On 31 March, the International Criminal Court (ICC) upheld its earlier acquittal of former president Laurent Gbagbo (2000-2010) and his co-defendant and former youth minister Charles Ble Goude. The ruling clears a main hurdle for both defendants to return to Cote d’Ivoire. Nevertheless, this will still be subject to negotiations with President Alassane Ouattara as both have been sentenced by Ivorian courts in absentia and thus risk imprisonment upon their arrival. While Cote d’Ivoire’s political stability appears not at risk in the short term, provided Ouattara enables their return, Gbagbo’s return to the political arena will complicate the president’s succession planning vis-à-vis 2024.
In January 2019, the ICC had acquitted both Gbagbo and Ble Goude from all charges of crimes against humanity allegedly committed in the context of the five-month crisis following the 2010 presidential election during which some 3,000 people were killed. The ruling was later appealed by the prosecution.
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 588mn) for the alleged plundering of the central bank during the post-electoral crisis. In December 2019, Ble Goude was sentenced to 20 years in absentia over murder, rape and torture charges allegedly committed in the same context. As such, both would risk being arrested upon arrival if they boarded a plane to Abidjan.
While they might do just that to mobilize their support base and stoke up political tensions, the escalation strategy pursued by the opposition in the context of the 2020 presidential election did not pay off. In fact, all main opposition parties, including Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), called off their earlier boycott and participated in the recently concluded parliamentary election. It is therefore more likely that Gbagbo, who still harbors political ambitions, will play the long game by aiming to present himself as a responsible statesman. While any speculation as to whether Gbagbo (75) may run himself in the 2024 presidential election is premature, he will certainly want to have a say when his FPI picks its candidate.
Public pressure on Ouattara to enable Gbagbo’s return in particular will be immense. The lack of ‘national reconciliation’ remains Ouattara’s weak spot, as he has been widely criticized domestically and abroad for not doing enough to heal the wounds of the 2010/11 civil war episode. In exchange for a presidential pardon, Ouattara would likely aim to seek assurances from Gbagbo to abdicate from political life. To what extent Gbagbo would be willing to agree to such terms – which will be more difficult to broker following Prime Minister Hamed Bakayoko’s death – and how much his assurances would be worth four years down the line remains to be seen. One possible scenario may involve a conditional pardon that Ouattara may revoke if Gbagbo violates the terms of the agreement. Naturally, that may put Cote d’Ivoire’s political stability once again on the wire come 2024.