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Côte d’Ivoire’s former president Laurent Gbagbo smiled discreetly under his mask and gave two thumbs up to his lawyer upon hearing the verdict. When Judge Chile Eboe-Osuji, president of the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Court (ICC), pronounced his final acquittal on 31 March, Gbagbo must have felt immense relief. He was finally free to travel without restrictions, finally free to return to Côte d’Ivoire whenever he wants to.
Nearly 10 years after his arrest in Abidjan, when cameras filmed him sitting on his bed in a tank top and looking haggard, the ex-president has finally regained his dignity. After a lengthy trial, he has been cleared of the war crimes and crimes against humanity of which he was accused.
Benefiting from a media platform
Nonetheless, eight years of detention in The Hague have left their trace. Simply seeing him make his way slowly to the Court, supported by his wife Nady Bamba, was enough to appreciate the effect that this long stay in prison has had on him.
By the time his fate was decided, 75-year-old Gbagbo was tired, but had not lost his sense of humour. “This is the first time I have not entered this building through the prisoners’ door,” he told us as he presented himself to the judges.
Thousands of kilometres away, Côte d’Ivoire’s President Alassane Ouattara has been closely following the proceedings. According to his inner circle, the head of state expected the acquittal and was therefore not surprised to hear it. However, he certainly didn’t feel it was cause for celebration.
A week later, he took advantage of the media platform offered by the first council of ministers of his new government to express himself on this subject. “Laurent Gbagbo and Charles Blé Goudé [the leader of the Jeunes Patriotes, also acquitted] are free to return to Côte d’Ivoire whenever they wish,” he told the press, adding that his predecessor’s travel expenses would be paid for by the state.
He added that “arrangements will also be made for Laurent Gbagbo to benefit, in accordance with existing texts, from the advantages and allowances due to former presidents of the Republic.”
“Alassane has no interest in engaging in a showdown. He is not in a hurry to see Gbagbo return, but he will keep his promises,” said someone close to him.
Two tough politicians
This statement does not alleviate the anxiety felt by Gbagbo’s entourage — far from it. “Ouattara may say that Gbagbo is welcomed, but it is clear that he’s not happy about it. Moreover, how could he have said anything else, when there is nothing to prevent the former president’s return?” says one of Gbagbo’s advisers.
“Ouattara is used to contradicting himself. Here, for once, he must keep his word because national reconciliation is at stake. In our country, when someone comes out of prison, we welcome him, whatever our previous differences,” said another.
Feelings of mistrust remain strong between Gbagbo and Ouattara. Ever since their confrontation at the ballot box that steered the country towards civil war, they have held grudges against one another. 10 years later, they still do not speak directly to each other, and each refuses to make the first move.
“Gbagbo will never call Ouattara. It’s a matter of principle for him. He refuses to beg or negotiate. But if Ouattara were to call him, he would take his call. And if he has to speak with him, he will only do so once he returns to Côte d’Ivoire,” says one person close to Gbagbo.
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However, channels of communication have been open for months. Several emissaries, mandated or not, pass messages from one camp to the other. Some even travel between Abidjan and Brussels, where Gbabgo has lived since 2019.
A decrease in tension
These indirect discussions began before the 31 October 2020 presidential election, which was marked by a boycott called by the opposition. They continued after Ouattara’s third election win, to ease the tension, as violence associated with the boycott left more than 80 dead.
The late prime minister Hamed Bakayoko was at the helm of this effort to ease tensions. Convocated by the President, who had remained close to Bamba, “Hambak” acted as a channel of communication between his boss and Gbagbo.
At the beginning of January, a few weeks before he died from cancer, Bakayoko had even met with Assoa Adou, secretary-general of the pro-Gbagbo Front Populaire Ivoirien (FPI), to discuss the logistics of the former head of state’s return.
Despite Bakayoko’s death on 10 March, the lines of communication have been maintained as several intermediaries continue to link the two parties.
“Now that Gbagbo’s return has been confirmed, the President has asked Adama Bictogo to continue negotiations with the FPI on behalf of the RHDP [Rassemblement des Houphouëtistes pour la Démocratie et la Paix, of which Bictogo is the executive director],” said a person close to the head of state.
Subsequently, the dossier will no doubt be handed over to either prime minister Patrick Achi or Sansan Kambilé, the minister of justice. “The President has officials deal with these types of files,” says a government minister.
Among the many points that remain to be clarified — and which may prevent Gbagbo’s safe arrival at Felix-Houphouet-Boigny airport — is his sentence by the Ivorian justice system in January 2018 of up to 20 years in prison for “looting” the Ivorian branch of the Banque Centrale des États de l’Afrique de l’Ouest (BCEAO).
Some of those close to Gbagbo may say that he is “not at all worried”, but he knows that this case hangs over his head like a sword of Damocles. “The Ivorian authorities are using this conviction to put pressure on him and limit his room for manoeuvre,” said one of his advisers. According to his entourage, the founder of the FPI is waiting for Ouattara to give him very concrete assurances on this issue before returning to the country.
The debate is ongoing. Whether it is a pardon or an amnesty, it will not be an individual measure, but a collective measure, so as not to make Gbagbo an exceptional case, says a confidant to President Ouattara.
However, the head of state remains intentionally vague. In recent days, he has communicated that Gbagbo would not be arrested on his return to Abidjan and that he would be permitted to move around freely.
Does the President intend to grant Gbagbo a pardon or amnesty? According to our information, Ouattara does not want to make any decisions until the former president’s return, as he wants to be assured of the latter’s intentions.
“The debate is ongoing. Whether it is a pardon or an amnesty, it will not be an individual measure, but a collective measure, so as not to make Gbagbo an exceptional case,” said a confidant to the head of state.
From Brussels, where he has been receiving fewer visitors in recent weeks because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the former Scheveningen prisoner is thinking about the logistics of his return. “One of his main concerns is his safety and that of his family. He does not want anything bad to happen to him upon his arrival”, says a member of the Gbagbo clan.
As Ouattara has promised, the former FPI leader will be able to enjoy the benefits of his status as former head of state, which includes a dedicated security service team composed of 10 agents, placed under the authority of an aide de camp. There are signs of mistrust as some of Gbagbo’s colleagues want to have a say in the composition of this future team.
The former president will also have at his disposal a cabinet (five members), household staff (six people) and three cars with drivers. He will receive about 17m CFA francs [€25,900] per month in lifetime and monthly allowances for accommodation, fuel and telephone costs. It remains to be seen whether he can claim back payments for all the years he spent in detention in The Hague.
Stay at Nady Bamba’s house?
Another central question is, where will he stay? Not, in any case, in his residence in Cocody, which is occupied by Simone Gbagbo, still legally his wife but with whom he has a complex relationship, to say the least.
Two options are being considered. He will either stay at Bamba’s home, also in Cocody, which needs some work done or in the villa that the state will provide to him as a former president – which would help shield him from comments about his personal life.
Before flying back to Côte d’Ivoire, Gbagbo is keen to tour several European capitals to thank those within the diaspora who have supported him over the years. This plan remains dependent on the evolution of the health situation in Europe, where the Covid-19 pandemic is complicating travel. He would also like to visit some of the African heads of state with whom he has maintained ties.
While their mentor’s agenda is still unclear, Gbagbo’s supporters hope that he will return home as soon as possible. They believe that it will certainly be by the end of the year. “Gbagbo is less in a hurry than he would have us believe,” says someone close to Ouattara.
In the meantime, from Yopougon to Gagnoa, his supporters are preparing to welcome him home. The GOR (“Gbagbo or nothing”, his loyal followers within the FPI) have created a welcoming committee, which is responsible for preparing the festivities. Gbagbo also plans to tour all regions of the country.
Officially, he will advocate for appeasement and national reconciliation. “President Gbagbo is a man of peace. He is not driven by any feeling of spite or revenge. His only wish is that all Ivorians be reconciled with one another,” said Georges-Armand Ouégnin, president of the platform Ensemble pour la Démocratie et la Souveraineté (EDS), which brings together pro-Gbagbo movements.
Does he really have no desire for revenge? Many who know this political animal intimately, whose wounds have not yet healed, doubt it. He certainly has many reasons to feel resentful, from his brutal and humiliating ousting from power and the ill-treatment he received during his incarceration in Korhogo to his interminable detention in The Hague.
After 10 years of forced exile, Gbagbo intends to reclaim his place on the political scene, which is that of a key player who has dominated Ivorian politics for over a quarter of a century, just like Ouattara and Henri Konan Bédié.
“He is carefully preparing his return to power. He still wants to make an impact. He wants at all costs to avoid a flop like Jean-Pierre Bemba in DR Congo, for whom the drums and dances were brought out on his arrival, but for whom nothing happened afterwards,” says one of his close friends.
The GOR, who have been patiently waiting for his return, see him more than ever as their “point of reference.” Since the 6 March legislative election, the first election in which they participated after a decade of boycotting, they have once again become a political force in their own right.
In the National Assembly, EDS now has its own parliamentary group, which has 17 members. Among them are several of Gbagbo’s “grumblers”: Hubert Oulaye, Georges-Armand Ouégnin, Émile Guiriéoulou and Michel Gbagbo, his son. “Even though he remains their tutelary figure, the ex-president is no longer the only one that embodies the FPI. These members of parliament are new representatives who will gradually emerge,” said a diplomat in Abidjan.
A facade of loyalty
Gbagbo and his trusted lieutenants believe that the leadership of the party, which he founded in 1982, is rightfully his. The FPI’s legally recognised president, Pascal Affi N’Guessan, does not necessarily feel the same way.
Even if N’Guessan feels that it is time for Gbagbo to hand over the reins of power to him, he cannot say so openly. As he is forced to keep up appearances, the former prime minister does display a certain degree of loyalty to his ex-boss. However, in reality, the two socialists have long since lost respect for one another.
Another “issue” that Gbagbo will have to deal with, both politically and personally, is that of Simone, his wife. “He has overcome these internal divisions within the FPI. He has always been – and remains – the only boss. Today, his political instrument is EDS,” says one of the platform’s members of parliament.
What about its alliance with Henri Konan Bédié’s Parti Démocratique de Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI)? The two leaders are still talking, either directly or through intermediaries. The “Sphinx of Daoukro” has publicly expressed hope that Gbagbo, once acquitted by the ICC, can return to Côte d’Ivoire “as soon as possible”. In gestation since the presidential campaign, their anti-Ouattara alliance took shape during the last legislative election.
A human tide
Thanks to the joint lists they presented in most constituencies, EDS and PDCI have 82 members of parliament, almost all members of the opposition.
The two parliamentary groups – both Bédié and Gbagbo have preferred to remain independent – seem intent on working together. The future will tell how far their alliance will go.
Faced with the imminent return of his rival, Ouattara wants to appear calm. However, as one observer puts it, “no one really knows if Gbagbo will return with a knife between his teeth or if he will calmly go into pre-retirement.”
However, the head of state’s entourage are all in agreement over one thing. “The time of Laurent Gbagbo has passed,” says one of the presidential advisers. “Of course, he still has a hardcore following [of supporters]. But the majority of Ivorians will not fight for him. We wanted him to go somewhere to calm down until the elections were over and then return, once everything was done. We succeeded. The president’s strategy was successful.”
“Gbagbo is still popular, but there won’t be a human tide when he arrives,” says a minister. “A lot of water has flowed under the bridge. The president holds the power and the country. He remains the master of the game.”
These words bring a smile to the faces of the pro-Gbagbo supporters, who wonder why the authorities have worked so hard to postpone their hero’s return if he is no longer a threat.
Although this scenario seems unlikely, everyone wonders if Gbagbo will run for president in 2025. “He has ruled out the idea of running again,” says a member of his clan. “That said, you never know what might happen between now and then.”
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