Shouts of delight exploded in Gagnoa, the home town of former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo, when the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced this week that he would be acquitted.
He had been held at the court, alongside his former youth minister Charles Ble Goude, for nearly eight years on charges of crimes against humanity. Relatives and friends were ecstatic that their leader would finally be coming home.
But the outburst of joy was not universal.
Many victims of the 2010-2011 conflict, which had led to Gbagbo’s detention, expressed fears they would never obtain justice now that the former president had been acquitted. Small protests broke out in Abobo, a pro-government district of Abidjan.
The acquittal has raised fears about the impunity that permeates Cote d’Ivoire’s post-conflict period, while sparking concerns about how the 2020 presidential election might now play out.
That poll will be the first since the 2010-2011 post-electoral crisis in which President Alasanne Ouattara will be constitutionally unable to stand. It will be the first election since 2011 in which Gbagbo will be free and capable of running.
Cote d’Ivoire spent nine years between 2002 and 2011 divided in half, with the north ruled by Force Nouvelles (FN) rebels who supported Ouattara. The south was run by then president Gbagbo, who refused to step down after the 2010-2011 election in which he was declared the loser.
The ensuing gridlock sparked a civil war that killed more than 3,000 people in five months of fighting. Gbagbo was eventually forced from power with assistance from French and UN troops, detained, and sent to the ICC.
No justice for victims
Gbagbo’s release follows years of complaints by supporters that post-conflict justice initiatives were one-sided.
The ICC has only ever effectively pursued Gbagbo and Ble Goude, while the Ivoirian justice system has prosecuted solely pro-Gbagbo criminals.
There have been no effective prosecutions against Ouattara supporters, even if it is widely acknowledged that followers of both Ouattara and Gbagbo committed heinous crimes before, during, and after the 2010-2011 conflict.
This situation has angered victims on both sides, who saw the justice process as slow, ineffective, and unequal.
Hopes for justice received a further blow when President Ouattara introduced an amnesty for 800 political prisoners in August 2018, in which Simone Gbagbo, the former president’s wife, was liberated.
Some claimed the decision would bring peace because it would allow pro-Gbagbo supporters, like those backing Ouattara, to escape accountability for crimes. But many Gbagbo followers said the move was too little, too late.
The decision appeared arbitrary as no reason was given for the sudden release of the prisoners. That left a bitter taste of an uneven, unpredictable justice system that might launch further prosecutions in the future.
Claims that President Alassane Ouattara made at his inauguration in 2011, when he said any who committed “blood crimes” would be held accountable, appeared to be fraying at the edges.
Back to the future
Gbagbo’s release fosters concern about the nature of post-conflict justice in Cote d’Ivoire and raises the spectre of further unrest.
Gbagbo will most likely now return home, where he will be heralded as a hero by his Ivoirian Popular Front (FPI) party. Many party members have styled themselves “Gbago ou rien” (Gbagbo or nothing) since the former leader was arrested and have been boycotting elections in his absence.
This has not served the party well. In the intervening years, they have become less and less relevant.
But with Gbagbo’s return, the party could once again be a genuine political force. Those who turned apathetic in his absence could now be rejuvenated ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
The FPI will likely seek to ride a wave of enthusiasm for Gbagbo and put his name forward as their candidate for that election.
This is problematic because it could induce Ouattara to change his behaviour.
The president had pledged to abide by his constitutional two-term limit, although he wavered on this subject in 2018. His camp has now suggested that if Gbagbo and Henri Konan Bedie, another opposition leader who has yet to make a final decision on his candidacy, were to stand, he would do so as well.
So there is now a strong chance that the election in 2020 could be a three-horse race between Bedie, Ouattara, and Gbagbo – a mirror image of the 2010 election that triggered the post-electoral crisis.
The same candidates might not prompt the same outcome, but reconciliation has not made a great deal of progress since 2011.
Political rivalries remain strong. The ruling party split with its main coalition partner, Bedie’s Democratic Party of Cote d’Ivoire (PDCI), in 2018, and considerable infighting and animosity ensued, contributing to hotly contested and violent local elections at the end of last year.
Equally, as Gbagbo’s release illustrates, attempts to hold perpetrators to account for war crimes have been limited and ineffective.
A half-hearted truth and reconciliation commission provided a report on the conflict to the prime minister in 2014, only for it to languish in his office for two years before being released to the public. Even then, it appeared to have been heavily censored.
Victims are still seeking accountability, while indemnification has begun but is slow and unpredictable. The desire for revenge on both sides persists among certain more extreme parts of the population.
Gbagbo’s release is an earthquake for Cote d’Ivoire that could alter the political landscape in the run-up to the 2020 poll, reinvigorating a political party that was all but dead.
With impunity and injustice pervasive, politicians will have to ensure they tread carefully if 2020 is not to end up as the 2010 election did – with one leader headed to the ICC.
– African News Agency (ANA)
* Jessica Moody is an ESRC-funded PhD candidate in the war studies department at Kings College London. She is researching post-conflict peace-building in Cote d’Ivoire and lived there from October 2017- December 2018. Jessica also works as a freelance political risk analyst focusing on west and central Africa. She has written reports for IHS, the Economist Intelligence Unit, The FT’s “This is Africa” publication, and African Arguments.