Simone Gbagbo, ex- First Lady of Côte d’Ivoire, is currently on trial in her home country. She faces charges of “undermining state security” during the post-electoral conflict of 2010-11. Although she is only one of 82 defendants in these proceedings, she stands out not only due to her former status and function, but also because she is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), where she is alleged to bear criminal responsibility as an indirect co-conspirator on four counts of crimes against humanity.
Simone Gbagbo is the first and only woman so far to be charged by the ICC. Her husband Laurent Gbagbo, and Charles Blé Goudé are already in custody in The Hague, waiting for their day in court.
The aftermath of the 2010 presidential elections in Cote d’Ivoire unleashed six months of unrest, political violence and gross human rights abuses that left 3,000 people dead. These were supposed to be the elections that would move Cote d’Ivoire past the civil war and de facto partitioning of the country since 2002. But a struggle for power ensued when Gbagbo declared himself the winner, despite being defeated by Alassane Ouattara, who was backed by France and most of the international community, including the United Nations.
It is not easy to assess the extent to which Simone Gbagbo was implicated in the post-electoral conflict or responsible for specific acts of violence. But it is clear that Simone Gbagbo was not your typical First Lady. Simone Gbagbo is no Chantal Biya. She was a political leader in her own right. Her life until the year 2000 when her husband became President of the Republic of Cote d’Ivoire is nothing but courageous and praiseworthy. At age 17 already, she led a strike in her high school and was arrested, before joining clandestine Marxist groups. It is through those clandestine groups that Simone Ehivet met a young and charismatic history professor, Laurent Gbagbo.
She co-founded the Front Populaire Ivoirien (FPI) with Laurent Gbagbo while in exile in 1982, during the all-powerful Félix Houphouët-Boigny’ s one-party rule. Even after the political landscape opened up in the 1990s, FPI leaders still succumbed under the repressive force of Houphouëtism with Alassane Ouattara as Prime Minister. Alongside her husband, Simone Gbagbo is arrested multiple times, jailed and abused. In prison, she became a born-again Christian and later flirted with Evangelicals, which, some argue, spiraled into her downfall.
She was later elected as a MP and president of FPI parliamentary group, often painted as the proverbial formidable wife at the side of an ambitious husband or the too ambitious woman that pushed her husband to the breaking point. And they reached that breaking point one fateful day of April 2011.
But the prosecution of Laurent Gbagbo, Simone Gbagbo and Charles Blé Goudé is as much about law as it is about domestic politics. Whereas the Ouattara government has surrendered Laurent Gbagbo and Blé Goudé to the ICC, it has refused to transfer Simone to The Hague, opting to have her face justice in Côte d’Ivoire. The ICC will probably never lay its hands on Simone, because you just don’t ship a 65-year old African lady to The Hague. That would be political suicide, and Ouattara knows it.
Moreover, trying Simone Gbagbo before domestic courts gives the government an opportunity to use her as a leverage in the fragile national reconciliation agenda by either pardoning her or putting her under house arrest for example. With the uncertainty surrounding the next presidential elections which are scheduled for October 2015, the trials of Simone are prescient. Much more prescient than Laurent’s attempt to run the FPI from his prison cell in The Hague.
For better or worse, the future of Cote d’Ivoire is linked to the present and presence of the Gbagbo couple in Abidjan and The Hague’s courtrooms. Côte d’Ivoire, which wasn’t even an ICC member at the time of arrest and surrender of Laurent Gbagbo, is one of the most fascinating and intriguing situations in which the Court is involved in Africa. Ironically, one little known fact is that it is Laurent Gbagbo himself that first recognized the ICC jurisdiction by sending an invitation letter to the Prosecutor in 2003, following the first Ivoirien civil war. President-Elect Ouattara sent a new letter to the ICC on 14 December 2010 extended a second invitation to the ICC in the aftermath of the 2010 elections.