With Gbagbo’s ICC acquittal, President Ouattara has more to worry about ahead of presidential vote in Ivory Coast

International Criminal Court judges on Tuesday found former Ivorian leader Laurent Gbagbo not guilty of all war crimes charges filed against him as, according to the judges, prosecutors failed to prove their case against the 73-year-old. His acquittal comes as tension grows in Ivory Coast ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

Gbagbo faced four counts of crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, persecution and other inhumane acts that occurred during post-electoral violence in Ivory Coast between December 2010 and April 2011, after Gbagbo, who vied to be re-elected, refused to accept defeat.

“There is no need for the defence to submit further evidence as the prosecutor has not satisfied the burden of proof,” said  Presiding Judge Cuno Tarfusser, who ordered that Gbagbo and co-defendant Charles Blé Goudé, former political youth leader and close ally, to be set free.

Gbagbo’s acquittal will come as a blow to France, which together with the United Nations backed the New Forces of Alassane Ouattara, which bombed the presidential palace and arrested Laurent Gbagbo, despite the Ivorian Constitutional Council declaring him winner of the 2010 presidential election.

The Committee of Actions for the Ivory Coast (C.A.C.I – USA), a registered coalition of individuals, movements, and organizations of the Diaspora in North America had in the past expressed its conviction that Gbagbo’s arrest and transfer to the International Criminal Court (ICC) was a political decision that perpetuates France’s maneuvers to keep the Ivory Coast in her sphere of influence. Once he became president in 2000, Gbagbo blocked a corridor that linked the presidential residence to the French embassy in Abidjan, a move that showed his stand on independence from the former colonial master.

As the Committee of Actions for Côte d’Ivoire – USA noted in a 2014 article, Gbagbo’s philosophy and actions threatened France’s geo-strategic interests and hegemony in Africa.

However, what Gbagbo’s supporters conveniently leave out when speaking or writing about Gbagbo’s travails is the fact that Gbagbo, whose mandate had expired in 2005, delayed the election until it eventually held in 2010. The former university professor clung to power as rebellion grew in the north and disputes festered among the country’s top political leaders. Current Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara was the subject of the crisis in the north.

Two years after he was barred from running for president following a supreme court verdict that he was not a real Ivoirian as it was proven that his parents were from Burkina Faso, northerners said to be mainly foreign Muslims, started a revolt, seizing the cities of Bouaké and Korhogo and killing non supporters and non Muslims. The civil war in the West African country turned a prospering country into a shadow of itself, as violence grew, investors ran and jobs vanished.

A peace deal agreed between the government and the rebels in 2007 led to Guillaume Soro, leader of the New Forces, becoming Prime Minister, with elections planned for 2008. The presidential election was again postponed to 2010 where Gbagbo faced off with Ouattara.

The Independent Election Commission (CEI) declared Ouattara winner with 54.1 percent of the votes. However, Gbagbo’s party, the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), rejected the result, citing fraud. The Constitutional Council nullified the CEI’s declaration based on alleged voting fraud, excluding votes from nine northern areas controlled by Ouattara’s forces. With its pronouncement, the court said Gbagbo won with 51 percent of the remaining vote. But Gbagbo had spent 10 years in office, therefore, according to the Ivorian constitution, Gbagbo’s time as president was up.

While Gbagbo was away in detention, Ivory Coast has found peace and the country’s economy is once again booming. Whatever he thinks of France, some Ivorians are okay with the French.

“It’s all about their way of integrating. If the French come to do business, there won’t be any problem,” says Dimitri Bakou, a bar owner in the posh Riviera district of Abidjan told The Christian Science Monitor in a 2013 interview. “The thing is, when they try to interfere in the politics of the country, there’s a problem.” Many Ivorians still share Bakou’s position. But there are also others who are not comfortable with the close ties Ivory Coast has with France. Gbagbo appealed to such as he push an anti-French sentiment when he was in office. Now that he is out, it remains to be seen whether his influence in Ivory Coast would have waned enough to affect politics in the West African country.

A peaceful 2015 election had cemented Ouattara’s place as a calming influence in Ivory Coast, but it is important to remember he has it in him to use force. While Gbagbo had faced criminal charges for the violence that followed the 2010 elections, Ouattara’s forces are also responsible for the wave of violence that led to about 3,000 deaths. A 2017 army mutiny has shown there are cracks in the story of peace that has followed the civil war. Soldiers involved in the 2017 mutiny, mostly former rebels who fought on Ouattara’s side, seized control of Ivory Coast’s second biggest city. Their demands were bonus payments promised when fighting to oust Gbagbo. The government paid without conditions. A similar mutiny in 2014 was handled the same way.

Ouattara’s government obviously has little control over its military and as the October 2020 presidential election draws nigh, other groups of soldiers may rise up and make demands. Then, there is Gbagbo, who still has massive influence in Ivory Coast, with his party FPI expected back for elections after boycotting polls for years. There is also the breakup of the presidential coalition consisting mainly of Ouattara’s party and the Ivory Coast Democratic Party (PDCI) led by former president Henri Konan Bédié, who plans to meet with Gbagbo once he returns to Ivory Coast and work with former rebel leader Soro to form an alliance for the 2020 elections. Ouattara’s longtime associate Soro has now resigned from his government after rumours he habours an ambition to run for president in 2020. As a result, tension has started brewing in Ivory Coast, as demonstrated by the violence during the October municipal elections. But Ouattara has promised that all will be well in 2020.

“If 2015 went well, why would 2020 not go well?” the president asked, adding, “I trust Ivorians, I trust our institutions.”

“I want the stability of our country, peace in Côte d’Ivoire, and you can trust me: no one will be able to disturb this peace as I head Ivory Coast,” Ouattara promised.