Former President of Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbagbo has boarded a flight in Brussels heading home for the first time in 10 years since he was ousted from power and sent to The Hague for war crimes charges.
After his removal in 2011, Gbagbo was accused of instigating the post-election violence that engulfed Ivory Coast and claimed 3,000 lives.
A coup was attempted on the government that fuelled violence and enabled him to extend his presidential mandate without elections. This left the country split into two; one north controlled by rebels and the south by the government.
When elections finally took place in 2010, Alassane Ouattara, now incumbent president, defeated Gbagbo, who claimed voter fraud and refused to concede— a situation that led to several deaths in the months of fighting that ensued between forces loyal to the two men.
Following the eventual removal of Gbagbo, he was sent to the International Criminal Court (ICC), The Hague. But earlier this year, he was acquitted of the charges.
In the commercial capital, Abidjan, the preparations for Gbagbo’s return were well under way on the eve of his scheduled arrival.
Hundreds took to the streets on Thursday to demonstrate in support of his arrival. Police fired teargas in other neighbourhoods to disperse similar crowds.
“Gbagbo is a man of peace and of reconciliation,” an ally said at the FPI’s headquarters while shopping for t-shirts and baseball caps with the leader’s portrait. “For all those who suffered for years when Gbagbo was in exile, his return is a good thing.”
Many hope that his return will put to rest the tension rocking the country. It is seen as a test for the country and a population that still has the bloody conflict fresh in memory, with some analysts saying there are concerns that it could again destabilise the world’s largest cocoa producer.
President Ouattara has also made the presidential pavilion at the airport available for his predecessor’s return.
In April, Ouattara said Gbagbo was free to return to Ivory Coast. He did not specify whether Gbagbo had been pardoned from an outstanding 20-year prison sentence given in absentia by an Ivorian court for misappropriating funds from the regional central bank.