Côte d’Ivoire: Gbagbo’s acquittal, reconciliatory political-economic outlook

Former President of Côte d’Ivoire Laurent Gbagbo was acquitted by the International Criminal Court on charges related to war crimes committed during the final days of his 2000-2010 presidency. The release of Gbagbo and his likely soon return to the West African country allows for political inclusion, if not reconciliation, of the country’s diverse and dynamic ethnopolitical constituencies to take shape, raising Cote d’Ivoire’s stability and economic outlook.

Gbagbo’s acquittal – ICC Judge Cuno Tarfusser cited the prosecution’s failure to prove the former president’s guilt on crimes committed while his Ivoirian government fought a national rebellion – potentially brings to an end the marginalization and ostracism of a significant Ivoirian political constituency, whose exclusion impeded efforts to fully reconcile Côte d’Ivoire’s ethnopolitical divides, which remain brittle despite the country’s experience of national growth and prosperity over the last few years. 

The acquittal comes amid an Ivoirian national polity heating up in anticipation of presidential elections due in 2020 that will see two-term President Alassane Ouattara (who succeeded Gbagbo following the latter’s capture by combined French and Ivoirian security forces in April 2011) retire from office. National elections in Côte d’Ivoire are always a potential ethnopolitical flashpoint, but Gbagbo’s reentry into the Ivoirian political scene, while certainly to stoke memories of the ethnically-inflamed conflict fought during his rule, removes a significant grievance that could have fomented instability again.

The path toward political inclusion in Côte d’Ivoire had been initiated in 2018, so Gbagbo’s reintroduction will not be unanticipated. Ouattara had in 2018 granted clemency to Gbagbo’s wife, Simone Gbagbo (who had been held under Ivoirian detention for her ethnonationalist provocations during the violent end of the country’s 2000-2010 civil war), paving her return to national prominence as a surrogate for the former president during his absence and prosecution at The Hague. During the second half of 2018, the former first lady held discrete meetings with senior political opposition figures at her home in the country’s commercial capital of Abidjan, who appealed for her support and that of her husband’s Ivoirian Popular Front (FPI) party. But her quiet diplomacy may also have included meeting in Paris with incumbent First Lady Dominique Ouattara, in a discrete visit to establish an informal channel of communication between their prominent presidential camps.    

Now with the former president’s acquittal, he is sure to soon return home and reestablish his Ivoirian Popular Front as a significant participant in Côte d’Ivoire’s political and electoral processes. To be clear the FPI had not completely collapsed following Gbagbo’s capture and the subsequent ascendancy of Ouattara’s Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace (RHDP) party, but the former ruling party saw its prominence degraded and it struggled to reestablish itself without the former president. Gbagbo never gave up on the FPI, who largely represent ethnopolitical interests from the country’s sizeable southwestern region, and in recent weeks asserted resurgent leadership over the party’s directionality. It has to be expected, therefore, that Gbagbo will return to Abidjan and claim his rightful leadership role not only in the FPI former ruling party but in Côte d’Ivoire’s national political scene.

The elections scenario outlook for 2020 is at this point lacking in clear favorites: while Ouattara is not standing for reelection, his RHDP, no matter its incumbency advantages, has not yet identified a designated successor. The current ruling party will convene a leadership congress on January 26 in which it will lay out its campaign agenda, though it is probably too early for a presidential successor candidate to emerge. The Ivoirian political opposition, including not only Gbagbo’s FPI but the Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire led by Henri Konan Bédié (who presided over Côte d’Ivoire from 1993-1999) and two political movements agitating for President of the National Assembly Guillaume Soro (a former student leader, rebel commander, and protégé who served both Gbagbo and Ouattara as prime minister) to contest in 2020 are maneuvering to build successful electoral campaigns. 

The 2020 election scenario at this point observes that Côte d’Ivoire is shaped by four political parties or movements roughly aligned to ethnopolitical persuasion found in the country’s four corners (Gbagbo’s southwest, Bédié’s central/southeast, Soro’s northeast, Ouattara’s northwest), but fortunately for a national outlook, the political campaigns underway are focused on how to establish cross-party inclusive alliances, as opposed to narrow platforms of ethnopolitical exclusiveness.

As long as Côte d’Ivoire politics facilitate the inclusive participation of the country’s full ethnopolitical representation, to now include Gbagbo soon back in the country and at the helm of the FPI, there will be a constraint against acting upon ethnically-held political grievances through violent means. National elections will for sure be vigorously contested, but the Ivoirian playing field is now far more level than not, raising confidence for a non-violent and democratic transfer of political power in 2020 that sustains the country’s noteworthy high rate of economic growth.

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