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June 1, 2020

COTE D’IVOIRE: Gbagbo free to return, but unlikely to do so

BY Malte Liewerscheidt

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On 28 May, the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced the lifting of travel restrictions imposed on former president Laurent Gbagbo and his former youth minister Charles Ble Goude, while a decision on an appeal to their acquittal in January 2019, filed by the prosecution, is still pending. Back then, the judges had imposed conditions on their release, suggesting they posed a flight risk. While last week’s decision in theory opens the possibility for Gbagbo and Ble Goude to return to Cote d’Ivoire, both have been sentenced there in absentia. Yet despite public pressure to grant them presidential pardons, President Alassane Ouattara remains unlikely to enable their return in time for the presidential election scheduled for October 2020. This is reinforced by the fact that his anointed successor shows signs of weakness, suggesting Ouattara’s succession plan could unravel.

While standing trial in The Hague, in January 2018, Gbagbo was sentenced by an Ivorian court in absentia to 20 years in prison and a fine of XOF 329bn (USD 555mn) for plundering the central bank during the 2010/11 post-electoral crisis. In December 2019, Ble Goude was equally sentenced to 20 years in absentia over murder, rape and torture charges in the context of the five-month crisis during which some 3,000 people died. The latest adversary of Ouattara to receive a 20-year sentence in absentia was Guillaume Soro, who was prosecuted in April 2020 for the alleged embezzlement of public funds and money-laundering in the context of the purchase of a private residence in Abidjan in 2007.

Opposition parties such as Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) and Henri Konan Bedie’s Democratic Party of Cote d’Ivoire (PDCI) are likely to call on Ouattara to grant Gbagbo and Ble Goude presidential pardons in the spirit of ‘national reconciliation.’ In fact, this remains Ouattara’s weak spot, as he has been widely criticized for not doing enough to heal the wounds of the 2010/11 civil war episode. However, the nature of the charges, the timing of the prosecutions and the harsh verdicts by Ivorian courts against the president’s key opponents all strongly suggest that the judicial authorities acted at Ouattara’s behest. The recent judgements against Ble Goude and Soro further indicate that Ouattara has chosen not to go down the path of reconciliation any time soon.

This choice has likely been reinforced by another recent development: since 3 May 2020, Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly, Ouattara’s anointed successor whose frail health is no secret, has remained in a Parisian hospital for undisclosed reasons. Ouattara spent considerable time and effort closing the ranks of the ruling Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace (RHDP) behind his pick of Coulibaly as the candidate for the upcoming presidential election. Should Coulibaly back out, Ouattara would be faced with the delicate task of presenting a new consensus candidate. Ouattara’s earlier threat to present himself for a controversial third term suggests he had to resort to extraordinary means to impose his will on the party with Coulibaly. Whether he could repeat this trick and remain in control of the process if Coulibaly dropped out is by no means a foregone conclusion.

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