Ivory Coast's Laurent Gbagbo in profile

  • 30 November 2011
  • From the section Africa
Laurent Gbagbo (file photo)
Image caption Laurent Gbagbo is the first former head of state to be tried by the ICC

Laurent Gbagbo is a classically educated academic now widely regarded as just another African leader who was willing to destroy his country by refusing to accept defeat at the ballot box.

After 20 years in opposition, he came to power in 2000 when military leader Robert Guei's attempts to rig elections were defeated by street protests in the main city, Abidjan.

In April 2011, Mr Gbagbo was himself forced from office - captured and placed under the control of supporters of his rival Alassane Ouattara, internationally regarded as the winner of the run-off elections in November 2011.

Mr Gbagbo, aged 66, has now been transferred to the International Criminal Court at The Hague, where he faces four charges of crimes against humanity - murder, rape and other forms of sexual violence, persecution and "other inhuman acts".

The charges relate to the violence that followed the elections - which had been intended to reunite Ivory Coast after a northern rebellion and a split in 2002.

Amid high tension, the electoral commission pronounced Mr Ouattara the victor, but Ivory Coast's Constitutional Council said Mr Gbagbo had won.

The US, the UN and the EU recognised Mr Ouattara as the winner, but both candidates had themselves sworn in as president.

A stand-off then ensued, with Mr Gbagbo in the presidential palace and Mr Ouattara and his entourage based in a hotel in Abidjan.

Skirmishes and battles between the rival forces took place across Ivory Coast culminating in Mr Ouattara's troops sweeping into Abidjan at the end of March.

As the final battle closed in on the presidential residence, UN and French helicopters attacked munitions stores in the city and Mr Gbagbo and his family sheltered in the basement bunker until their capture.

'Change your glasses'

Mr Gbagbo cut his political teeth in the trade union movement and he played heavily on his reputation as the main opposition figure to former President Felix Houphouet-Boigny's one-party state.

He started out on the political left, but since the 1980s he has taken a strongly nationalist, even xenophobic, stance.

Mr Gbagbo said the dispute over Ivory Coast's presidency was a fight for Ivorian (and indeed African) sovereignty and he accused the French and Americans of having it in for him.

Ivory Coast, he said, is the nation blessed by God and neo-colonialists want to control it for its cocoa and oil fields.

However, this argument did not prevail and the African Union backed the UN's finding that Mr Gbagbo lost the election and should stand down.

Mr Gbagbo was accused of surfing on the wave of xenophobia that swept Ivory Coast during the rule of President Henri Konan Bedie.

Mr Bedie introduced the concept of "Ivoirite" (Ivorianness) to prevent Mr Ouattara, a Muslim from the north, from standing in presidential elections in the 1990s.

Mr Gbagbo denied allegations of opportunism. "I have not changed," he said at the time. "Change your glasses."

Since the 2002 civil war broke out, Mr Gbagbo's supporters have been accused of carrying out xenophobic attacks in the areas they control - against those from the mainly Muslim north, immigrants from neighbouring African countries and Westerners.

They accused former colonial power France and the international community of not doing enough to put down the rebellion.


Laurent Gbagbo was born into a Catholic family near Gagnoa, in the cocoa-growing central-west of the country, on 31 May 1945.

"Cicero", as he was nicknamed because of his taste for Latin during his school days, has a PhD in history.

Image caption Some say Mr Gbagbo's wife, Simone, is the real power behind the throne

Beginning his career as a university lecturer, Mr Gbagbo was jailed for two years in 1971 for "subversive" teaching. His nom de guerre was "little brother".

In the 1980s he was involved in trade union activity among academics.

He was one of the first to challenge Ivory Coast's founding President Houphouet-Boigny in the 1980s - as soon as the long-serving independence leader permitted multi-party politics.

In 1982 he sought exile in Paris, returning six years later to attend the founding congress of the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI).

His time as an opposition leader led to spells in jail and brushes with the authorities.

His wife, Simone, is a powerful politician in her own right and some see her as the real hardline power behind the throne, preventing her husband from giving up power.

'Good company'

After his election in 2000, Mr Gbagbo said he would break with the personality cult tradition, saying it was no longer necessary to put up portraits of the president in public places and offices.

He also said that the national media would no longer be obliged to mention the president in all news programmes.

But while he was in power, most news broadcasts highlighted Mr Gbagbo's daily activities.

He has a reputation for being short-tempered, in particular against "arrogant" journalists, but he is also known for his contagious laughs and vigorous handshakes.

In person he has a broad smile and an easy laugh, and is a born communicator, frequently making use of metaphors from Ivorian daily life.

He is said to have a passion for music, guitar and good food.

"It is a pleasure to have him round for dinner," one of his friends was quoted as saying in Jeune Afrique-L'Intelligent magazine.

Still, the man who campaigned under the slogan "we win or we win", can be a stubborn political player and, his opponents claim, has links to violent militia groups like the students' union, the Fesci, the Young Patriots, and death squads, despite his reputation as a peaceful, Sorbonne-educated socialist.

The UN blames his militias for the worst violence against civilians.

He has also earned himself the nickname "the baker" for his ability to "roll his opponents in the flour", after showing an uncanny knack of coming out on top in any political tussle.

But it appears he has now met his match.

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