The Return Of Laurent Gbagbo: A Turning Point For The Ivory Coast

A decade after he was taken into custody by the International Criminal Court (ICC), ex-president Laurent Gbagbo is returning home to the Ivory Coast after being acquitted of charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He was captured back in 2011 for inciting post-election violence after refusing to step down to his successor Alassane Ouattara. There are mixed reactions surrounding his arrival, for even though his supporters are overjoyed to welcome their leader, there are many who are resentful towards his role in instigating the 2010-2011 civil war. On June 17th as he landed in one of Ivory Coast’s largest cities, Abidjan, there were fans on the streets celebrating his arrival. But, with police presence, the situation was tense as tear gas and barricades were prepared for use. Overall, this is a turning point for Ivorian society, for Gbagbo could be the uniting force that the country needs, or he could cause destabilization in an already volatile situation.

The ex-president has been welcomed by major political figures such as former president Henri Konan Bédié, tweeting that Gbagbo is crucial to “engage together in a true process of reconciliation,” as well as to some extent his rival President Ouattara, who was the one who invited him back. Yet, in the midst of divisions that have split the country, many seem to agree that Gbagbo’s return could turn into something positive. Jesper Bjarnesen, an analyst with the Nordic Africa Institute, argues that, “this is a good moment for him to return,” for he could inspire reconciliation efforts that have been not been successful under Ouattara. But his acquittal can be seen as creating “impunity” and “paves way for other crimes” as claimed by Issiaka Diaby of the Collective of Victims in Ivory Coast. Gbagbo is not completely pardoned, for there will be conditions to his return, but it is unclear whether that will be enough for those who are scarred by the past.

As we have seen in the past and recently in the United States with post-election violence and unrest, these disruptions leave wounds that are not easily healed. Even though it is true that Gbagbo’s return may begin the mending that is much needed in a political landscape that is bordering on mutiny, allowing full pardon for his crimes should not be the acceptable welcome back. Rather, the Ivorian government should take into account what is needed for the victims to move forward and impose respective limitations to how Gbagbo can take part in politics. That way, Gbagbo is neither shunned from playing a role as a leader nor will he be free from his past crimes. Either way, it will be an uneasy transition as it remains to be determined what his role will be in Ivorian politics.

Even a decade after, the impacts remain fresh for many Ivorians of the civil war that pitted President Ouattara, along with mainly the United Nations and France, against ousted President Gbagbo and the military which resulted in over 3,000 casualties. This is due to the election results that named Ouattara as the new President, yet Gbagbo refused to step down even after international pressure. Eventually, Gbagbo was captured and detained, awaiting trial for war crimes by the ICC. But, in 2019, the charges were dropped against him after insufficient evidence was found, allowing his return when the ruling was upheld earlier this year. Some question whether this was a sound decision made by the ICC, making his acquittal that much harder for those affected by the conflict. For now, it seems that many Ivorians are hoping to move forward and heal the wounds of the past, though not forget.

With former president Laurent Gbagbo’s return to the Ivory Coast, the question remains on many people’s minds what role he will play in future Ivorian politics. As a still-popular political figure, especially for the Ivorian Popular Front, it seems convincing that he will still have influence in the government and its process to unite the country once again, but this also could very well backfire. With the already heightened tensions surrounding his arrival and the remembrance of events of the past, Gbagbo could lead the country closer to a breaking point in an already fragile situation instead of keeping it together. Either way, peace has been maintained so far as the joy of his supporters has been the most prevalent reaction with his return, yet there are those who are ready for justice to be served when the time comes.

Sabina Marty