“I’m happy to see you!”
With those warm words of welcome, Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara hugged his former arch enemy and rival Laurent Gbagbo, 10 years after the two were locked in ethnically-fueled combat over a disputed election.
Former President Gbagbo has now returned to the land of his birth one year after his acquittal by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged crimes against humanity.
Gbagbo, 76, was the first former head of state to face trial at the ICC. He was charged with murder, rape and other inhuman crimes resulting from post-electoral violence in 2010-11 in which some 3,000 people died.
On his arrival this week at the airport in Abidjan, Gbagbo was cheered by hundreds of supporters––those who were able to access the airport as well as relatives and officials from his Ivorian Popular Front party.
Both men are now calling for peace and reconciliation. At a news conference upon their meeting, President Ouattara declared that turmoil was behind them.
“What is important for Ivory Coast is peace in our country,” he said.
Koudou Laurent Gbagbo was president of Côte d’Ivoire from 2000 until his arrest in April 2011 for refusing to hand over power when the country’s independent electoral commission pronounced Ouattara as winner of the national election. Gbagbo dug in his heels at his apparent defeat and the crisis escalated into full-scale military conflict between forces loyal to Gbagbo and Ouattara.
Ouattara’s forces seized control of most of the country with the help of the U.N. and African institutions, among them the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). France deployed Operation Unicorn and the U.S. called for Gbagbo to step down.
International organizations reported human rights violations by both sides. In the city of Duékoué, Ouattara’s forces killed hundreds of people, but casualties were reported on both sides.
Despite a promise by ECOWAS for a “safe and dignified exit for Gbagbo and his family if he conceded the election,” forces loyal to Ouattara broke into Gbagbo’s underground bunker and arrested him and his family who were still in their night clothes.
“It is important for everyone to know that we have decided to restore trust and ensure that Ivorians reconcile and trust each other as well. The past events have been painful. Too many died and we must try to put that behind us,” Ouattara was quoted by France24 to say.
However prospects for a lasting peace were downplayed by Ivorian writer, poet and novelist Veronique Tadjo. She blamed a generational conflict where youth feel left out even after years of economic growth.
The meeting of the two leaders signaled a first step for a national dialogue and the release of political prisoners from jail but little is expected for the next few weeks until after the National Day of Independence, a public holiday, on Aug. 7.