Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo: A political fighter who won’t quit

Thursday - 17/06/2021 12:19
Former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo, acquitted in March of charges of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC), arrives home in Abidjan on Thursday. Arrested in April 2011 during a post-presidential election crisis that saw more than 3,000 people killed, Gbagbo has endured many political battles during a long and tumultous career.

Former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo returns home to Abidjan for the first time in ten years on Thursday, less than three months after he was acquitted of charges of crimes against humanity by the ICC. His return was enabled by his longtime rival, President Alassane Ouattara, in the spirit of “national reconciliation”.

During his political career, Gbagbo has been a member of the opposition, a president and a prisoner. But his turbulent time in politics has done little to diminish his popularity at home. FRANCE 24 takes a look back at his time in politics.

Trade union activist

At 76, Gbagbo’s good-natured appearance belies an iron will and huge energy.

Born on May 31, 1945, a little more than 15 years before Ivory Coast gained its independence from France, Gbagbo learned much from his long years of opposition to former Ivorian president Felix Houphouet-Boigny, the “father of the nation” who died in 1993 and was for a long time France's main intermediary in sub-Saharan Africa. Educated at a seminary before going on to obtain a PhD in history, Gbagbo quickly irritated the government with his trade union activism.

Imprisoned for “subversive” teaching in 1971, Gbagbo went into exile in France in the 1980s after having clandestinely founded the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI). A member of the Bete ethnic group in the country's west, a group excluded from Ivory Coast’s traditional power-sharing arrangements, Gbagbo brazenly launched himself into politics in 1990 during the country’s first elections under a multi-party system and became leader of the opposition.

While Ivory Coast was rocked by student protests against the government in Abidjan, then prime minister Ouattara had Gbagbo arrested on February 18, 1992 for taking part in the second of two protests. He was sentenced to two years in prison but was released that August.

In 1993, the idea of Ivoirité (Ivorianness) led to a rise in xenophobia in Ivory Coast, and Gbagbo was accused of embracing nationalism. The former trade unionist won a disputed 2000 presidential election in which Ouattara, a Muslim whose nationality was challenged, was not allowed to stand.

Gbagbo became president on October 26, 2000, amid what he described as "calamitous" conditions, after a vote from which former head of state Henri Konan Bedie was also excluded. 

Laurent Gbagbo smiles as he is sworn in as Ivory Coast's new president on October 26, 2000.
Laurent Gbagbo smiles as he is sworn in as Ivory Coast's new president on October 26, 2000. 
Issouf Sanogo, AFP

A fierce nationalist, Gbagbo successfully resisted a putsch aimed at overthrowing him in September 2002. While appearing skillful to some and "cunning" to others, he saw off a rebellion, the country’s opposition, and criticism from the international community, which was led by France. But Gbagbo lost control of the country’s mainly Muslim north to rebels, and it remained divided for years.

Gbagbo believed Alassane Ouattara was behind the attempted putsch. The president who styled himself as "the man of the people" called on his young supporters, the "patriots", who set the streets alight. French soldiers from the Operation Licorne peacekeeping force tried to maintain a precarious ceasefire, while Paris attempted to initiate a reconciliation process, but to little avail.

The late former French president Jacques Chirac and then Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo after a lunch in Paris on February 5, 2004.
The late former French president Jacques Chirac and then Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo
after a lunch in Paris on February 5, 2004. 
© Patrick Kovarik

The Ivorian army launched an offensive to retake the country’s north in November 2004. Then French president Jacques Chirac unsuccessfully tried to dissuade Gbagbo from an intervention, and the Ivorian army bombed French soldiers based in the northern rebel stronghold of Bouake on November 6.

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The French army retaliated and neutralised the Ivorian air force, and tensions were high in Abidjan, where pro-Gbagbo Ivorians targeted the French community. Gbagbo failed to reconquer the north militarily, but portrayed himself as a hero of Africa who had stood up to France.

Gbagbo’s government signed a 2007 peace agreement with rebel forces led by Guillaume Soro, who became his prime minister (and later served as speaker of parliament during a Ouattara presidency). But the political process in Ivory Coast remained blocked – the presidential election was postponed more than six times before eventually being held in 2010. Gbagbo ran against Ouattara, who had launched a military operation to drive him out of the presidential palace, in the second round.

But when he lost the November 28 election, Gbagbo stubbornly refused to admit defeat.

For four months he defied Ouattara and the international community, plunging Ivory Coast into crisis. Armed groups who supported Gbagbo and Outtara clashed, and more than 3,000 people were killed in post-election violence over five months.

The country’s constitutional council was controlled by Gbagbo loyalists and declared him the victor with 51.45 percent of the vote on December 3. The council’s move invalidated the findings of Ivory Coast’s electoral commission, which had pegged Ouattara the winner with 54.1 percent, an outcome certified by a UN special representative.

At the beginning of the post-election crisis, a member of Gbagbo’s inner circle warned that the beleaguered politician would “fight until his last breath”. After fighting had been raging for ten days in Abidjan's Cocody district, pro-Ouattara soldiers supported by the French army and the United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI) advanced and arrested Gbagbo in the presidential residence, where he was surrounded by his wife Simone, his son Michel and a handful of loyalists. 

First taken to Ouattara's campaign headquarters and then to the north of the country, Gbagbo lived under house arrest for eight months before being transferred to The Hague. Ouattara was sworn in as Ivory Coast’s new president on May 21, 2011 and won re-election in 2015.

Before the ICC

Gbagbo entered the ICC’s detention centre on November 30, 2011. Charles Blé Goudé, a former leader of Gbagbo’s young supporters, was also detained on March 22, 2014. Gbagbo became the first former head of state to be prosecuted by the ICC when the pair’s trial began in January 2016. Accused of four counts of crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, and persecution, they pleaded not guilty.   

Gbagbo’s wife Simone, for whom the ICC had also issued an arrest warrant in 2012, received a 20-year jail sentence in Abidjan in March 2015 for undermining Ivorian state security. She was acquitted on March 28, 2017, on retrial, but the Ivorian Supreme Court overturned the ruling. Simone Gbagbo was finally released in August 2018 after a presidential amnesty to promote national reconciliation. 

The acquittal

The ICC acquitted Gbagbo and Blé Goudé on January 15, 2019, and conditionally released them the following month before a possible appeal. In November 2019, the Ivorian judiciary sentenced Gbagbo in absentia to a 20-year jail term for the "robbery" of the Central Bank of West African States during Ivory Coast’s post-election unrest. A month later, Blé Goudé also received a sentence of 20 years for crimes committed during the same period.

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The ICC conditionally authorised Gbagbo to leave Belgium, where he had been living under house arrest since his initial acquittal, in May 2020. In September, the Ivorian constitutional council rejected some forty candidates, including Gbagbo and Soro, for October’s presidential election. The incumbent Ouattara, whose controversial bid for a third term led to violence in which nearly 100 died, won re-election again.

Still in politics

Gbagbo's Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) had boycotted every vote since his arrest, but it participated in Ivorian legislative elections on March 6, 2021. Ouattara’s ruling party, the Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace (RHDP), won a majority of seats. 

The ICC upheld the acquittals of Gbagbo and Blé Goudé on March 31 and lifted conditions on their release from detention. President Ouattara gave the green light on April 7 for the return of his rival to Ivory Coast.

This article has been translated from the original in French.


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