Too soon for reconciliation in Ivory Coast?

Residents of Abidjan hope trial of former-president Laurent Gbagbo’s at International Criminal Court will help move the country along the road to national reconciliation and end Africa’s culture of impunity.

Abidjan is beginning to come back to life. The checkpoints that menaced the streets earlier this year are largely gone. The rubbish tips which were piled up high have been cleaned up. And the bullet ridden, blackened walls, which scarred the city, have been filled up and repainted.

The markets are heaving with people and goods. On the surface things seem to be getting back to normal.

In some parts of the City, it feels almost as if the war never happened – that is until you reach the suburb of Yopougon. I have seen mass graves before in Somalia, but never inside a busy neighbourhood surrounded by people’s homes, market stalls and children playing.

Fatoumata Ouattara’s tells me that her husband left one morning in April 2011, just after the arrest of Laurent Gbagbo, to go look for food. The next time she saw him was just before he was buried along with dozens of others inside of a grave the size of a badminton court.

She says they were all shot dead by fighters loyal to the former-President, Laurent Gbago, simply because they lived on the wrong side of Yopougon, where people had voted for Gbagbo’s rival – current-President Alassane Ouattara.

As she wipes the tears from her eyes, she says: “Whatever happens to Laurent Gbagbo it will not bring my husband back to life, but I hope the court will sentence him so that he can understand what it is like to suffer.”

In a cafe in Abidjan, young men and women sit down to watch the proceedings at the International Criminal Court. The smiling face of President Ouattara is hanging on the wall.

The cafe is buzzing with laughter and chitchat, but when the television screen shows Gbagbo walk into court the place falls silent. There is a sense of disbelief that the strongman of Ivorian politics, once the most powerful man in the country, has been reduced to this.

Like Drisa Dao, most of the people here are Ouattara supporters. Lighting up a cigarette, he says: “Gbagbo caused us so much trouble. We suffered a lot. Today the law of God has defended us and brought justice.”

An older man, with his head down and in a slight whisper, tells me that he is a Gbagbo supporter. I ask him if he will talk to me on camera. He shakes his head. With his eyes darting around the room, he says: “You know this is a pro-Ouattara area. If I start speaking I know I will begin to pour out what is in my heart and that would be too dangerous for me.”

There is no doubt that Gbagbo still has support here, but the tables have turned and many of his high-profile backers have either gone into hiding or fled to neighbouring countries like Ghana. Large gatherings of Gbagbo’s party, the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), are also clamped down upon by forces loyal to Ouattara. 

But it’s not just Gbagbo supporters who are finding it difficult to get by in Ouatarra’s Ivory Coast. Three opposition journalists were recently arrested for writing articles that criticised the Ouattara government.

Meanwhile, human rights groups say that no pro-Ouattara commanders accused of committing atrocities during post-election fighting have been tried.

Among intellectuals and the middle class, there is a sense that prosecuting Gbagbo is a first step in the long road to reconciliation.

Jean Mathieu Esso, a professor of law and political science in Abidjan, thinks a Gbagbo trial “is the only way it will be possible to get rid of the culture of impunity that has traumatised Africa for the last 50 or so years, and it is a great way to save lives in other countries, where the same situation may occur again.”

Fatoumata, however, has no hope of reconciliation. She says that the homes of Gbagbo supporters have been occupied by those who helped bring Ouattara to power.

She left me with this ominous warning: “You know that the pro-Gbagbo parents may be gone, but their children will never forget, they will come back one day and avenge what happened. We are waiting for that to happen.”

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