“I was commuting to work, but when I saw that the violence was escalating between the police and crowds of young people, I decided to go home. While on my way back, I was hit in the foot by military gunfire. I’ve been handicapped ever since and I’m no longer able to do my old job,” says Karim Coulibaly, a former tanker and tractor trailer driver.
His foot had to be amputated after the unfortunate encounter, but worse still, he lost his livelihood and only source of income. Some 1,000 people like Coulibaly were injured during the post-election crisis in Côte d’Ivoire, and around 3,000 others were killed. For victims and their loved ones, the return of the former president will rip open old wounds.
Since the International Criminal Court (ICC) upheld Gbagbo’s acquittal on 31 March 2021, his supporters have been busy getting ready for his homecoming. After a long negotiation process with Gbagbo’s inner circle and the Ivorian government, President Alassane Ouattara gave the go-ahead for his return.
But there is one thing the authorities are concerned about: how his arrival will play out. Gbagbo’s political party, the Front Populaire Ivoirien (FPI), wants to roll out the red carpet for their beloved ex-leader but several heavy hitters from the parliamentary majority – who fear unrest – are calling for a more low-key welcome.
The wolf in the sheepfold
“We are working hard and putting our heads together to establish the parameters of his return, which is going ahead no matter what,” says Mamadou Coulibaly, the Ivorian communications minister and government spokesperson. “But it’s important to keep in mind that not everyone is eagerly awaiting his return.”
“We are all Ivorians. He has the right to come home. But it would be good if he could show even just a little humility and realise that at one point in his life, people went through traumatic experiences because of him. He should keep a low profile and give the victims time to heal,” Karim Coulibaly says.
The victims’ group Collectif des Victimes en Côte d’Ivoire (CVCI), with a membership of almost 16,000 people, has already initiated a series of demonstrations since mid-May. On Friday 11 June, the interior and security minister – General Diomandé Vagondo – received a delegation of victims. The minister is leading committee-level talks regarding Gbagbo’s return on Ivorian soil.
Since the announcement of Gbagbo’s return, hate speech from both sides has the potential to trigger a crisis.
“The authorities paid a great deal of attention to what we had to say. We believe that victims should play a central role in reconciliation talks. No reparations have been made, and no promises have been kept. Nor has Gbagbo shown any remorse or made the slightest pledge in that direction,” said Issiaka Diaby, president of the victims’ group.
“Within some communities, Gbagbo is seen as the wolf in the sheepfold. The ICC ruling hasn’t delivered justice to the victims of mass atrocities, even though he was convicted of looting the Ivorian branch of the Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO). We think he should be arrested because nobody is above the law. Six amnesty laws have been passed in 30 years to free the perpetrators of mass atrocities. Impunity is baked into our governance!”
Amnesty for Gbagbo?
Will the Ivorian government opt for amnesty as a third alternative? Not entirely, it would seem. As to the question of the former president’s arrest, those close to Ouattara have said that Gbagbo has been given assurances that he will not be arrested on his return.
An amnesty or a presidential pardon is also being considered. Post-election victims must content themselves with assurance from the interior minister that their plea will be taken into account during talks led by Kouadio Konan Bertin, a former rebel candidate of the Parti Démocratique de Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI) who has since been appointed national reconciliation minister.
Accordingly, some are hopeful about the signals the authorities have sent Gbagbo – all the more so that Ouattara previously granted amnesty to several individuals involved in the post-election violence. “With our ‘boss’ coming home any day now, every problem will be sorted out. We believe in national reconciliation,” said Damana Pickass, an influential FPI party member who returned to Côte d’Ivoire in early May after a period of exile.
During a pro-Gbagbo meeting in the southern part of the country on 13 June, Pickass who was riled by victims’ statements said: “Gbagbo has never been afraid of justice. If he can handle international justice, the kind that people never come back from, then he won’t be running away from an Ivorian court. President Ouattara agreed that he could return to Côte d’Ivoire. But, looking to cause havoc, shady groupuscules are manipulating people who don’t know any better.”
Others feel that Gbagbo’s homecoming runs the risk of worsening an already tense political climate between pro- and anti-Gbagbo factions.
“Since his return was announced, hate speech from both sides has the potential to trigger a crisis. Some say he isn’t guilty of anything. The way these folks see it, God’s justice has been done. And if the ICC acquitted him, then that means the court needs to pursue those actually responsible,” says Karim Coulibaly, who himself is a member of the victims’ group CVCI.
The problem is, “crimes were committed before our very eyes”, he adds, which makes this kind of thinking “shocking”. But he also cautions against the anger of those in the opposite camp – the people “who don’t want to hear Gbagbo’s name uttered or speak of his return”.
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