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Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo, the strongman who refused to let go

Kampbel Kambou Sia, AFP | Former Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo pictured in 2005 in Abidjan, Ivory Coast's economic hub.

The International Criminal Court on Tuesday acquitted former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo of crimes against humanity, marking the latest dramatic twist in the career of one of West Africa’s most divisive politicians.

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After seven years behind bars in The Hague, Gbagbo, 73, was cleared of crimes committed following a disputed presidential election in 2010. More than 3,000 people were killed in the cocoa-producing nation after he refused to accept defeat by his rival Alassane Ouattara, Ivory Coast’s current president.

Gbagbo, a onetime socialist and labour activist, was the first former head of state to stand trial at the ICC. The judges’ ruling, which prosecutors have appealed, paves the way for his release from jail – a familiar routine for a man who spent decades battling power-hungry strongmen, only to become one himself.

The opponent

Gbagbo, then a university lecturer with a PhD in history, was first jailed for “subversive” teaching in 1971, during the rule of Ivory Coast’s independence leader, president Félix Houphouët-Boigny. The man nicknamed “Cicero”, because of his taste for Classical languages, would be among the first to defy Houphouët-Boigny, first as a trade union activist and then as a left-wing politician.

A skilled orator whose affable manners concealed a ferocious determination, Gbagbo sought exile in Paris in 1982, cultivating ties with prominent socialist figures in France – ties that would endure during later crises with the former colonial power. He founded the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) in exile, returning only in 1988 to attend its founding congress. Further stints in jail would soon follow.

Laurent Gbagbo, leader of the opposition Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), gives a press conference on August 1992 in Abidjan, shortly after his release from jail. Issouf Sanogo, AFP

His first shot at the presidency, in 1990, ended in crushing defeat to Houphouet-Boigny, then in his seventh term, though it cemented Gbagbo’s position as opposition leader. Two years later he was again jailed for his part in student protests against the government of prime minister Alassane Ouattara. The two would meet again.

In 1993, the rise to power of Henri Konan Bédié coincided with mounting xenophobia in Ivory Coast, instigated by the notion of “Ivoirité” (Ivorianness), and Gbagbo was accused of jumping on the nationalist bandwagon too. Ivoirité paid dividends in 2000 when Gbagbo won a disputed presidential election in which Ouattara, a Muslim whose nationality was disputed, was barred from running.

Laurent Gbagbo smiles as he his sworn as Ivory Coast's new president on October 26, 2000. Issouf Sanogo, AFP

Civil war

Gbagbo’s decade in power was marked by years of civil war, triggered by a failed coup in October 2002 that resulted in rebels seizing the country’s mainly Muslim north. His supporters, notably the Young Patriots that policed the streets, were accused of carrying out xenophobic attacks against northerners and foreigners.

As the war dragged on, Gbagbo’s camp became increasingly frustrated with a peacekeeping force deployed by France, which it accused of undermining the country’s unity. The anger boiled over in 2004 after nine French soldiers were killed in an Ivorian air strike against rebels, prompting France to destroy the country’s air force in retaliatory attacks. Gbagbo supporters vented their fury at French expatriates, forcing Paris to hurriedly evacuate some 8,000 people.

President Laurent Gbagbo meets his French counterpart Jacques Chirac at the Elysée palace in Paris in February 2004. Patrick Kovarik, AFP

As Gbagbo’s first term drew to a close in 2005, elections were repeatedly delayed, with postponements blamed on logistical failings and a row over eligibility to vote, centered on the question of who was and who wasn’t Ivorian.

Unable to recapture the north militarily, Gbagbo signed a peace and power-sharing arrangement in March 2007 with rebel leader Guillaume Soro, who later became his prime minister. Three years later, the president and opposition leaders finally agreed to hold elections, which soon shaped up into a showdown between old rivals Gbagbo and Ouattara.

Gbagbo shakes hands with rebel chief Guillaume Soro (right) and Burkina Faso leader Blaise Compaore (centre) in March 2007 before signing a peace deal to end years of civil war. Issouf Sanogo, AFP

A bloody denouement

In December 2010, Ouattara was declared the winner of a run-off vote, only for the Constitutional Court, controlled by Gbagbo supporters, to overturn the verdict 24 hours later. The ensuing power struggle would bring further bloodshed to the war-scarred nation, until Ouattara’s forces, backed by French troops, stormed the president’s compound in April 2011.

Gbagbo and his wife Simone are under arrest in their Abidjan residence on April 11, 2011. AFP file photo

Later that year, the ICC opened an investigation into the violence and charged Gbagbo with four crimes against humanity, including murder, persecution and rape. He adamantly denied the charges, saying: "All my life, I fought for democracy."

Gbagbo maintained a strong following even while in jail, and news of his acquittal prompted celebrations in his Ivorian hometown of Gagnoa and other former bastions. His expected release comes just months after his wife Simone also walked free. Sentenced to 20 years in jail by a local court, the former “Iron Lady” of Ivory Coast was granted an amnesty by Ouattara after seven years in detention.

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