After his acquittal in March by the International Criminal Court (ICC), President Alassane Ouattara announced that his predecessor and rival Laurent Gbagbo was free to return to Ivory Coast.
After 10 years away, Gbagbo is expected to arrive in Abidjan on Thursday from Belgium where he’s stayed since leaving ICC custody.
Gbagbo was absolved of responsibility for crimes including murder, rape, and persecution following disputed elections in 2010, with judges saying prosecutors failed to prove their case.
His violent ouster in 2011 led to deep divisions in the West African country.
Analysts say his return could make or break national reconciliation efforts.
“The real stake of the return of Mr. Laurent GBAGBO is political. For nearly three decades, Ivory Coast has lived at the rhythm of political crises, especially electoral crises,” says political scientist Geoffroy Julien Kouao.
“Obviously, all this has caused a real social and political fracture. From the above, the issue, the real challenge for Côte d’Ivoire today, is national reconciliation and the return of Mr. Laurent GBAGBO should contribute enormously”.
The ruling RHDP party has declared that it is not opposed to the return of the Popular Ivorian Front party leader but has advised against mass reception rallies.
“Ivory Coast is holding its breath”, said Africanews Abidjan correspondent Yannick Djanhoun.
“One thing is certain, whether one is for or against this return, there’s is no denying the significance of this moment.”
Despite being away from the political scene for over a decade, Gbagbo remains popular especially in the more developed southern part of the country.
President Ouattara who was re-elected in a 2020 vote largely boycotted by the opposition has voiced no objections about Gbagbo’s return.
Some in the country have urged him to pardon dissidents who have fled the country.
One of them is the former head of the national assembly Guillaume Soro who’s been charged with threatening national security.