Abidjan, the main city of Ivory Coast, officially known as Cote D’Ivoire, was agog in celebration on Thursday, 17 June, 2021 when former President Laurent Gbagbo made a triumphant return to the country. He had been discharged and acquitted at the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague, Netherlands, where he had faced trial on charges of crimes against humanity, arising from violence that erupted after the Gbagbo – Alassane Quattara presidential election run off that claimed about 3,000 lives. Tumultuous and ecstatic crowds of supporters had thronged the Abidjan international airport and lined the route to town in a carnival atmosphere. Gbagbo, who holds a doctorate degree in history from France’s prestigious Sorbonne University, had been charged along with his party’s youth leader, Charles Ble Goude. The appeals chamber of the ICC had on 31 March, 2021 upheld the 2019 trial chamber verdict which discharged and acquitted Gbagbo and Goude of all charges. “ The appeals chamber, by majority, has found no error that could have materially affected the decision of the trial chamber.“ The appeals chamber hereby revokes all remaining conditions on the release of Mr. Gbagbo and Mr. Ble Goude as a result of this judgement “. The appeals judges agreed that the evidence in the case was extremely weak, raising questions about how the trial went as far as it did. It had taken nearly 10 years since November 2011 when Gbagbo was hauled to The Hague for justice to finally prevail. The trial chamber of the ICC had in 2019 discharged and acquitted the two men for want of substantive evidence but prosecutor Ms Fatou Bensouda appealed the judgement and it took another two years to end the case.
It was like the ICC trial was deliberately protracted to allow installed President Quattara enjoy two terms in office and even a bonus third term !!! Quattara was elected to a third and last term in the controversial October 31, 2020 presidential election in which the Constitutional Council declared that the 78-year old won 94 percent of the vote.
The decades old Ivorian political crisis that nearly brought a prosperous country to collapse, should be a lesson to Africa’s leaders and its strident, but often times ill-informed journalists and columnists. Like they say, all politics is local and so has been the case in Ivory Coast. There are two major subsisting issues at stake – indigene/settler dichotomy and economic/resource control – as well as arrogance of power by France. The indigenes want Ivory Coast for Ivorians, feeling threatened by non indigenes, mainly Muslims from Burkina Faso, Mali in the north of the country, constituting 26 percent of the country’s 25.7 million population. Mr. Quattara's father was an immigrant from Burkina Faso. On
resource control, it was President Gbagbo’s battle to wrest control of Ivorian economy from the vice grip of France that pitched him against a vengeful French government. So, the battle lines are drawn, making France, the neo colonial oppressor and Quattara, a non native, formidable allies in the battle of conquest of Ivory Coast.
Quattara has been the recurring decimal in Ivorian political crisis since 1993 when he attempted to assume the presidency of the country, as an appointive Prime Minister, following the death of founding president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny. He had never held
elective position but was a protege of President Boigny who appointed him to high office, including Ambassador to U. S.Henri Konan Bedie, the elected President of the National Assembly prevailed in that power struggle and was President from 1993 to 1999. Unrelenting Quattara’s induced political uprising led to a coup by Gen. Robert Geui whom Quattara thought would install him but who, instead, wanted to transform into a civilian president and got killed in the process. Gbagbo won the presidential election election in 2000 but faced insurrection from pro Quattara rebels whose military offensives divided the country into two : north – south, which made President Gbagbo to incorporate the rebels into government appointing their leader, Guillaume Soro, Prime Minister, as a peace initiative.
The immediate cause of Gbagbo’s travails was the 2010 presidential election with multiple candidates, including President Gbagbo and Mr. Alassane Quattara. No clear winner emerged. President Gbagbo had won 38 percent of the vote as against 32 percent for Quattara. There was a run-off election between the two front runners on 28 November 2010. The Electoral Commission declared Quattara winner but the Constitutional Council, which has the final say on elections, declared Gbagbo the winner, after discounting some invalid votes. That was when power play by the ‘International Community’ took over. France and western countries disregarded the Constitutional Council’s verdict and endorsed Quattara as winner, as declared by the UN Representative in Ivory Coast !! Yes, a UN Country Representative became Electoral Returning Officer in Ivorian election !!! However, the Western-led, so-called ‘ International Community ‘ realized that for legitimacy and effectiveness, their threat of sanctions against President Gbagbo must enjoy the endorsement of two African institutions – the Economic Community of West African Countries (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU). President Gbagbo, following due process, had taken the election dispute case to the ECOWAS Court for adjudication. Sadly, President Goodluck Jonathan, as leader of ECOWAS, became a war monger and orchestrated an ECOWAS military ouster of President Gbagbo, even getting his Foreign Minister, Odein Ajumogobia, to present a letter in January 2011 at the UN for military option. In that January 24, 2011 letter to the UN Security Council urging the UN to authorize use of force by ECOWAS, a belligerent Ajumogobia had thundered, with braggadocio : “ Gbagbo must be made to understand that there is a very real prospect of overwhelming military capability bearing down on him and his cohorts”. The ‘International Community’ capitalized on the ECOWAS position - on which a divided AU based its support – but rather than ECOWAS forces, it got the Security Council to authorize intervention by UN Forces, led by France, Ivory Coast’s former colonial power. President Jonathan, therefore, played the Judas that threw President Laurent Gbagbo to his political executioners. Not surprisingly, it was French forces which led the UN military assault on Ivorian Presidential palace in Abidjan and the capture of President Gbagbo, a sitting African president on April 11, 2011. I had written an article then titled : ‘ Gbagbo’s capture – Africa’s Day of Infamy. It is instructive that the same ‘International Community’ that rejected the verdict of the Constitutional Council on Gbagbo’s victory, returned to the same Council for its verdict of a Quattara win in that disputed election result, for legitimacy !!! Such hypocrisy.
I wrote two other articles at the time including one titled : Nigeria’s war drums on Cote D’Iviore – published in The Guardian of Thursday, February 17, 2011 urging restraint by Nigeria in advocating the military option. But the Jonathan presidency, apparently ill-informed in international power politics, could not be dissuaded from its misadventure. Nigerian journalists and columnists did not fare better. Like a herd, they too were gung-ho about the military option in Ivory Coast in what was largely a local election dispute issue that should have been allowed to go through judicial redress as initiated by Gbagbo. It is significant that the African Union is proposing a continental Constitutional Council to resolve presidential election disputes. The other article I wrote was titled : ‘ Cote D’Ivoire – Is Gbagbo the villain ? – ( The Guardian, January 17, 2011) in which I argued that there has to be an understanding of the historical antecedents to the Ivorian crisis to have a better perspective of the situation as against reliance on biased western narratives. For instance, it is important to note that as a gesture of national reconciliation, it was President Gbagbo who restored Quattara’s citizenship of which he had been stripped under the ‘Ivoirite’ (Ivorianness) policies of President Henri Konan Bedie ( 1993-99 ) and Gen, Robert Geui (1999-2000).
Now, having realized his ambition, President Quattara postures as someone seeking genuine national reconciliation. Following the verdict of the appeals chamber of ICC acquitting former President Gbagbo, he had extended an invitation to him to return home. He issued Gbagbo diplomatic passport and made the presidential pavilion at the airport available for his return and promised him the status and rewards reserved for ex presidents, including pension and personal security. In 2018, President Quattara had granted amnesty to Mrs. Simone Gbagbo who had been sentenced to a 20-year jail term for her alleged role in the crisis.
However, the immediate future in Ivory Coast are dicey days, depending on the role former President Laurent Gbagbo will play or rather, would be allowed to play, and how the two key sticking issues of indigene-settler dichotomy and French control of the Ivorian economy are addressed.
Dr. Bisi Olawunmi, Lecturer, Department of Mass Communication, Adeleke University, Ede is former Washington Correspondent of the News Agency of Nigeria.