ABIDJAN – Laurent Gbagbo's refusal to accept defeat in Ivory Coast's 2010 presidential election sparked months of violence that killed at least 3,000 people and brought the country to the brink of civil war.
It's been more than a decade since his arrest inside an underground bunker at the presidential residence, much of it spent awaiting trial at The Hague on crimes against humanity charges.
Now after his acquittal on all charges was upheld, Gbagbo's scheduled return to Ivory Coast on Thursday is galvanizing his supporters who long felt his prosecution was politically motivated. Gbagbo also appears to be receiving a cautious welcome from Alassane Ouattara, his political rival who ultimately won the contested election and has been president ever since.
Some observers say Gbagbo's plans for a triumphant homecoming will further test the country's political stability less than a year after the incumbent sparked controversy by seeking a term in office.
“Laurent Gbagbo, for certain communities of victims, is like the wolf that was chased away from the sheepfold and is now coming back," said Issiaka Diaby, president of an advocacy group for victims of the political violence, known as CVCI.
“The victims in Ivory Coast are thirsty for justice, thirsty for truth, thirsty for repentance, thirsty for reparations, through the actions of the criminal justice system," he said. "This is an element that Ivory Coast has always lacked in order to achieve reconciliation.”
Gbagbo was arrested in 2011 and sent six months later to The Hague so he could be tried for war crimes at the International Criminal Court. In 2019, the judge said prosecutors had failed to make their case even before the defense lawyers had presented their side.
The ex-president was released from custody two years ago but has been living in Belgium pending the outcome of the appeal by ICC prosecutors. He's expected to take a commercial flight from Brussels, arriving Thursday afternoon at Felix Houphouet-Boigny International Airport in Abidjan.
Among those likely to greet him will be his wife, Simone, who has not left Ivory Coast over the past decade because there is still an ICC arrest warrant for her stemming from the post-electoral conflict.
Gbagbo's supporters already have begun preparations for a festive welcome, with signs bearing the ex-president's photo on display in parts of Abidjan. Jubilant celebrations took place over the weekend in Mama, his hometown, where he is expected to visit his mother's grave.
The current president, Ouattara, appears to be making efforts for his former rival's smooth return. A week after Gbagbo's acquittal was upheld, Ouattara said that the former president’s travel expenses, as well as those of his family, would be covered by the state.
However, it remains unclear what will become of other pending criminal charges against the ex-president.
Gbagbo and three of his former ministers were sentenced to 20 years in prison on charges they broke into the Abidjan branch of the Central Bank of West African States to get cash amid the post-election crisis in January 2011.
It's unlikely that Ivorian authorities will jail the ex-president, says Ousmane Zina, a political scientist at the University of Bouake.
“Ultimately, I think that the Ivorian authorities will not make this mistake, which would be a serious blow to the reconciliation process and to the stability of the country,” he said.
However, Ouattara is likely to attach conditions to Gbagbo's return in an effort to avoid reigniting tensions of the past, he added.
“Before granting a pardon or amnesty, he will want to obtain a guarantee that the country will remain peaceful," Zina said.
Gbagbo officially received nearly 46% of the vote in 2010 and maintains a strong base of supporters who allege they have been left out of the reconciliation process in the years since his ouster. They maintain that most of the prosecutions related to the post-electoral violence targeted allies of Gbagbo, while few loyal to Ouattara faced trial.
Gbagbo's return also comes seven months after Ouattara won a controversial third term in office after he argued that term limits did not apply to him. Gbagbo was disqualified from taking part in that election and his future political ambitions remain unclear.
Yao-Edmond Kouassi, a political researcher at Alassane Ouattara University in Bouake, said Ivory Coast is on the path of reconciliation.
"But the opposing camp must understand that their living together will have more meaning with the arrival of Mr. Gbagbo,” he said.
Associated Press writer Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal contributed.