The fate of former strongman Laurent Gbagbo, who turned mortar shells and rockets on his people, will be an indicator of how calls for reconciliation play out in this West African nation blighted by tribal, religious and land rivalries.
Côte d’Ivoire’s new leader — installed at the cost of thousands of lives — is calling for reconciliation in the country, but says that cannot come at the price of justice.
President Alassane Ouattara has said impunity for Gbagbo and those who fomented violence is out of the question, a clear challenge to a practice that often reigns in Africa for those who fall from power.
Ouattara wants the 65-year-old Gbagbo to be tried in national and international courts.
At least one other African leader says Gbagbo should be allowed to live peacefully in exile. Another says he should be able to retire to a farm in Côte d’Ivoire.
His supporters say without his release, there cannot be reconciliation.
Gbagbo was arrested April 11 and is now under house arrest in the country’s northern Korhogo town, Ouattara’s stronghold. His wife Simone, who at one point was being investigated by the United Nations for human rights abuses including organising death squads, is being held separately in the north-west town of Odienne.
The bad blood between Ouattara and Gbagbo goes back decades. Ouattara oversaw Gbagbo’s arrest on charges of inciting violence in 1992, when Ouattara was prime minister and Gbagbo a beleaguered opposition leader. Gbagbo was tried and sentenced to two years in prison but was released after six months.
Gbagbo took power in 2000 in elections boycotted by all other opposition parties, a sore point among Ouattara supporters. An attempted coup in 2002 ballooned into a rebellion that divided the country between a rebel-held north and government-run south. Gbagbo repeatedly delayed promised elections.
November 28 elections were supposed to reunite the nation that once was a symbol of progress and prosperity on the continent.
Though Gbagbo lost, nearly half of the electorate voted for him. Ouattara bagged 54% of votes, Gbagbo 46%. Refusing to accept his defeat, Gbagbo took a last stand in Abidjan, as former rebel forces swept down from the north in a lightning assault,
Ouattara, very conscious that Gbagbo still enjoys a lot of support in Côte d’Ivoire and not wanting to make a martyr of him, gave orders that he was to be taken alive at all costs.
Senegal warned against impunity last week. Senegal’s Foreign Affairs Minister Madicke Niang told reporters in Côte d’Ivoire: “Being against all forms of impunity, we must find the means, soon, to ensure that such acts never again see the light of day.”
But the nation appears to be selective about who should be punished. For years Senegal has resisted African and other international pressure to try ousted President Hissene Habre, who is accused of thousands of political killings and systematic torture when he ruled Chad, from 1982 to 1990, before fleeing to Senegal.
Botswana’s President Ian Khama said Ivorians should just let Gbagbo retire to a farm, even though he had taken a hard line against the intransigent leader.
Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, himself the victim of an electoral crisis in which more than 1 000 Kenyans died in a conflict rooted in old tribal and land rivalries, last week suggested that Gbagbo should be allowed to go into exile.
Odinga was widely seen as the victor in December 2007 elections but agreed to form a power-sharing government to halt the bloodshed.
The Kenyan prime minister, who admitted Gbagbo is a friend, acknowledged that he failed in his role as an African Union mediator to convince Gbagbo to step down to save the lives of innocents.
“Mr Gbagbo had quite a lot of support in the last elections. The situation in the Ivory Coast is fairly complex. You have got this north and south divide, you have got the religious divide and you have also the ethnic divide and all that needs to be resolved,” he said on CNN television network.
“I really don’t want to see a situation where Mr Gbagbo becomes a hero in trial,” he said.
The death toll caused by Gbagbo’s refusal to step down peacefully will probably never be known. As people began emerging from homes in which they had locked themselves for two weeks and more as the city was besieged, have been seen burning decomposing corpses. Others have collected bodies of family members from overflowing morgues where no records were kept.
Few doubt the man with the most blood on his hands is Gbagbo.
About 30 members of Gbagbo’s Cabinet, party and family are under house arrest and UN protection in an unlooted family home in Grand Bassam, the seaside resort near Abidjan that is Simone Gbagbo’s birth place.
The arrested president of Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front party, Pascal Affi N’Guessan, on Saturday sneaked out a news release calling for “the liberation of the president, Laurent Gbagbo, and all the other political prisoners.”
Gbagbo’s rabble-rousing youth minister Charles Ble Goude, who spoke before going into hiding, also warned that “there can be no reconciliation” without Gbagbo. – Sapa-AP