Former President of Côte d’Ivoire, Laurent Gbagbo embarked Thursday in Brussels to return home for the first time since his ouster from power in 2011.
Gbagbo was sent to The Hague for war crimes of which he was later acquitted.
There was a strong police presence around Abidjan, the commercial capital of Côte d’Ivoire, to prevent violence, even as the government of President Alassane Ouattara and supporters of Gbagbo hope his return can help reconcile the country.
In the Yopougon district of Abidjan, considered Gbagbo’s political stronghold, hundreds of people took to the streets to demonstrate in favor of his arrival. Police fired tear gas in other neighborhoods to disperse similar crowds.
One group chanted “Gbagbo is coming, we are going to install him”, while others shouted “Respect Gbagbo’s power” from minivans heading for the airport.
“It’s a big day for me to go and welcome Gbagbo,” said Liliane Kokora, who wore a t-shirt with Gbagbo’s face printed on it. “He is finally arriving in his country to give us hope. “
Gbagbo, who came to power in 2000, was arrested after a brief civil war sparked by his refusal to concede defeat to Ouattara in the 2010 elections.
More than 3,000 people have been killed in the conflict, which largely unfolded along ethnic and regional lines.
He was acquitted in 2019 of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court for his role in the violence.
Côte d’Ivoire, the world’s largest cocoa producer, has experienced rapid economic growth over the past decade, but continues to experience occasional episodes of political and ethnic violence.
At least 85 people have died in the unrest surrounding the hotly contested presidential election in October 2020, in which Ouattara won a third term.
Gbagbo’s return comes after lengthy negotiations between his camp and the government, which delayed the granting of a passport until the end of the 2020 elections.
After Gbagbo announced the date of his return, the government initially complained that it had not been consulted, but then said it would be back in the interests of national reconciliation.
Gbagbo, 76, has said little about the political role he could play on his return.
He retains strong support among his fan base, particularly in the south and west of the country.
He also faces a pending 20-year prison sentence that was handed down in November 2019 for embezzling funds from the regional central bank.
Ouattara said in April that Gbagbo was free to return, but the government did not say if he had been pardoned.
At Brussels airport, a small group of Gbagbo supporters from Paris were waiting to see him leave. Some wore T-shirts with his effigy, including one with the text “Gbagbo the essential”.
“Why would an individual seek to return to their country? Because it’s his country. That’s where he belongs, ”said Habiba Touré, one of Gbagbo’s lawyers, before entering the terminal. (Reuters / NAN)