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Gbagbo's return poses big questions

The former President may want to reconcile the country but even after a decade away, he remains a divisive political figure

As his motorcade filed through the streets of Abidjan on 17 June from the airport at Port-Bouët towards his political headquarters in upmarket Cocody, ex-President Laurent Gbagbo's massive following was on show as thousands of cheering citizens lined the route. That reality is a major challenge for President Alassane Ouattara. His predecessor and historic rival is back for keeps, having had his acquittal of crimes against humanity confirmed by the International Criminal Court (ICC) at the Hague. Gbagbo remains a formidable political force.

Gbagbo's capture by French and pro-Ouattara forces on 11 April 2011 was the dénouement of the political stalemate-turned civil war that followed his refusal to accept defeat in the disputed November 2010 presidential election (AC Vol 52 No 8, A resolution in Abidjan & Vol 52 No 18, Gbagbo: France’s part in his downfall). Transferred to the ICC to face charges of crimes against humanity allegedly committed in the post-election period, Gbagbo was to spend more than seven years in custody until his acquittal in January 2019.

While Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda appealed that decision, Gbagbo was allowed conditional freedom, staying at the Brussels home of his second wife Nady Bamba, until all restrictions were lifted on his final acquittal on 31 March.

Ouattara could see which way the wind was blowing. He signalled that if the ICC confirmed the acquittals of the former president and the former head of his Jeunes Patriotes youth movement, Charles Blé Goudé, both men would be free to come home (AC Vol 61 No 12, Affairs of state and of the heart).

Last year, tensions peaked around October's presidential election, in which Ouattara secured a notional third-term victory in a contest boycotted by his main opponents and deemed by many to be unconstitutional. In the aftermath, all sides showed readiness to compromise (AC Vol 61 No 24, Echoes of the dark days & Vol 62 No 1, Old demons resurface).

The supporters of Gbagbo and former President Henri Konan Bédié fought parliamentary elections in March, establishing an opposition presence of more than 80 of the 255 seats in the national assembly. In recent weeks, the government negotiated with Gbagbo's aides over arrangements for his return. He will enjoy the perquisites, including an officially-funded office and security support, to which a former head of state is entitled.

Ahead of Gbagbo's return, his team said he would promote reconciliation. For the government and the former president this initial management of le grand retour is the easy bit.

For the first few days, Gbagbo has been focusing on personal and family matters, and he is expected to visit his village, Mama, near Gagnoa, to pay respects at the tomb of his mother, who died in 2015 while he was incarcerated at Scheveningen. He attended mass at Abidjan's St. Paul cathedral on Sunday.

After that, much more difficult and complex judgements will need to be made about political arrangements and the future relationship between the present and former presidents.

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