ICoast president says Gbagbo 'free to return' after ICC acquittal

Abidjan (AFP) –


Ivory Coast's President Alassane Ouattara on Wednesday declared that his predecessor Laurent Gbagbo was welcome to return home after being finally acquitted of crimes against humanity during a civil war that pitted them against each other a decade ago.

Ouattara said Gbagbo and his former right-hand man Charles Ble Goude were "free to return to Ivory Coast when they want."

He made the remarks a week after the International Criminal Court (ICC) confirmed that both were in the clear over the devastating post-electoral violence that rocked the West African nation in 2010-11.

"Arrangements will be made so that Laurent Gbagbo can enjoy, in accordance with the laws in place, the advantages and allowances available to former presidents," Ouattara told a cabinet ministers meeting in Abidjan.

The state will pay for Gbagbo's return to Ivory Coast along with his family, Ouattara added.

More than 3,000 people were killed in months of fighting after the 2010 election, when Gbagbo disputed the results of the vote won by Ouattara and refused to stand down.

Gbagbo was eventually forced out of power and became the first head of state to stand trial at the ICC in The Hague.

But despite spending years behind bars in the Dutch city, as well as time in Brussels as he awaited the outcome of an appeal against his acquittal in 2019, the deeply divisive ex-president has retained strong support at home.

His supporters have hailed the ICC's decision to uphold his acquittal along with that of former youth militia leader Ble Goude, saying their return would heal the wounds of a conflict that split the country along north-south lines.

- 'Reconciliation and peace' -

Ouattara made no mention Wednesday of the 20-year jail sentence that Gbagbo officially still faces in Ivory Coast, after he was convicted in absentia in 2019 for the "looting" of the Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO) during the 2010-11 conflict.

But Amadou Coulibaly, Ivory Coast's new communications minister and government spokesman, suggested that the sentence could be revoked.

"I'll stick to what the president has said, which seems quite clear to me: we are not going to offer Gbagbo the chance to return, just to put him behind bars," Coulibaly told a press conference after the cabinet meeting.

Ble Goude had said last Thursday that he hoped for a "gesture" from the leaders in Ivory Coast -- "an amnesty or a pardon" -- so that "president Laurent Gbagbo and I can return home".

Gbagbo has been positioning himself for a potential comeback since the end of last year when Ouattara's government held out an olive branch, issuing him with two passports, one ordinary and one diplomatic.

But there had been a question mark over his return as he awaited the ICC ruling, as well as the green light from authorities.

Kouadio Konan Bertin, the government minister in charge of national reconciliation, said Gbagbo's return would facilitate the work of moving on from the conflict.

Ouattara is "disposed to move towards reconciliation and peace", he said.

Ble Goude's lawyer Simplice Seri Zokou also welcomed the president's announcement, saying it would give "a new energy to the national reconciliation".

Gbagbo has cast himself as a conciliatory figure, having warned of the risk of "catastrophe" as tensions grew ahead of the October 2020 presidential election.

But calm has since returned to Ivorian politics, with Gbagbo's FPI taking part in legislative elections last month, breaking a decade-long boycott.