Is the Simone Gbagbo Verdict Justice for Côte d’Ivoire?

This week, the former first lady of Côte d’Ivoire, Simone Gbagbo, along with 82 co-accused, was convicted by an Ivoirian court for her role in the large scale violence following the 2010 election, which her husband Laurent Gbagbo, lost. The jury sentenced Simone Gbagbo to 20 years in prison – in spite of the fact that the prosecution asked for only 10 years – and she was one of three co-accused who were handed a 20 year sentence. Fifteen others were acquitted, while others received shorter sentences. Simone Gbagbo was convicted on the basis of “undermining state security”, but never charged with other crimes that the International Criminal Court has indicted her for, namely crimes against humanity. What does this mean for peace and reconciliation in Côte d’Ivoire?

Striking the right balance between justice and reconciliation is one of the most challenging aspects of post-conflict reconstruction. On the one hand, an approach that seeks only to punish doesn’t necessarily resolve feelings of enmity and can deepen existing tensions. On the other hand, when perpetrators of crimes don’t face the consequences of their actions, it can create a toxic atmosphere of resentment.

In either case, when the embers of conflict are not fully extinguished, conflict can flare up again quickly. And there are several problematic issues with Simone Gbagbo’s trial and conviction, which ultimately undermine the goal of shedding light on and bringing justice to the victims of the post-electoral crisis in Côte d’Ivoire.

First, the Ivoirian judicial system declined to have Ms. Gbagbo transferred to The Hague to face the charges brought against her by the ICC. While her husband is awaiting his trial in The Hague, the Ivoirian judiciary claims that justice could be rendered for Ms. Gbagbo through the national court system. A researcher with Human Rights Watch told UN Dispatch that “Simone Gbagbo’s conviction should not be seen as justice for victims of Côte d’Ivoire’s 2010-2011 crisis. Not only does it appear that the trial against Ms. Gbagbo and some 80 co-accused was not conducted in accordance with due process standards, but Ms. Gbagbo was convicted only of crimes against the Ivorian state, not for the killings, rape and crimes against humanity for which she is to be tried by the ICC.”

Second, there is a sense that the Ivoirian justice system is practicing “victors’ justice”, having failed to charge any pro-Ouattara supporters, even though groups and individuals loyal to Alassanne Ouattara, the current president of Côte d’Ivoire, were most definitely involved in the post-electoral crisis. Despite Ouattara’s proclaimed commitment to bring all of those responsible to account, regardless of political affiliation or military rank, all of the people charged in the trial were affiliated with Gbagbo. This obvious lack of impartiality is leading many to question the political nature of the charges and convictions, leaving the door open for further resentment against Ouattara and his regime. In this context of lack of impartiality, the Human Rights Watch researcher said that “The Ivorian government should fulfill its legal obligation to transfer Simone Gbagbo to the ICC. The Ivorian government, and the ICC, should also step up its efforts to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by forces that fought for President Ouattara during the election crisis.”

Simone Gbagbo, sometimes nicknamed “The Iron Lady”, was never a mere spectator in her husband’s political activities. When asked if she forgave the prosecution, Simone Gbagbo, a shrewd politician in her own right, said, “I forgive because, if we don’t forgive, this country will burn.” Her attorney told RFI that “If Ivoirian justice wasn’t controlled by the government, my client would be acquitted.” According to several media reports, during her one and only opportunity to speak up as part of the trial, a couple of weeks ago, she wowed the crowds in the room by relentlessly attacking the logic of the prosecution’s argument, presenting her version of the facts in a thoughtful, convincing way. Simone Gbagbo was clearly at the heart of her husband’s regime, but the sentence she received this week does little for justice and reconciliation in Côte d’Ivoire. What it does do, however, is provide fodder for Gbagbo loyalists to claim unfairness and injustice from the current government.