitates his return,” he told Le Monde on 27 October.

Clearly, a presidential pardon in the BCEAO case, in which the Ivorian judiciary sentenced Gbagbo to 20 years in prison, will be on the table if Ouattara is re-elected. “The President is willing to pardon him to allow his return by early 2021, provided that the ICC pronounces his final acquittal,” said one of his supporters.

“These are shameless lies,” said one of Gbagbo’s allies. “Gbagbo has been acquitted and he has the right to return home as he has been asking for months. There is no link between the proceedings at the ICC and his return to Côte d’Ivoire.”

While waiting to set foot in his native land again, the former president continues his quiet and discreet life in Brussels with Nady Bamba. He resides in a villa in the suburbs, spends part of his days in a gym or in physiotherapy sessions, and receives his guests for lunch in a restaurant where he is a regular.

From a distance

In spite of his silence, he continues to lead the FPI from a distance, passing on his instructions by telephone or messages to the party cadres who have remained loyal to him. His has almost daily exchanges with Assoa Adou, its secretary general, who is his right-hand man in Abidjan.

Even if his judicial situation keeps him away from the country, Gbagbo intends to remain the boss. No question for him of picking a successor to head the party, at least for the moment. He does not want to hear about the political future of Simone Gbagbo, for intimate and personal reasons.

As for Pascal Affi N’Guessan, whom he considered a traitor for a long time, relations are just beginning to warm up and they recently started talking on the phone again.

On the political level, Gbagbo has continued in recent weeks his strategy of alliance with Henri Konan Bédié and the Parti Démocratique de Côte d’Ivoire. “He wants to lock Bédié in a radical stance against Ouattara, so that he can no longer turn back. This is what is happening,” said a member of Gbagbo’s inner circle.

This desire to bring the main opposition candidate to this hard line responds to an objective: to delegitimise Ouattara throughly.

“Image of a wise man”

“He wants to install in the minds of Ivorians that Ouattara is done for,” the source continues. This is one of the reasons why this political heavyweight is working closer with Guillaume Soro. Even though he still holds a grudge against his former enemy, especially for the harsh conditions of detention he endured in Korhogo before his transfer to The Hague, Gbagbo sees him as a fierce Ouattara opponent, serving his interests.

READ MORE Côte d’Ivoire: How much influence does Soro exert despite his exile?

According to his entourage, history would have proved Gbagbo right and the roles would have been reversed in his duel with Ouattara. He, who was acquitted by the ICC after nine years in prison, would now have the beautiful role. His rival, in seeking a controversial third term, would be the bad guy.

“Since 2011, he has built himself an image of a wise man who has been unjustly kept behind bars. Many people on the continent respect him. He needs to exploit this to feed his political project,” the source concludes.

What is it? While he seems to have given up on the idea of returning to power, he intends to rebuild the FPI to perpetuate his legacy. As for his own fate, he wishes to be rehabilitated in his rights and finish his life in Côte d’Ivoire quietly.

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