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"The acquittal of Laurent Gbagbo appears as a form of rehabilitation"

A supporter of Laurent Gbagbo celebrates the conditional release of the former Ivorian president on 1 February 2019 at the International Criminal Court in The Hague (Netherlands).
A supporter of Laurent Gbagbo celebrates the conditional release of the former Ivorian president on 1 February 2019 at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, the Netherlands. Piroschka Van De Wouw / REUTERS

Chronic. Seven years in prison for nothing. The legal proceedings launched before the International Criminal Court (ICC) against Laurent Gbagbo ended on January 15 with a resounding fiasco for the prosecution, and in turn for international justice. The former Ivorian president, but also Charles Blé Goudé, the former leader of the Young Patriots who served as the regime's militia during the crisis in Côte d'Ivoire, are free. How did we get here ?

Read also ICC: Former Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo acquitted of crimes against humanity

Responsibilities are many and shared. The acquittal of Laurent Gbagbo appears mechanically as a form of rehabilitation of the former Ivorian head of state. Immediately, the chorus of conspiracy returned to service: everything was done, they say, especially on the side of the former colonial power, to remove Laurent Gbagbo from power and install in his chair Alassane Ouattara, the friend of the president French at the time, Nicolas Sarkozy, and international institutions like the IMF, where he held important responsibilities.

A poisoned gift

It is to lend a disproportionate influence to Paris who, during the post-electoral crisis in Côte d'Ivoire (from December 2010 to April 2011), would have managed to manipulate the United Nations, the African Union (AU), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the European Union (EU). All these organizations have indeed recognized, more or less quickly after the election, the victory of Alassane Ouattara.

This conspiracy theory makes it possible especially to relieve Laurent Gbagbo of any form of responsibility in this crisis. Let's remember, however, that there would not have been seven years of ICC proceedings or trial for nothing if the former Ivorian president had acknowledged his defeat at the polls. In attempting to gain strength, he took on a historic responsibility, that of precipitating his country into the most serious crisis since independence in 1960.

Article reserved for our subscribers Read also Gbagbo acquitted by the ICC: how the prosecution's case collapsed

But the sinister play that took place in The Hague also owes much to the former ICC prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo. Humiliated by Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir who, by multiplying with impunity the travel abroad, is playing the arrest warrant issued against him in 2009 for the massacres committed in Darfur, the Argentine magistrate absolutely wanted to hang a " big fish "at his hunting board before leaving his post. He went out of his way to get Laurent Gbagbo transferred to The Hague, the first former head of state to be tried by the ICC. It was done in November 2011.

A poisoned gift for Fatou Bensouda, who succeeded Luis Moreno Ocampo a few months later, with a very empty indictment against Laurent Gbagbo, indicted as a "Coauthor" crimes against humanity during the post-election crisis in his country.

Get rid of a bulky prisoner

But this thirst for recognition of the Argentine prosecutor could not have been sealed if it had not met the will of the new Ivorian regime, that of getting rid of a very cumbersome prisoner. Initially away in Korhogo (northern Côte d'Ivoire), in the stronghold of Alassane Ouattara, far from Abidjan, Laurent Gbagbo was detained in such bad conditions that his family and the international community were worried for his health. The former president was then placed under the care of a "Com zone" (rebel leader) who would not have sworn on the bench of the defendants in The Hague, Martin Kouakou Fofié, moreover theoretically under sanction of the UN.

Article reserved for our subscribers Read also Côte d'Ivoire: ICC's acquittal of Laurent Gbagbo rebuffs political cards

By handing Laurent Gbagbo to the ICC, officially because of "Disability" Ivorian justice to judge him, Alassane Ouattara was doing so double. He avoided making his predecessor a martyr (in case of death), while removing a potential threat to public order. A trial in Abidjan would not have failed to provoke strong tensions in Côte d'Ivoire.

And France in all this? In the front line for almost ten years in her former colony, she hoped above all to end this interminable crisis. On the offensive in Libya against Gaddafi, on the defensive in the Sahel against the jihadist push, Paris saw then only benefits to help Alassane Ouattara to send Laurent Gbagbo to The Hague. A short-term calculation, which implied for France to cooperate actively with the ICC prosecutor.

"Total impunity"

With its intelligence networks and resources in Côte d'Ivoire, did not France have any important, if not decisive, elements to put on the prosecution's file? But did she really play the game? One can doubt it, considering the fiasco of the Gbagbo trial. Perhaps because, as we were recently told by a diplomatic source in Paris, transmitting elements is also risking for his senior officials (military and civilian) to be summoned before the Court and to have to explain himself, and to reveal the extent of his abilities.

Reacting to the ICC decision to acquit Laurent Gbagbo and Charles Blé Goudé, the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues (FIDH) pointed out the risk of"Total impunity" in Côte d'Ivoire for the crimes committed during the 2010-2011 crisis. Their acquittal comes just after the amnesty that benefited some 800 people on the spot (including Simone Gbagbo), and while no leader of the former pro-Ouattara rebels was tried for the abuses committed at the time. .

Read also Will the ICC survive the Gbagbo trial fiasco?

And who remembers the massacre committed in the fall of 2002 against gendarmes and their families detained in the prison of Bouaké (center of the country), under the guard of the rebels? Or many abuses committed during the decade in western Ivory Coast by pro-Gbagbo militias or traditional dozos hunters, who fought them? Or the French-Canadian journalist Guy-André Kieffer, one of the many victims of death squads who terrorized a time Abidjan, under the regime of Laurent Gbagbo? At that time, everyone agreed that the shift of Côte d'Ivoire into horror was largely linked to the reign of impunity. Let's hope the story does not repeat itself.

Thomas Hofnung (columnist Le Monde Africa)

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