ABIDJAN – Laurent Gbagbo once fought for democracy in Ivory Coast, but his inability to let go of power proved his downfall and he pushed his once-prosperous country to the brink of civil war.
The fiery leader who refused to accept election defeat to rival Alassane Ouattara in 2010 goes on trial in The Hague this week for crimes against humanity linked to the violence that followed the ballot.
The standoff lasted for four months, with fighting claiming more than 3,000 lives and turning Abidjan, one of Africa’s most cosmopolitan cities, into a war zone.
The proud and stubborn leader was defiant to the last, when rival forces pulled him, crushed and subdued, from his presidential bunker in a grubby sleeveless white undershirt.
Gbagbo will be the first head of state to go before the International Criminal Court after being extradited to The Hague in 2011 for allegedly masterminding a campaign of murders, rapes and persecution during the crisis.
He adamantly denied the charges, telling the court: “All my life, I fought for democracy.”
A skilled orator who liked to play the man of the people, preferring African shirts over suits and ties, Gbagbo hid a ferocious will behind an affable exterior.
He steadfastly rejected demands to quit after the United Nations-backed electoral commission said he had lost the November 2010 runoff election with 46 percent of the vote to 54 percent for long-time rival Ouattara.
“I am president of Ivory Coast,” Gbagbo insisted nearly a month later, leaning on a ruling by a constitutional council headed by one of his allies that he had taken 51.45 percent of the vote.
Meanwhile internationally recognised president Ouattara was holed up under heavy UN security at a hotel.
The deadlock escalated into a bloody conflict between rival armies, one loyal to strongman Gbagbo and the other to Ouattara.
The fighting killed thousands and sent hundreds of thousands more fleeing their homes as the world’s top cocoa producer, once a beacon of stability in west Africa, all but shut down.
The economic capital, Abidjan — a cosmopolitan metropolis once called the Paris of Africa — descended into street battles, the din of rockets, Kalashnikovs and mortar shells echoing through the city.
The crisis ended in ignominy for Gbagbo when Ouattara’s forces, backed by the UN and former colonial ruler France, overran his heavily fortified compound in Abidjan in April 2011 and arrested him along with his wife and hardline supporter Simone.
Gbagbo maintained he had been the victim of a French-led plot.
He remained a larger-than-life figure in Ivory Coast, still commanding the support of loyalists who hailed him as “a great African leader” and “the legend that never dies”, in the words of pro-Gbagbo daily newspaper Le Temps in a November 2013 profile.
Gbagbo cut his teeth in the trade union movement during his long years of opposition to the “father of the nation”, president Felix Houphouet-Boigny, who was a close ally of France and ruled from independence in 1960 until his death in 1993.
Born on May 31, 1945, educated in a Christian seminary and a historian by training, Gbagbo soon came to irk the authorities with his trade union activities.
He clandestinely founded the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) to fight one-party rule, and sought exile in France in the 1980s.
A member of the Bete ethnic group, which was traditionally excluded from power, Gbagbo openly went into politics in 1990, when a multiparty system was introduced.
Elected a member of parliament, he looked on with glee as Houphouet-Boigny’s supporters started attacking each other and fighting for power after the “Old Man” was dead.
His hour came on October 26, 2000, when he was elected president under conditions he himself admitted to be “calamitous”, in a poll from which Ouattara was barred.
A skillful politician to some, a dodgy wheeler-dealer to others, Gbagbo managed to hold on to power in the face of domestic opposition and pressure from France and the international community.
At times he also used the violent Young Patriots youth militia, to bolster his strength by organising riots, notably against the French and other foreigners targeted by Gbagbo under his xenophobic brand of identity politics.
He often blamed the country’s woes on foreigners and sowed stark divisions between north and south.
Gbagbo managed to stay in office after a coup attempt in 2002, but only kept control of the southern half of Ivory Coast. The New Forces (FN) rebel movement took the north, Ouattara’s stronghold.
After a failed attempt to reconquer the north by military means in 2004, Gbagbo signed a peace deal with Guillaume Soro’s rebels in 2007.
But he postponed presidential elections initially due in 2005 several times before finally trying to bolster his legitimacy by opening the way for a first round of polling on October 31, 2010.
He won that round only to reject the results of the second, when he lost to Ouattara.