ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – Dozens of Ivory Coast politicians, including ex-ministers and diplomats, gathered in a hotel conference room here this week to honor a man widely blamed for his country's descent into months of grisly killings and sexual violence five years ago.
The event organized by supporters of ex-President Laurent Gbagbo was intended to burnish his image before his trial on crimes against humanity charges opens Thursday at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
The first former head of state to be tried by the court, Gbagbo lost Ivory Coast's 2010 presidential runoff to Alassane Ouattara but refused to step down, sparking violence that killed more than 3,000 people. Prosecutors say he bears responsibility for murder, rape and other crimes carried out by those fighting to keep him in office. He is standing trial alongside Charles Ble Goude, Gbagbo's former youth minister accused of inciting violence against Ouattara supporters.
Despite the charges against him, Gbagbo's followers hail him as a Nelson Mandela-like hero persecuted for his struggle to make Ivory Coast truly democratic and sovereign.
At Tuesday's round table — where attendees heard speeches extolling his virtues and perused pro-Gbagbo literature, including a book based on interviews conducted with a French journalist from his Hague cell — the Gbagbo faithful expressed optimism that the case against him would fall apart. Just as he survived a stint behind bars during his days as an opposition leader, they said, so would he emerge from the ICC unscathed.
"In his life, he has really suffered, but each time he got back on his feet," said Aboudramane Sangare, a Gbagbo-era foreign minister. "I'm sure this time he will be able to rebound again."
A former university professor who founded an opposition party well before Ivory Coast embraced multiparty democracy, Gbagbo spent much of the 1980s in exile in France. After returning, he lost the 1990 presidential vote and spent six months in jail in 1992 for his role in student protests. He came to power in 2000 in a flawed vote he himself described as "calamitous," though he put off holding another one for a decade. In the 2010 race, Gbagbo placed first in the first round with 38 percent of the vote before losing to Ouattara in the runoff.
These days, it is difficult to quantify Gbagbo's support. In last October's presidential vote, with Gbagbo in custody and a hard-line faction of his party calling for a boycott, Ouattara cruised to a second five-year term.
But Gbagbo clearly retains a following. His more fervent backers maintain that he won the 2010 runoff, that there is no evidence linking him to the violence that followed and that, if anything, he was merely defending himself against pro-Ouattara fighters.
Agenor Youan Bi, president of a pro-Gbagbo organization in Abidjan's sprawling, working-class Yopougon district, said he expects hundreds if not thousands of supporters to show up at an events hall Thursday for a screening of the trial's first day.
He doubts, though, that the ICC will give Gbagbo a fair hearing, accusing it of victor's justice. Rights groups documented abuses on both sides of the post-election conflict, but so far the ICC has only pursued Gbagbo, Ble Goude and Gbagbo's wife Simone. Within Ivory Coast, too, justice for post-election violence crimes has been one-sided against Gbagbo's allies.
Even those who deplore the decisions that led Ivory Coast into conflict find something to admire. Karamoko Issif, a 22-year-old accounting intern in Abidjan, said he became a Gbagbo fan by watching clips of his speeches on his mobile phone and reading pro-Gbagbo newspapers. Though he believes all politicians — including Gbagbo — share blame for the post-election crisis, he said he respects Gbagbo's reputation for standing up to colonial power France.
Issif said justice should be administered more fairly, starting with charges for crimes committed by pro-Ouattara fighters.
"If Gbagbo is guilty," he said, "everyone is guilty."