Simone Gbagbo, wife of former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo, was sentenced to 20 years in prison by a domestic court Tuesday for complicity in her husband’s war crimes in 2010-2011. She was named by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2012 as an “indirect co-perpetrator” of crimes including rape, murder and persecution. She was one of 82 individuals indicted for Ivorian crimes by the ICC alongside Laurent Gbagbo, who is currently being held by the Hague as he awaits trial. Their son Michel Gbagbo was also convicted and sentenced to five years imprisonment.
The conviction may well be a promising sign for Ivorian politics, particularly given global unease after the country declined to extradite all summoned defendants to the Netherlands to be tried. While Simone Gbagbo’s attorney claimed the verdict to be an act of political maneuvering, most evidence seems to confirm Simone Gbagbo’s participation in her husband’s deeds. Nonetheless, Human Rights Watch has implored Ivorians to hand Simone Gbagbo over to the ICC to face sentencing there.
The conviction is the latest step in a cautious transition several years in the making. The Gbagbos’ atrocities were famously sparked by the presidential election in 2010, which was unequivocally won by Laurent Gbagbo’s opponent, Alassane Ouattara. Though international observers unanimously confirmed Ouattara’s victory, Gbagbo refused to concede. His subsequent refusal to vacate the presidency was met by months of protests, and left Ouattara sequestered in a Yamoussoukro hotel. By the time Gbagbo was finally ousted by a French-backed intervention in mid-2011, an estimated 3,000 Ivorians had been slaughtered in clashes with pro-Gbagbo forces. Many of the victims were hidden in mass graves later uncovered by U.N. peacekeeping forces.
And yet, experts hail the Ivory Coast’s emergence from the Gbagbo years as an unexpected success story. After all, its neighbors Sierra Leone and Liberia have numbered among Africa’s most devastated post-conflict zones. After Ouattara finally took his rightly won seat, observers wondered if his administration could skillfully helm a country emerging from months of state violence and a long civil war. Much of the country’s infrastructure had been destroyed, and Ouattara inherited the challenge of reconstructing it.
The process of rebuilding in the Ivory Coast exceeded most international expectations. Ouattara proved himself an impressive leader, and led efforts to coordinate international aid funding with local labor to execute efficient construction projects. According to World Bank official Marcelo Giugale on a 2013 visit, “The recovery has been very impressive…not just economically speaking, but institutionally.” According to The Economist, the Ivory Coast economy has expanded by more than 8% every year under Ouattara’s rule.
In all likelihood, the main reason that international organizations would prefer Gbagbo’s co-perpetrators to be tried at the ICC instead of domestic courts is to ease the tense cohabitation between supporters of Gbagbo and Ouattara. Analysts say this obstacle has been more difficult to surmount than any economic or infrastructural woes. It’s one thing to rebuild a state; it’s another to rebuild a community.