The rise and fall of Ivorian ex-First Lady Simone Gbagbo

The rise and fall of Ivorian ex-First Lady Simone Gbagbo©Issouf Sanogo/AFP
Simone Gbagbo at her second trial in Abidjan, June 1, 2016
3 min 51Approximate reading time

For many of her admirers, Simone Gbagbo, whose trial resumed in her absence Tuesday before an Abidjan court, remains the “Iron Lady”, even behind bars. But for her detractors, she is the “Bloodstained Lady”. Côte d’Ivoire’s former First Lady was sentenced in 2015 to 20 years in jail for endangering State security and is now on trial again for crimes against humanity. The wife of former president Laurent Gbagbo is undoubtedly one of the leading female figures of contemporary Ivorian history. Although visibly marked by jail, this fervent Evangelist, 67, refuses to give in. Like her husband, currently on trial before the International Criminal Court (ICC), she never misses an opportunity to restate her determination to fight the French “colonizer”, whom she blames for her husband’s downfall.

The young Simone Ehivet first made her name as a trade unionist. After university studies in African Linguistics and Modern Literature, she went into politics. It was there that she met Laurent Gbagbo in the 1970s. In 1982, she and her future husband participated together in the founding of the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI). Shortly after the birth of the FPI, which was then operating clandestinely, Laurent Gbagbo went into exile in France. Returning to Côte d’Ivoire, he married Simone in a simple wedding in Abidjan in 1989. It was more than just a matrimonial tie. From then on the Gbagbos would fight side by side against the regime of President Félix Houphouët-Boigny. When Laurent Gbagbo campaigned for the presidency in 1990, his wife supported him actively. When Gbagbo lost the election, they focused on street demonstrations, which got them arrested in 1992, before they were released six months later.

In 1995, Laurent Gbagbo boycotted the presidential election, but his wife was elected as a member of parliament, of which she became vice-president.

However, it was not until the year 2000 that the couple’s biggest dream became a reality. After a long election campaign, Laurent Gbagbo was elected President of Côte d’Ivoire. The woman who had supported him throughout this long fight now found herself at the heart of decision-making in her country. “All the ministers respect me,” she later told the Express. “And I am often put above them.” 

Descent into Hell

So was it the woman sharing Gbagbo’s life and honours who advised him to postpone several times the presidential elections due in 2005? The vote finally took place at the end of 2010. The FPI leader was running against the head of the Rally of Republicans (RDR), Alassane Ouattara, an economist who had earned his reputation mainly in big international monetary institutions. On December 4, both candidates declared victory and proclaimed themselves President.

And so began the presidential couple’s descent into Hell. Surrounded by pro-Ouattara forces, Simone and Laurent Gbagbo were arrested in Abidjan on April 11, 2011.  At the end of November, the husband, who was wanted by the ICC, was transferred to The Hague. On February 29, 2012, the same Court issued an arrest warrant for Simone Gbagbo, which was only made public in November that year. The ICC’s Gambian Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda wanted Gbagbo’s wife tried for crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, persecution and other inhumane acts. Like in the case of her husband, these alleged crimes were committed in Côte d’Ivoire between December 16, 2010 and April 12, 2011. During the violence that followed the presidential election and in which both Alassane Ouattara and Laurent Gbagbo claimed victory, pro-Gbagbo forces “attacked the civilian population, targeting civilians who they believed were supporters of the opponent candidate Alassane Outtara”, according to the arrest warrant. It says Simone Gabgbo, who was “ideologically and professionally very close to her husband”, participated in the implementation of a plan to keep him in power. “Although not elected, Ms Gbagbo acted as an alter ego for her husband, exercising the power to make State decisions,” the text continues, saying she “instructed the pro-Gbagbo forces to commit crimes against individuals who posed a threat to her husband's power”.

But despite repeated requests from the ICC, Côte d’Ivoire under Ouattara refuses to transfer Simone Gbagbo, claiming it has both the will and the ability to guarantee her a fair trial for the same alleged crimes targeted in the ICC investigations. This argument has never convinced the ICC, but it cannot do anything about it.  

“The attack on our country was international”

In a first trial in Abidjan, Simone Gbagbo was sentenced on March 10, 2015 to 20 years in jail, after being found guilty of undermining State security in her role during the crisis sparked by her husband’s refusal to accept his foe Alassane Ouattara’s election victory. The judgment was confirmed on appeal on May 26, 2016.

But her judicial nightmare did not stop there. Since May 30, 2016, she who says she believes only in the justice of God, has again been appearing in court, this time for alleged crimes against humanity. As in the first trial, the allegations relate to the 2010-2011 crisis, which she blames on the “devils”, in other words those opposed to her dear Laurent who, according to her, was chosen by God to lead Côte d’Ivoire.

At a hearing on June 2, a judge asked why she and her husband had not pulled out at the end of 2010 to give peace a chance. Finding her political drive again, the former MP let loose.  “Choosing to give up and flee would have been all the more grave when they were bombing us,” she replied. “I would never have left my country in the hands of France and its allies.” She seems to have no illusions about the outcome of her second trial. “As long as I live, I will continue my fight against the colonial power,” she told the court. “But if I die, the Ivorian people will continue the struggle. The aggression against us was international. The whole world conspired against Côte d’Ivoire,” she concluded in reference to the 2011 intervention by UN and French forces.  

To date, the Ivorian judicial authorities have only gone after Gbagbo supporters, although crimes committed by the pro-Ouattara side during the crisis are also well documented by independent NGOs.