Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire – Former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo returns home Thursday to help “reconcile” a country he left in chaos nearly 10 years ago.
The leader of the opposition is due to return on a commercial flight from Brussels after judges at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague confirmed his acquittal, as well as that of his youth minister Charles Ble Goude, of crimes against humanity. . The two had been accused of inciting post-election violence that assaulted Côte d’Ivoire in 2011.
The return is seen as a test for the country and a population that still has the new bloody conflict in mind, with some analysts saying there are concerns that it could again destabilize the world’s largest cocoa producer.
But Gbagbo’s supporters and members of his Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) party hope that the 76-year-old’s return, after spending most of the last 10 years in CPI custody, will alleviate persistent tensions.
In the commercial capital, Abidjan, preparations for Gbagbo’s return were well underway on the eve of his planned arrival.
“Gbagbo is a man of peace and reconciliation,” said Benedicte Bleh Ouete at the FPI headquarters while shopping for baseball shirts and hats with the head portrait. “For all those who have suffered for years when Gbagbo was in exile, his return is a good thing.”
President Alassane Ouattara, who sent Gbagbo to The Hague, has made the presidential pavilion at the airport available for his return.
It also gave him the status and rewards reserved for former presidents including a pension, personal security and diplomatic passport that facilitates his return.
“The fact that Ouattara has asked this to be dealt with directly by the presidential staff is a strong message,” Assoua Adou, the FPI general secretary, said on Monday.
A former history teacher and first-time opponent of Côte d’Ivoire’s first president since independence from France, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, Gbagbo came to power in 2000 after winning elections where the governor military man Robert Guei did not acknowledge his defeat.
Gbagbo’s tenure was hit by a failed coup that divided the country into a rebel north and a southern government and fueled outbreaks of violence that prompted him to extend his presidential term. When elections were finally held in 2010, Ouattara defeated Gbagbo, who claimed electoral fraud and refused to concede.
More than 3,000 people have been killed in the months of successful fighting between forces loyal to the two men, before Gbabgo’s arrest in April 2011 and subsequent transfer to the CPI.
Gbagbo’s supporters say his return is necessary to revive a process of reconciliation that never came out of the ground after the violence.
“Gbagbo is the only one who can bring people together,” said his 51-year-old son, Michel Gbagbo, and deputy of Yopougon, an FPI stronghold.
Gbagbo earlier announced his intentions to return on the eve of the October 2020 elections which saw Ouattara win a controversial third term.
His return is timely as many Ivorians feel betrayed by Ouattara’s decision to run for a third term following the constitutional changes introduced in 2016.
Despite investments in major infrastructure projects – including bridges, highways and universities – and an economy that has grown by more than 7 percent annually for much of the last decade, a large portion of the population feels excluded. from economic growth.
Which, in turn, has led to accusations of nepotism and corruption, as well as complaints that Ouattara’s rule has benefited mainly members of his Dioula ethnic group, who come from the north of the country.
In April, Ouattara said Gbagbo was free to return to Ivory Coast. He did not specify whether Gbagbo had been pardoned by a sentence of 20 years of exceptional imprisonment given in default by an Ivorian court for misappropriation of funds by the regional central bank.
Earlier this year, Gbagbo’s FPI fielded candidates in parliamentary elections for the first time in 10 years. His candidates ran on a joint list with Henri Konan Bedie’s Democratic Party for Côte d’Ivoire, which supported Ouattara in the elections in 2010 and again in 2015.
Gbagbo remains a heavyweight in the opposition against Ouattara, said Sylvain N’Guessan, political analyst and director of the Abidjan Strategy Institute. He still has a large following with FPI and members of his Bete ethnic group.
But critics are wary that Gbagbo’s return could once again raise tensions.
“Why would I want to see the return of someone who has caused so much suffering and destruction?” said Samuel Abongo, a 29-year-old Uber driver from Yopougon.
Even Gbagbo supporters have suffered, said Henriette Kouassi, who recently returned to Côte d’Ivoire after seven years in exile in neighboring Ghana.
“We are so happy that Gbagbo is coming home.”