Laurent Gbagbo, the former Ivorian president who led his country to the brink of civil war, shuffled off a chartered plane and into the custody of The International Criminal Court at The Hague yesterday in a groundbreaking extradition that could spell an end to a decade of bloodshed and rebellion in Ivory Coast.
Amid howls of protest by some Gbagbo supporters, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the ICC’s chief prosecutor, promised that the strongman’s arrest was “just the beginning” and that more suspects would stand trial for crimes committed during inter-ethnic violence that flared up following Ivory Coast’s 2010 presidential election.
Diplomats, human rights groups and analysts say Ocampo’s ability to honor that commitment, and the willingness of the Ivorian authorities to try people on both sides of the political divide, are essential if the West Africa nation is to put its troubles behind it.
Gbagbo, a skillful orator more at home in a Hawaiian shirt than a suit and tie, faces four counts of crimes against humanity for his role in an orgy of violence that erupted when he refused to concede the presidency late last year, despite being beaten convincingly at the polls.
Instead, he unleashed government security forces and a vicious youth militia known as the Young Patriots against supporters of his rival, President-elect Alassane Ouattara. Hundreds of victims were doused in petrol and burnt alive and, in one instance, pro-Gbagbo commanders ordered their tanks to fire on unarmed women.
These massacres were met with grisly reprisals as rebel forces swept through the country and into the capital, Abidjan, where Gbagbo made his last stand in April.
With tensions simmering, the consensus is that it’s crucial that pro-Ouattara commanders who meted out collective punishment to real and perceived supporters of Gbgabo — raping women, executing civilians too weak to flee and burning whole villages to the ground — face justice too.
“If the cycle of violence in Cote d’Ivoire is to stop there has to be justice that is even handed and justice for the victims on both sides,” said Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch.
Yesterday Ocampo promised that “Ivorian victims will see justice for massive crimes” and that “there is more to come” from the ICC which is understood to be investigating up to five other figures complicit in the post-election violence.
In the meantime, Gbagbo lieutenants are seething at yet another humiliation, days before the country goes to the polls to elect a new parliament.
“What we are seeing today is the triumph of corruption, dirty dealing and shady connections to the detriment of the state,” Justin Kone Katina, Gbagbo’s spokesman, said from exile in Ghana, branding Ocampo a “scheming puppet… manipulated by interests that are far removed from any sense of justice.”
Three pro-Gbagbo parties promptly announced that they were pulling out of the December 11 vote, claiming Gbagbo’s extradition to The Hague had shattered hopes for national reconciliation. Gbgabo’s own FPI party had already promised to boycott the election, which it says will be skewed by insecurity.
The abiding sense, though, is that this is politicking for its own sake and that Ivory Coast’s culture of impunity may be finally on the wane.
“A few months ago president Gbagbo’s forces were holding the country hostage, killing, raping, and today he is facing justice,” said Human Rights Watch’s Brody. “This is a very important message to all the leaders in the world that if they use the atrocities and crime to stay in power that they too could face justice.”