Simone Gbagbo: 'Iron Lady' of Ivory Coast

2015-01-07 08:25
Simone Gbagbo. IFile: AFP)

Simone Gbagbo. IFile: AFP)

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Abidjan - Ivory Coast's "Iron Lady" Simone Gbagbo, whose trial resumed on Tuesday, basked in her role as the power behind the throne during her husband Laurent Gbagbo's regime, but to foes she was a pitiless killer.

Simone is wanted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC), where her husband already faces justice, but she is instead on trial in Abidjan, alongside 82 officials from the former ruling party.

On Tuesday, six co-defendants were called to testify, but the former first lady was not in court.

She is charged with "attempting to undermine the security of the state" by actively supporting Laurent Gbagbo in his bid to keep power after an electoral defeat in November 2010 ended a turbulent decade in office.

Political struggle

The couple were arrested in April 2011 by forces loyal to new President Alassane Ouattara during a French-backed military operation, after five months of fighting that claimed at least 3 000 lives.

Fervently Christian but ruthless by reputation, Simone has never sought to deny exercising political influence after her husband rose to power in a October 2000 election in which former prime minister Ouattara was barred from standing on the grounds he was a foreigner.

"All the ministers respect me, and they often consider me above them. I've got what it takes to be a minister," Simone told the French newsweekly l'Express in 2001, calling her attitude logical for someone who had dedicated her life to political activity.

"I engaged in political struggle against the former regime alongside men. I spent six months in prison, I was beaten, molested, left for dead. After all those trials, it's logical that people don't mess with me."

A test for I Coast's legal system

A key issue in her trial will be whether she played a part in directing the death squads that ran amok in the weeks after the disputed vote.

Judicial authorities argue that the proceedings will be a test of the west African country's capacity to conduct a fair trial, while contributing to national reconciliation.

As observers noted at the 26 December opening of her case - when Gbagbo appeared in a bright yellow dress, carefully plaited hair and a defiant air - she is not inclined to wilt in the face of adversity.

Born in the predominantly Christian south in 1949 as one of 18 children of a policeman, Simone Gbagbo studied linguistics and history before becoming a trade union activist.

Her militancy led to a jail term in the 1970s for openly criticising then president Felix Houphouet-Boigny - Ivory Coast's first leader after independence from France in 1960 - when he rejected opposition calls for multi-party elections.

She and Laurent Gbagbo married in 1989 after founding the opposition socialist Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), and she was later elected to parliament in the world's leading cocoa producer.

Her husband sought to change relations with former colonial master Paris, arguing that previous regimes had been servile, and Simone proved a fierce critic of "neo-colonialism", once famously describing France's former president Nicolas Sarkozy - a main mover in her husband's downfall - as "the devil".

Death squads and prayer meetings

Supporters of Simone's commitment to political causes hailed her as "the Hillary Clinton of the tropics", while for detractors, the "Iron Lady" became the "Blood Lady", amid allegations by human rights activists that the regime used teams of killers to deal with opponents.

Those concerns were reinforced when she was implicated by a French judicial inquiry into the sinister disappearance of French-Canadian journalist Guy-Andre Kieffer in Ivory Coast in 2004.

Simone frequently mingled politics with the evangelical faith she practised after "miraculously" surviving a car crash and starting prayer meetings at the presidential palace.

"God is on our side, God is with us," she told a joyful crowd after her husband rejected electoral defeat. "God has already given us victory."

Families of victims say they cannot win even if Gbagbo is convicted by a domestic court, while rights monitors are keen to see how far the trial may venture in tackling crimes against humanity on home ground.

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