Reflections on the Gbagbo acquittal and African sovereignty


In a letter written to his wife in 1960, just a year before his assassination, the first Prime Minister of the independent Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Patrice Lumumba, had this to say: “History will one day have its say; it will not be the history taught in the United Nations, Washington, Paris or Brussels, however, but the history taught in the countries that have rid themselves of colonialism and its puppets. Africa will write its own history and both north and south of the Sahara it will be a history full of glory and dignity”.

Lumumba could not have known that five decades later in post-colonial Africa, while history would indeed have its say, Brussels would play a significant role in the story. This past week, the humiliated former president of the Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbagbo, was acquitted by the Brussels based International Criminal Court (ICC) after the prosecution failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was responsible for crimes against humanity allegedly committed during the 2010-2011 post-election violence.

Gbagbo was captured in 2011 by the United Nations (UN) and French-backed forces who were supporting his rival, current president Alassane Ouattara. Following the irregular arrest, he was transferred to The Hague where he has spent the last seven years. The ICC was allocated a budget totaling almost ten million Euros to investigate the case against Gbagbo – an investigation which from the very beginning was problematic because it limited its scope to Gbagbo and not the allegations leveled against Outtara and his forces, who are alleged to be responsible for the devastating massacre of thousands of Ivorian civilians.

The biased posture of the investigation is not an accident of history. France, a country with a history written in the blood of many oppressed nations, played an instrumental role in the destabilisation of the Ivory Coast, both before and after the violent election which left three thousand people dead and approximately half a million displaced. At the heart of the conflict in the West African nation are French interests, which were being undermined by Gbagbo’s antagonistic stance against French domination in so-called Francophone Africa in general and the ivory Coast in particular.

After becoming president in 2000, Gbagbo was determined to loosen the stranglehold that the former colony had on his country by reforming policy in sectors dominated by the French, including but not limited to banking, transport, cocoa-trading and energy policy. One of the ways in which he achieved this was by inviting companies from other nations to tender for government projects that had historically been the sole preserve of French companies, particular projects related to infrastructure, which amounted to billions of CFA francs.

Gbagbo had also raised issues around France’s control of the budgets of its former colonies. Central banks of so-called Francophone countries are mandated to keep a significant proportion of their foreign exchange reserves in an operations account that is held and managed by the French treasury, making it very difficult for these countries to regulate their own monetary policies and adequately determine their own budgets. The stance of Gbagbo against such practices presented problems for France which it resolved through the barrel of the gun and the use of the ICC, an institution that is being turned into an African political management tool by superpowers who, while preaching democracy on one hand, do not hesitate to undermine the very foundations on which democracy rests in order to facilitate their own imperial agenda.

The arrest and subsequent trial of Gbagbo raises a lot of questions about core-periphery dynamics that continue to shape the relations between independent African states and their “former” colonial masters. It is a question not only about the sovereign threat of periphery countries, but about the ways in which coloniality continues manifest itself in the public affairs of countries that are still bleeding from decades of colonial imposition and imperial devastation, such as the Ivory Coast.

Because of a history of colonialism and uneven development, countries such as France continue to wield a lot of power in institutions such as the ICC. For one thing, France contributes over ten percent of the total budget of the ICC, and according to the Assembly of States Financial Statements of the ICC for the year ended 2017, was third only to Japan and Germany in terms of assessed contributions, at over fourteen million Euros, while the DRC contributed a paltry thirteen thousand Euros. This is a demonstration of clear power relations between the colonial superpower and its historical colony, relations that continue to play themselves out in the contemporary, post-colonial reality.

While some claim that the Gbagbo ruling is evidence of the ICC’s independence and impartiality, and that such a ruling challenges the narrative that the court is a weapon of neo-colonial justice that is used to target African leaders in particular, the question around the ability of the institution to operate as an instrument and beacon of international justice arises.

This question is informed in particular by the ICC’s failure to open investigations into cases that clearly demand prosecution, such as the role of the United Kingdom and several coalition allies in the war in Iraq, the wars in Syria and the Ukraine and the Russian led offensive in Chechnya. The former, characterised by widespread human rights violations by Russian and separatist forces, drew international condemnation and despite the death toll being estimated at hundreds of thousands, the ICC did not put anyone on trial.

And while the United States of America and Israel are not signatories to the Rome Statute, it is undebatable that the two countries have been at the forefront of the facilitation of some of the worst crimes the world has ever seen, including but not limited to the persecution of the people of Palestine, the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq and many other violent conflicts in which civilians were brutalised and human rights violated.

Given the crisis of credibility that the ICC is suffering, it stands to reason that African leaders must revisit the discussion on how to strengthen the African Court On Human and People’s Rights (AfCHPR), established in Arusha, Tanzania, fifteen years ago with the objective of making judgments on African Union (AU) state’ compliance with the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. This way, the continent will have its own mechanism to deal with its problems in a way that doesn’t undermine the sovereignty of nations the way imperial actors like France and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) have done.

Africa is never going to be able to assert itself, to chart its own path, for as long as it has an albatross around its neck in the form of former colonial powers that continue to have dominance over the politics and economies of independent nation states. A true African Renaissance demands, above all else, absolute commitment on the part of African leaders and people to build strong, credible institutions that will deepen democracy and have the public interest at the centre. Anything less than this will send us to the abattoir of Western neo-colonial interests and undermine the efforts of great men and women who served, suffered and sacrificed for the independence we are still trying to claim.

Kgabo Morifi is a PhD student and Research Associate at the Tshwane University of Technology and Malaika Wa Azania is a Masters student at Rhodes University and a bestselling author.