Gbagbo's return gives push to 'reconciliation' call in Ivory Coast

ABIDJAN (AFP) – Ivory Coast has successfully negotiated a day big on risk after its former president Laurent Gbagbo returned home, but analysts say the high emotions underscore the need for national healing.

Thousands of supporters lined the streets of Abidjan on Thursday (June 17) to celebrate the return of a man they revere as a hero, but who for others stirs memories of turmoil and bloodshed.

The turnout for Mr Gbagbo’s long-awaited homecoming was smaller than some had predicted, but tensions were high.

Police made massive use of tear gas to disperse crowds and, according to Mr Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) party, arrested several dozen of his followers.

“These regrettable incidents, to our knowledge, did not lead to loss of human life or even major property damage, but they should not obscure the truth,” commentator Venance Konan wrote in the pro-government Fraternite Matin daily.

“We all want our new history to be written under the theme of complete and genuine reconciliation, of a sacred union in the face of the great perils that we are going to have to face, and which are called Islamic terrorism, deforestation, Sahelisation.”

Mr Gbagbo, 76, was Ivory Coast’s president from 2000 until 2011, a time of rebellion, division and repeatedly postponed elections.

He was arrested in April 2011 after a months-long conflict sparked by his refusal to concede electoral defeat at the hands of today’s president, Mr Alassane Ouattara.

He was then hauled off to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague to face charges of crimes against humanity resulting from the war, which claimed some 3,000 lives.

After a lengthy trial, Mr Gbagbo was acquitted in January 2019. The verdict was upheld on March 31, paving the way for his return.

Mr Ouattara says he welcomes Mr Gbagbo’s return, and has vowed to give him all the honours and rewards due to a former president.

The authorities hope he will play the part of statesman who will calm the waters after electoral violence last year that left scores of dead and once more divided the country.

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Politics ‘later’

In his first public words on arrival, Mr Gbagbo steered clear of the thorniest issues, saying he would make a political address “at a later time”.

He thanked FPI followers for the support and congratulated them for their showing in legislative elections in March, the first time in a decade that the party had taken part in a ballot.

He said he was “glad to return to Ivory Coast and Africa after being acquitted”, and spoke with sorrow at being unable to see his mother before she died, as he was in jail in The Hague at the time.

Mr Gbagbo is seen by his followers as a doughty defender of the poor and oppressed.

His rose to prominence in the 1970s as a left-wing campaigner who fought against the one-party system that was installed in Ivory Coast after it gained independence from France.

He was jailed for almost two years and spent years in exile in France.

Fear of bitterness or revenge by Mr Gbagbo are being played down by his party, who see him as a healer.

Thursday’s incidents “belong to the past”, his spokesman, Mr Justin Katinan Kone, told AFP.

“We are determined to move towards national reconciliation, come what may.”

Groups representing the victims of the 2010-2011 post-election violence have condemned the “impunity” he has received.

They also point to a 20-year jail sentence Mr Gbagbo was given in absentia for “looting” the Central Bank of West African States during the conflict.

The authorities have already hinted that this sentence will be lifted.

The big question, on the day after Mr Gbagbo’s return, is whether he will meet his former nemesis.

Nothing has been scheduled, but it is “conceivable”, said Mr Katinan Kone, adding that for now, Mr Gbagbo “has to rest”.

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