Following the return of former president Laurent Gbagbo (2000-2011) last week, important questions concerning his political future remain unanswered. Chief among those is what kind of arrangement Gbagbo secured from President Alassane Ouattara concerning his pending prison sentence. In turn, this will inform Gbagbo’s future political ambitions. However, with the next nationwide election not due until October 2025, uncertainty is likely to prevail as neither side has an incentive to lock in decisions just yet.
Recall that, 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 allegedly ordering security forces to break into and loot the Abidjan branch of the Central Bank of West African States during the 2010/11 post-electoral crisis.
While details have emerged about a generous settlement concerning Gbagbo’s status as a former head of state with benefits including accommodation, cars, security details, and pension – including arrears accrued since 2011 – the crucial detail regarding his legal status remains unclear. For the time being, it appears as though his sentence has merely been suspended. As such, by simply revoking this status, Ouattara would retain the key to end his archrival’s political career should Gbagbo (76) consider running in the 2025 presidential election. A full-fledged amnesty – as granted to Gbagbo’s wife Simone and 800 political prisoners in 2018 – may boost Ouattara’s reconciliation credentials, but would also give Gbagbo freedom of maneuver at a time where his political ambitions remain unclear.
Besides, while Gbagbo is still hugely popular among his supporters, he is equally despised by a large segment of the population that suffered during his rule as well as the 2010/11 conflict during which some 3,000 people died. As such, Ouattara is unlikely to consider a full pardon unless Gbagbo gives credible assurances to retire from politics and engage in some public reconciliation gestures himself.
For the time being, Ouattara will closely watch his opponent’s every step. While thousands of supporters lined the streets when Gbagbo’s convoy drove him from the airport to his Abidjan residence, the ex-president retained a low profile during his first week back in the country. However, a brief statement issued on 21 June in which Gbagbo mainly complained about his supporters’ maltreatment by the police does not suggest that he intends to eat humble pie any time soon. In fact, indications are that Gbagbo is bound on reorganizing his political legacy, the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), by consolidating the party and removing his long-time adversary Pascal Affi N’Guessan. While this does not necessarily indicate any long-term plans vis-a-vis 2025, Gbagbo is evidently not in a rush to remove the uncertainty regarding his political future.