Laurent Gbagbo, former president of Cí´te d’Ivoire, will be the first Head of State ever to appear in front of the International Criminal Court (ICC), when his trial begins in July 2015. Together with former Ivorian youth leader Charles Blé Goudé, he will have to respond to four counts of crimes against humanity. However, in spite of a warrant of arrest issued by the ICC prosecutor office, Simone Gbagbo, the former Ivorian First Lady, will not sit with Laurent Gbagbo at the tribunal. The government of Cote d”˜ivoire, which handed over her husband to The Hague in 2011, decided to prosecute Simone on Ivorian soil. On the morning of 10 March, Simone Gbagbo was condemned by the Cour d’Assise of Abidjan to twenty years in prison. Simone was not the only member of the former regime to be judged; the Abidjan ‘Mega-Trial’ has involved eighty-two other defendants, who have received sentences ranging from eighteen months to twenty years.
The cases being brought against Laurent and Simone Gbagbo and their associates take place in the context of the 2010-2011 Ivorian post-election crisis. Gbagbo, the then incumbent president, faced former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara in the run off of the presidential elections. The Electoral Commission proclaimed victory for Ouattara but was overridden by the Constitutional Council, sympathetic to Gbagbo. The two self-styled presidents nominated their own governments and struggled for territorial control. The post-election crisis spurred on a wave of repression against the civilian population and the subsequent armed conflict. Ouattara was backed by the international community and by Guillaume Soro, leader of the Forces Nouvelles (FN), a former insurgent group controlling the northern half of Cí´te d’Ivoire. After several months he prevailed, and Laurent and Simone Gbagbo were arrested by pro-Ouattara forces on 11 April 2011. An estimated 3,000 people were killed during the fighting.
The 65-year old Simone Gbagbo is a divisive figure in Cí´te d’Ivoire. For her supporters she is an example of bravery and determination in her struggle against the political threat from the north. To her detractors she played a key role in the previous regime’s descent into authoritarianism and violence. A politician with a forty year long career, rather than simply the wife of a former president, Simone co-funded with Laurent the Front Populaire Ivoirien (FPI) party in the 1980s. After her husband’s election in 2000, she became a key figure in his regime. The ICC warrant of arrest states that, during the crisis, Simone Gbagbo “acted as an alter ego for her husband” and “instructed the pro-Gbagbo forces to commit crimes against individuals who posed a threat to her husband’s power”.
In contrast, the FPI has always claimed that Laurent and Simone Gbagbo are champions of African freedom and are being judged for having challenged the neo-imperialism of France and of the United Nations. They find support for their views in the fact that, although serious human rights violations were also committed in 2010-2011 by pro-Ouattara forces, so far both the ICC and Ivorian courts and have only indicted the Gbagbos and their supporters. The Ouattara regime refuses to send Simone to The Hague because it is afraid that a trial in front of an international tribunal would reinforce the perception that she is a victim of imperialism. Simone’s presence in The Hague would also intensify pressure on the ICC to pursue the opposite camp.
There are, however, some important differences between the ICC, which is concerned with crimes against humanity, and the prosecutions in front of the Ivorian courts. The Ivorian justice system, which is concerned with a much broader range of crimes than the ICC, has in fact ‘split’ the prosecution: ‘crimes de sang’ (violent crimes) are to be the object of separate trials. The verdict pronounced on Monday exclusively refers to charges related to the security of the state. Simone Gbagbo has been condemned for “undermining state security”, participating in an insurgent movement and disturbing the public order. Although a date is yet to be fixed, Simone is to be judged also for “acts of genocide”, together with seven other senior pro-Gbagbo personalities. To complicate matters, war crimes are also prosecuted by the military court of Abidjan, which has just ruled on a group of soldiers for one of the most infamous massacres of the post election crisis; the shooting of seven women during a pro-Ouattara march.
The trial has focused on the defendants’ support for an illegitimate government, rather than on human rights violations, which has meant that human rights defenders and victim representatives have followed it with mixed feelings. The decision to start the series of prosecutions with crimes against state security is also controversial because it risks reinforcing the perception of uneven justice. Guillaume Soro and the FN, who remain allies of Ouattara, benefited from an amnesty for similar crimes in 2003. Some defendants were essentially prosecuted for having held positions in the internationally disavowed government nominated by Gbagbo after the 2010 elections. If the trial had focused more on the suffering endured by the civilian population, it is probable that more Ivorians would have been convinced of the serious responsibilities of the former regime.
Moreover, the witnesses have often appeared confused and unable to offer solid evidence. None has been called to testify on the validity of the election results that gave Ouattara his victory, yet extensive evidence on this was available. Since the prosecution was based on the assumption that Gbagbo was no longer the legitimate president after the elections, this was not a trivial issue.
The poor organisation of the trial has given the accused an opportunity to run the show, posing as victims and restating their own version of the crisis. Confident and unrepentant, Simone Gbagbo argued that her husband was the legitimate winner of the elections and that she is guilty of nothing. Her lawyers have called their client “an example for all Ivorian women and for all Ivorian men” and argued that Simone’s trial “is the trial of French neo-colonialism”.
The prosecutor has been forced to drop many accusations and to ask for relatively light sentences which, in an anomalous move, in the final verdict have been increased for some defendants. The most notable case is Simone Gbagbo herself, for whom the prosecutor had asked for a ten-year sentence, which was subsequently doubled. Heavy sentences have also been given to two former members of the security forces, General Bruno Dogbo Blé and General Vagba Faussignau, condemned to twenty years in prison, and to former Minister of Sport Genevií¨ve Bro Grégbé, sentenced to ten years. Michel Gbagbo, son of Laurent Gbagbo and his first French wife, and Aboudrahamane Sangaré, vice-president of the FPI, have been given five years.
In contrast, other defendants have been treated with clemency. Former Prime Minister and president of the FPI, Pascal Affi N’guessan, has been sentenced to eighteen months, which he has already served in preventive custody. Gibert Aké N’gbo, Alcide Djédjé and Désiré Dallo, respectively Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Finance of the unrecognised government, have received suspended sentences of two years.
The disparity of treatment between FPI president Affi N’Guessan and vice-president Sangaré took place at a time when the two men have been engaged in a fierce struggle for control of the party. Affi N’guessan represents the more moderate wing, favourable to engaging in dialogue with the Ouattara government and to re-entering electoral politics after the boycott of legislative and local elections in 2011 and 2013. It is thus not difficult to attribute the final verdict to political interference, especially as the prosecutor had requested only fourteen months for Sangaré. The sentence fits the government’s political and electoral strategy, which consists of marginalising pro-Gbagbo hardliners and encouraging the participation of moderates. Without an FPI candidate Ouattara, who is officially supported also by Henri Konan Bédié, president of Cí´te d’Ivoire’s third biggest party, risks meeting no serious contender in the 2015 elections. Ouattara is afraid that this would compromise the image of Cí´te d’Ivoire as a democratising country.
While the current trial might contribute to this electoral strategy, it seems to have showcased and reinforced divisions, rather than contributing to Ivorians’ shared understanding of the post-election crisis and the country’s recent history. Given the fragmented character of the Ivorian transitional justice process, it remains to be seen what will happen with the prosecutions for human rights violations in front of the Ivorian Courts. A more crucial development will be the trial of Laurent Gbagbo and Charles Ble Goude at The Hague. The ICC will hopefully do better job than the much-maligned Ivorian justice system, but, given its focus on only one of the former warring parties, it does not seem likely to deliver impartial justice and contribute to reconciliation.
Dr Giulia Piccolino is Alexander Von Humboldt Post-doctoral Research Fellow at the Institute of African Affairs, German Institute of Global and Area Studies.