The opposition leader is due to take a commercial flight from Brussels after the judges of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague confirmed earlier this year his acquittal, as well as that of his youth minister Charles Ble Goude, of crimes against humanity. . The two men had been accused of being at the origin of the post-election violence that ravaged Côte d’Ivoire in 2011.
The return is seen as a test for the country and a population that still has the bloody conflict in memory, with some analysts fearing it will once again destabilize the world’s largest cocoa producer.
But Gbagbo’s supporters and members of his Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) party hope the return of the 76-year-old, after spending most of the past 10 years in ICC detention, will ease lingering 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,” Bénédicte Bleh Ouete said at the FPI headquarters, buying t-shirts and baseball caps with the portrait of the leader. “For all those who suffered for years when Gbagbo was in exile, his return is a good thing. “
President Alassane Ouattara, who sent Gbagbo to The Hague, made the presidential pavilion at the airport available for his return.
He also granted him the status and rewards reserved for ex-presidents, including a pension, personal security and the diplomatic passport facilitating his return.
“The fact that Ouattara requested that this be dealt with directly by the presidential staff is a strong message,” Assoua Adou, FPI general secretary, said on Monday.
A former history professor and longtime opponent of the first Ivorian president after independence from France, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, Gbagbo came to power in 2000 after winning an election in which military leader Robert Guéi did not did not admit defeat.
Gbagbo’s tenure was marred by a failed coup that divided the country into a rebel-controlled north and a government-led south and fueled outbreaks of violence that pushed him to extend his presidential term. . When the elections finally took place in 2010, Ouattara beat Gbagbo, who claimed electoral fraud and refused to give in.
More than 3,000 people were killed in the months of fighting that erupted between forces loyal to the two men, before Gbabgo’s arrest in April 2011 and his subsequent transfer to the ICC.
Gbagbo’s supporters say his return is necessary to relaunch a process of reconciliation that never got off 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 for Yopougon, a stronghold of the FPI.
Gbagbo first announced his intention to return on the eve of the October 2020 elections which saw Ouattara win a controversial third term.
His return is timely because many Ivorians feel betrayed by Ouattara’s decision to run for a third term following constitutional amendments introduced in 2016.
Despite investments in major infrastructure projects – including bridges, highways and universities – and an economy that has grown at more than 7% per year for much of the past decade, much of the the population feels excluded from economic growth.
This, in turn, has led to allegations of nepotism and corruption, as well as complaints that Ouattara’s regime has mainly benefited members of his Dioula ethnic group, who hail from the north of the country.
In April, Ouattara said Gbagbo was free to return to Côte d’Ivoire. He did not say whether Gbagbo had been pardoned from a 20-year prison sentence handed down in absentia by an Ivorian court for embezzling funds from the regional central bank.
Earlier this year, Gbagbo’s FPI fielded candidates for the legislative elections for the first time in 10 years. His suitors were on a joint list with the Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire led by Henri Konan Bédié, which supported Ouattara in the 2010 and then 2015 elections.
Gbagbo remains a heavyweight in the opposition against Ouattara, said Sylvain N’Guessan, political analyst and director of the Abidjan Institute of Strategy. He still has many supporters with the FPI and members of his Bété ethnic group.
But critics fear Gbagbo’s return will again spark 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.
Gbagbo’s supporters have also 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. ”