After rebels loyal to President Alassane Ouattara stormed Ivory Coast’s commercial capital Abidjan in 2011, they descended on the headquarters of the ruling Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), breaking windows, ripping out electrical sockets, and stealing air conditioners.
The three-story mansion remains bare and unrepaired two years later, still filled with portraits and posters of former President Laurent Gbagbo on the walls and in the offices and waiting rooms of the compound.
This may be the only place left where Mr. Gbagbo’s face can be found in Abidjan, so thoroughly has the new government scrubbed the city of any sign of his decade-long reign.
But Gbagbo is far from irrelevant to the current politics of Ivory Coast. Indeed, as he now sits in Europe awaiting trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC), his guilt or innocence, as well as the circumstances of his removal from power, continue to divide the country.
During his reign, the conflict between the government in the south and a coalition of rebels united behind Mr. Ouattara in the north created sharp ethnic and regional divisions. Now with Ouattara in power, the schism remains between those who saw Gbagbo as a nationalist crusader against foreign meddling, and those who revile him for the bloody excesses of his time in power.
As Ivory Coast heads to elections in 2015, the leadership of the FPI – at least, those who aren’t in jail or exile – are gearing up to convince Ivorians that the party Gbagbo built can once again be trusted to run the country.
Gbagbo supporters say the former president has nothing to do with the 3,000 deaths that followed his refusal to cede power after losing a 2011 election. They say he didn’t use heavy weapons on civilians, as claimed by ICC prosecutors who are seeking a war crimes conviction against Gbagbo.
“He may have been wrong on some decisions. He was a human being,” says FPI spokesman Bamba Franck Mamadou. “But President Gbagbo was not a killer.”
Rodrigue Koné, a program officer for Freedom House says “the FPI is like a boxer. He goes down to count, and wakes up, but he has not all his mind, and he wants to continue to box. Those who voted Laurent Gbagbo are still there.”
The party’s Interim Secretary-General Richard Kodjo casts the FPI as a resurgent political force that is being persecuted by Ouattara’s regime. He complained that the government sends soldiers to break up their meetings and tried to burn down their headquarters after a party rally in January.
“It’s now been two years since President Gbagbo was a victim of a coup d’etat. Those who did this were expecting to put down the FPI,” Mr. Kodjo says. “But instead of that the FPI has not just resisted but, better, it has emerged.”
FPI supporters say their defeat in 2011, as UN and French gunships fired on the presidential residence and Ouattara’s rebel allies fought their way through the city, was little more than an overthrow backed by the international community, particularly former colonial ruler France. To the former president’s supporters, the ICC indictment is similarly suspicious.
“During the crisis, all the people committed crimes,” says bakery worker Nastor Djaha. “I don’t know why Gbagbo is the only one kept in prison.”
Ouattara has been criticized for doing little to reconcile the country and allowing his soldiers to crack down on anyone though to be loyal to the FPI. In response to a series of attacks in the country’s west and east last year, gendarmes and soldiers arbitrarily rounded up suspected Gbagbo supporters in the capital, subjected them to brutal treatment, and only released them from jail in exchange for cash, according to a Human Rights Watch report.
But in some ways, the FPI may be their own worst enemy. The party boycotted parliamentary elections in 2011 and local elections in 2013 because it doesn’t consider the electoral commission independent, Kodjo says. But that move also deprived them of the opportunity to reassert themselves in the country’s politics.
The party has also been holding out for a general amnesty, an unlikely step given Ouattara’s zeal for prosecuting former officials of Gbagbo’s government.
Even the party’s insistence that Ouattara's presidency is illegitimate got it into trouble. In 2011, the former speaker of the national assembly walked away from the party because they wouldn’t recognize Ouattara’s government.
“I think the FPI did themselves no favor by boycotting the recent elections,” Joseph Hellweg, a professor at Florida State University who studies Ivory Coast, wrote in an email. “They might have received a protest vote and maintained a broader public forum for their party platform, beyond their press releases. Instead they chose to forgo both.”
Divisions between the supporters of the party could undermine their ability to campaign effectively, Mr. Koné says.
“There will be difficulties to make a united coalition. You have those who want to fight the regime of Ouattara by democratic means, those who don’t want to accept at all the idea that Ouattara is president, those who by any means wants to get Ouattara out of power even by using arms,” Koné says. “There is not a constructive dynamic between all these entities.”
Kodjo is confident not only that the FPI would compete in the 2015 elections, but will win.
“We expect that in the 2015 elections people will not vote for Ouattara,” Kodjo says. “We hope at that time we’ll have our [say] and take the power.”