Gbagbo trial exposes old wounds in Ivory Coast


Paul Koudou sat, eyes glued to a tiny television in the Ivory Coast village of Mama, as a court clerk 5,000 km (3,000 miles) away in The Hague read out a list of charges – rape, murder, persecution – against former president Laurent Gbagbo.

“It hurts me to see him like that,” said Koudou, who looks after over the now abandoned residence that Gbagbo owns in his home village, a sprawling 10-room villa still scarred by the bullet holes of a 2011 war that led to the president’s downfall.
“He didn’t do any of the things they’re saying. Gbagbo is a man of peace,” the 51-year-old lamented, expressing a view of the former leader not universally shared in Ivory Coast.

Five years after the civil war that killed 3,000 people, the country has emerged as one of Africa’s rising stars, held up by many as a model of successful post-conflict reconstruction.

Under President Alassane Ouattara, the economy of the world’s top cocoa producer has grown rapidly and stability has returned after a decade of violent political turmoil.

However, the start of Gbagbo’s trial before the International Criminal Court (ICC) on Thursday for crimes committed during the conflict has exposed deep, persisting divisions.

While some Ivorians denounce him as an arch-villain who rejected his 2010 election defeat then murdered his own people, others fete him as an unjustly maligned national hero.
“Laurent Gbagbo doesn’t belong to a family or a political party,” said the president’s son Michel Gbagbo, who was arrested with his father in April 2011 by rebels who backed Ouattara and received support from France and U.N. peacekeepers.
“He belongs to a country. He belongs to a continent. He’s part of the legend of individuals like (slain Congolese independence leader Patrice) Lumumba,” he said.

Much of polarisation of the debate surrounding Gbagbo’s trial is rooted in a continuing and fundamental disagreement over what actually happened in late 2010 and early 2011.

Gbagbo’s supporters say he adhered to the Ivorian constitution throughout the dispute that followed the announcement of U.N.-certified, internationally endorsed results showing he’d lost the election.

They claim the ICC trial – the world court’s first against a former head of state – can only be fair if the events are placed in the context of what they say were Gbagbo’s legitimate efforts to fend off an external aggression.
“We know this was a French plot to remove Gbagbo from power. We know he won the election,” said Arsene Bolou, a member of the pro-Gbagbo Young Patriots movement who watched the trial’s opening at a packed bar in the commercial capital Abidjan.

ICC prosecutors argue that Gbagbo and his supporters conspired to keep him in power by all means necessary, including violence against civilians, no matter the election’s outcome.
“If it had been up to me, I wanted him killed the day he was arrested. But God did not grant my wish,” said Seydou Barro, a 53-year-old craftsman who was picked up by Gbagbo’s security forces during a pro-Ouattara march in December 2010.

Gbagbo’s men killed at least 45 people at the demonstration, according to the prosecution, which has included the attack among five incidents during which it claims crimes were committed.

Barro says he spent eight days in detention, where policemen threatened to execute him as they beat him repeatedly.

He is now among the victims formally represented at the trial, which campaigners consider a landmark opportunity to hold a man at the pinnacle of power responsible for the harm he has caused others.
“Gbagbo’s trial is a cautionary tale for those willing to use whatever means necessary to cling to power,” said Param-Preet Singh, senior international justice counsel at Human Rights Watch.

Not everyone agrees however that justice is being done in The Hague.

Though ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda again promised on Wednesday to step up investigations into all sides in the 2011 conflict, none of Ouattara’s own backers, who are also accused of committing massacres, are yet facing indictment.
“Was Gbagbo fighting this war against himself? Where are Ouattara’s supporters. This isn’t justice,” said Abdouramane Sangare, who heads the hardline faction of Gbagbo’s political party, the Ivorian Popular Front.

This perception of one-sided victor’s justice has tarnished the ICC in the eyes of many, both in Ivory Coast and elsewhere in Africa, where the court was already under fire from governments accusing it of bias against Africans.

Former presidents Joaquim Alberto Chissano of Mozambique and Benin’s Nicephore Soglo have called for Gbagbo’s liberation, claiming the ICC case has “further aggravated the divisions and animosities between Ivorian citizens”.

But Mariam Kamagate, who says she was beaten by pro-Gbagbo militia fighters because she bears a Muslim name, said Ivory Coast must reject impunity if it is going to move forward as a united country.
“Gbagbo ruined Ivory Coast. Why wouldn’t he deserve to face justice? All this blood spilled in Ivory Coast, he has to pay for that blood.”