Laurent Gbagbo, Ivory Coast's former strongman

2019-01-15 21:36
Laurent Gbagbo (File: AFP)

Laurent Gbagbo (File: AFP)

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Ivory Coast's former president Laurent Gbagbo, acquitted on Tuesday of crimes against humanity, once battled for democracy, but his inability to let go of power was his downfall.

After seven years behind bars in The Hague, Gbagbo, 73, and his former right-hand man Charles Ble Goude, 47, were acquitted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) of crimes against humanity.

It was the 16-year-old court's first trial of a former head of state.

The charges related to a showdown in 2010 in which Gbagbo refused to accept election defeat to his rival Alassane Ouattara, prompting the nation's descent into bloodshed.

More than 3 000 people were killed in a conflict that turned the economic hub Abidjan, one of Africa's most cosmopolitan cities, into a war zone until Gbagbo and his wife Simone were grabbed from their bunker by pro-Ouattara forces on April 11, 2011.

Gbagbo, a onetime socialist and labour activist, came to power in the cocoa-rich economic powerhouse of West Africa in October 2000.

Two years later, he faced a rebellion that split the country, a harbinger of the worse violence that would follow.

A skilled orator who liked to play the man of the people, preferring African shirts over suits and ties, Gbagbo hid a ferocious will behind an affable exterior.

He exploited identity politics in his rise to power and stirred resentment towards Ivory Coast's former colonial power, France, which he claimed had plotted to force him out.

He maintained a strong following at home even while lingering in jail - the Ivorian daily Le Temps once hailed him as "the legend that never dies."

 'Calamitous' elections 

Gbagbo cut his teeth in the trade union movement during long years of opposition to the "father of the nation", president Felix Houphouet-Boigny, who ruled from independence in 1960 until his death in 1993.

Born on May 31, 1945, educated in a Christian seminary and a historian by training, Gbagbo clandestinely founded the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) to fight one-party rule, and sought exile in France in the 1980s.

A member of the Bete ethnic group, which was traditionally excluded from power, Gbagbo openly went into politics in 1990, when a multiparty system was introduced.

Elected a member of parliament, he looked on with glee as Houphouet-Boigny's supporters started attacking each other and fighting for power after the "Old Man" was dead.

His hour came on October 26, 2000, when he was elected president under conditions he himself admitted to be "calamitous", in a poll from which Ouattara was barred.

At times he also used Ble Goude's Young Patriots movement to bolster his strength by organising riots, notably against French and other foreigners targeted by Gbagbo under his xenophobic brand of identity politics.

He often blamed the country's woes on foreigners and sowed stark divisions between north and south.

Gbagbo managed to stay in office after a coup bid in 2002, but only kept control of the southern half of the country.

The New Forces (FN) rebel movement took the north, Ouattara's stronghold. After a failed attempt to reconquer the north by military means in 2004, Gbagbo signed a peace deal with the rebels in 2007.

 Election crisis 

The wily Gbagbo long managed to stave off promised elections despite strong international and regional pressure.

Once he was beaten by former international banker Ouattara in November 2010, he refused to accept the result and fighting erupted.

The ICC opened an investigation into the violence in 2011 and charged Gbagbo with four crimes against humanity, including murder, persecution and rape.

His trial was linked with Ble Goude's after the youth leader was flown to The Hague, but the judges ruled on Tuesday that there was no evidence of a "common plan" to foment violence.

In pre-trial hearings, Gbagbo adamantly denied the charges, saying: "All my life, I fought for democracy."

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