Côte d’Ivoire: Return of Laurent Gbagbo brings both excitement and fear

By Florence Richard

Posted on Thursday, 17 June 2021 17:01
A supporter poses next to a drawing in relief of former Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo during the preparation of his return after being acquitted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes, at his party's headquaters in Abidjan, Ivory Coast 16 June 2021. REUTERS/Luc Gnago

The former president returns today, 17 June, to Côte d'Ivoire, a decade after his arrest and three months after the International Criminal Court (ICC) acquitted him. His supporters await his return with enthusiasm but some Abidjanis remain apprehensive.

“All sold out”. At the headquarters of the ‘Gbagbo ou Rien’ (Gbagbo or No One, GOR) branch of the Front Populaire Ivoirien (FPI), lengths of fabric bearing the effigy of the former Ivorian president are out of stock.

“We won’t have any more before his return,” says the young vendor, who is convinced that they will be snapped up again as soon as production resumes. What is remaining are flashy coloured T-shirts and caps, all printed with the face of the ‘boss’, whom they await with feverish impatience.

The day of this ‘historic’ return is finally here. The Brussels Airlines plane carrying Laurent Gbagbo is due to land at Abidjan’s Felix Houphouet-Boigny airport at 3.45pm local time (GMT), 10 years after he was transferred to the Scheveningen penitentiary in The Hague, where he was tried at the ICC for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed following the post-election crisis of 2010-2011.

‘Avoid any provocations’

“We want Côte d’Ivoire to celebrate.” This is the message the FPI-GOR leaders have been hammering for several weeks, distilling information on his arrival, discussed “in partnership” with the government since January. Officials are counting on a more “visible” than a triumphant welcome throughout the country. In Abidjan, “everyone does not have to converge [at] the airport, everyone can show their joy at home,” said Justin Katinan Koné, Gbagbo’s spokesman.

‘I will be there in the flesh, even if I have to walk to the airport’

The FPI-GOR also urged its activists and supporters to “avoid any provocation and not respond to insults”. Fights and angry mobs that may “spoil” the party have been discouraged as the intended message from his return is reconciliation and peace.

However, there are also many who are worried about the consequences of Gbagbo’s return.

According to details of the itinerary revealed on 16 June, Gbagbo’s relatives will welcome him at the presidential pavilion at the airport. The government has indicated that it does not intend to send a representative. Speaking after the council of ministers meeting on Wednesday, Amadou Coulibaly – the minister of communication and government spokesman – said Gbagbo “is a citizen like any other”.

The former president will then proceed to the former party headquarters in Attoban to address his supporters and party officials. He will be then taken on a tour around Abidjan before he arrives at the headquarters.

‘As if it was Christmas’

“His supporters dream of seeing him again. If I can, I will go to meet him,” said Madi, a health executive from Treichville who says he is “very happy” about the return of this former president “who has greatly influenced Ivorian youth”. Gbagbo’s return is the promise, Madi hopes, that will bring a “real reconciliation, not just lip service”.

“I will be there in the flesh, even if I have to walk to the airport,” said one of Madi’s friends, as did many of the supporters he met recently, some of whom said they intended to wait at the airport from dawn.

Speaking from her maquis (bar/restaurant) in Yopougon, ‘the rallyer’ – who does not want to give her first name – is expecting to have a big party. “There will be many people here. The party will feel like as if it was Christmas,” she says enthusiastically.

According to her, a sign of the strong mobilisation that will now happen and of the desire to celebrate the day is that the price of Lékés, a popular type of shoe, and that of fabric and suits have risen in recent weeks, with sellers taking advantage of the high demand. “People from Dabou and Gagnoa are already here. They were afraid of not being able to travel on the day of his arrival,” she says.

Fears of further unrest

However, there are also many who are worried – though they may be quieter – about the consequences of Gbagbo’s return. Estelle* also lives in Yopougon, in one of the very poor suburbs. She remembers bodies laying in the streets during the post-electoral crisis, the days of hunger and her fear when weapons were brandished under her nose and that of her son.

The return of the former president makes her apprehensive about new political unrest. She says she prays every day for “peace and reconciliation”. In the neighbourhood, she says, some people have stocked up on rice and oil, just in case.

But the secretary general of the FPI-GOR reassures worried Ivorians that the welcome will be “joyful”. He says he invited those who will celebrate this return to “tell all those who demonstrate to say they are not happy” and that “the main thing is to meet again to rebuild a country in peace, a country of brotherhood, as our national anthem says.”

In the coming days, Gbagbo is scheduled to travel to Mama village where he will visit his mother’s grave. He is also expected to visit his stronghold of Gagnoa.

*Her first name has been changed

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