Ivory Coast’s former president Laurent Gbagbo, ousted during a civil war in 2011 and acquitted of war crimes in The Hague, flew home on Thursday from a decade in exile as thousands took to the streets to welcome him.
Gbagbo touched down in Ivory Coast’s main city of Abidjan late in the afternoon on a commercial flight from Brussels before climbing into a black SUV for the ride to his party’s headquarters.
Thousands of overjoyed supporters cheered and ran alongside his convoy as police fired teargas to control the crowds.
“I am happy to return to Ivory Coast and Africa,” Gbagbo, wearing a blue shirt and white mask, later told supporters. “I am from Ivory Coast but I learned in prison that I am from Africa. All of Africa supported me.”
Security was tight across Abidjan, even as Gbagbo’s camp and the government of his political nemesis, President Alassane Ouattara, both said they hoped his presence would help reconcile the country.
Gbagbo’s supporters have eagerly anticipated his return ever since his acquittal in 2019 on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in The Hague related to his role in the civil war.
Gbagbo, 76, came to office in 2000 and governed during a turbulent decade that saw Ivory Coast split in two following an army mutiny in 2002. His refusal to concede defeat to Ouattara in the 2010 election then prompted the war in which more than 3,000 people were killed.
Ivory Coast, the world’s top cocoa producer, has seen rapid economic growth under Ouattara but continues to experience occasional bouts of political and ethnic unrest.
At least 85 people were killed around the time of last October’s election in which Ouattara won a third term despite opposition protests that the constitution required him to step down.
Gbagbo has said little about what political role he might play back home. He retains firm support among his base of supporters, particularly in the south and west.
But he faces an outstanding 20-year prison sentence that was handed down in November 2019 on charges he misappropriated funds from the regional central bank. The government has not said whether it plans to enforce the verdict.
In the Yopougon neighbourhood, Gbagbo’s stronghold in Abidjan, large crowds gathered in the morning to chant “Gbagbo is coming, we will install him”. Others shouted “Respect the power of Gbagbo” from mini-vans heading towards the airport.
“It’s all we wanted, one day of glory, we erase our 10 years of suffering,” said Christelle Atchan as she waved a flag bearing Gbagbo’s likeness.
Henri Konan Bedie, who was president from 1993 to 1999 and whose relationship with Gbagbo has blown hot and cold over the years, welcomed his “younger brother” home in a message on Twitter.
“I have always thought it was important that he return to engage together in a true process of reconciliation,” Bedie wrote.
Reporting by Loucoumane Coulibaly, additional reporting by Ange Aboa, Writing by Aaron Ross and Cooper Inveen, Editing by William Maclean.