Laurent Gbagbo, the former president of the Ivory Coast who was deposed after a civil war in 2011 and acquitted of war crimes in The Hague, returned home on Thursday after a decade in exile, with throngs lining the streets to greet him.
As the commercial flight from Brussels landed, a tiny group of loyalists allowed into the airport in Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s capital, celebrated and screamed.
Gbagbo, dressed in a blue shirt and a white face mask, boarded a black SUV to travel to his party’s offices. En route, jubilant fans cheered and raced alongside his convoy as police fired tear gas to keep the masses under control.
Even while Gbagbo’s camp and President Alassane Ouattara’s government both expressed hope that his presence would help unify the country, security was tight across the city.
Since his acquittal in 2019 on accusations of war crimes and crimes against humanity relating to his role in the civil war at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Gbagbo’s supporters have been anxiously anticipating his return.
Gbagbo, 76, was elected president in 2000 and presided over a tumultuous decade that saw the Ivory Coast split in two after an army revolt in 2002. His reluctance to acknowledge loss to Ouattara in the 2010 election sparked a war that resulted in the deaths of over 3,000 people.
Under Ouattara, the Ivory Coast, the world’s top cocoa exporter, has experienced significant economic growth but is nevertheless plagued by political and ethnic turmoil.
At least 85 people were slain around the time of Ouattara’s re-election last October, despite opposition demonstrations that the constitution forced him to resign.
Gbagbo has remained tight-lipped about what role he would play in the country’s politics. He has a strong following among his fans, notably in the south and west.
In the Yopougon neighbourhood, Gbagbo’s stronghold in Abidjan, large crowds gathered in the morning to chant “Gbagbo is coming, we will install him”.
“It’s a great day for me to go and welcome Gbagbo,” said Liliane Kokora, who wore a t-shirt with Gbagbo’s face printed on it outside his party headquarters. “He is finally arriving in his country to give us hope.”
Henri Konan Bedie, who served as president from 1993 to 1999 and has had a tumultuous relationship with Gbagbo over the years, sent a message on Twitter welcoming his “younger brother” home.
“I have always thought it was important that he return to engage together in a true process of reconciliation,” Bedie said.