Three weeks since his somewhat triumphant return, former Cote d’Ivoire president, Laurent Gbagbo, keeps Ivorians guessing about his political future.
Gauging from the the welcome he received, Gbagbo still wields formidable political influence in the country.
But the question is; will he use that influence to stage his political comeback or use it to help push the country's rocky reconciliation process?
But events leading to Gbagbo’s arrival and shortly after cast doubts over this. Clashes between his supporters and security forces not only rekindled old wounds, they also raised questions about the commitment of the government to peace and reconciliation.
Gbagbo, 76, who returned on June 17, had been out of the country for 10 years, standing trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague, on charges of crimes against humanity.
The charges relate to his role in the 2010-2011 post-election violence triggered by his refusal to concede defeat to then Alassane Ouattara, now president. Over 3, 000 people reportedly died in the unrests.
He was acquitted in 2019.
But there is pressure from victims of the war, who are calling for Gbagbo’s prosecution. The Collectif des victimes de Côte d’Ivoire (CVCI), an umbrella organisation representing some victims, is notably seeking to have Gbagbo jailed for his crime for breaking into the regional bank of BCEAO, for which he was sentenced. They also want investigations into his role in the unrest, which was started in 2013, resumed.
“Whether it is the head of state, his son or the baker’s wife, the law is equal for all. We are fighting against impunity, and we must ensure that everyone is brought to justice. It is a role for the whole of civil society and particularly for the victims,” Issiaka Diaby, president of the CVCI, was quoted saying prior to Gbagbo’s arrival back in June.
Reports show that the government negotiated his return on an understanding that Gbagbo renounces his political activism.
And both the governing Rally of the Republicans (RDR) and Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) party are on record saying that his return was meant to help in the reconciliation process.
Nonetheless, the legal realities facing Gbagbo make it difficult for him to exploit this political capital, because despite the ICC acquittal, he still faces the possibility of a 20-year jail term at home for offenses relating to the post-election violence.
This week, his estranged wife, Simone Gbagbo, confirmed what has been known all along, that President Ouattara's administration played a role in seeing her husband return home.
The Ouattara administration has conveniently remained silent about this issue.
But given the history of Gbagbo’s political career, which stemmed from activism both in the classroom as a history professor and in exile in France, it is hard to come across a political analyst who can rule him out of a possible comeback.
Gbagbo himself has hardly spoken about his political future, although all his activities point to a return to competitive politics. His first public engagement was attending a church service on June 20, at the Saint-Paul Cathedral in Abidjan, which also marked his return to Catholicism.
Gbagbo has also visited his home village and met with traditional chiefs. This week he held a meeting with leading opposition politician, Henri Konan Bedie, shortly before making his first visit outside the country, to the Democratic Republic of Congo, on what a spokesman described as a private visit.
In all these meetings, the word reconciliation has taken the center stage.
Whether it’s for reconciliation or his political career, Gbagbo must retake full control over his party, FPI, if he is to remain relevant in Cote d’Ivoire’s political landscape.
The FPI is currently divided into two factions: the legally recognized faction is headed former Prime Minister Pascal Affi N’Guessan, who appears determined to hold forth the leadership of the party. And the rival faction of Gbagbo loyalists, which operate under the slogan: Gbagbo ou Rien (GOR), translated as ‘Gbagbo or nothing.’
There is also the issue of Simone Gbagbo.
On the one hand the two are in a divorce battle. On the other hand, although Simone has been known to sympathise with the GOR, she appears to be carving her own faction within the party she co-founded with her husband.