Supporters of Laurent Gbagbo on Saturday welcomed Belgium's announcement to host the ex-Ivoirian president, following his acquittal for war crimes. Although banned from returning to Abidjan, Gbagbo's release is shaking up Côte d'Ivoire's political landscape ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
“As a human to be incarcerated for 7-8 years, one minute of freedom is very important," says Abdon Bayeto, the representative of Laurent Gbagbo's Ivoirian Popular Front (Front populaire ivoirien, FPI) party in the UK.
"So we are grateful to Belgium, but we hope that it will be just a stopover. He needs to go home and find his people and build reconciliation," Bayeto told RFI by phone from London.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) on Friday finally freed the ex-president of Côte d'Ivoire after his shock acquittal last month on charges of crimes against humanity.
"I was at the courtroom Friday, at the gallery," continues Bayeto, saying how he had witnessed the decline of the 73-year-old, once-boisterous leader who cut his political teeth in the trade union movement.
"Eight years in prison has stripped him of his human grace."
For Bayeto, Gbagbo's arrest, transfer and detention at the International Criminal Court following the 2011 disputed presidential election was the result of a political decision.
Resentment towards France
“Look at how he was taken to The Hague. We didn't rectify the Rome treaty ; the one who signed the treaty for him to be transferred to The Hague was [president] Sarkozy and the former ICC prosecutor Louis Ocampo," comments Bayeto.
"It was all done illegally. We have the impression that they were trying to get a political adversary out of the system; somebody who is very atypical, that they wanted to keep him quiet."
Although unconfirmed, Emmanuel Dupuy, president of the Institute of European Perspective & Security Studies in Paris, acknowledges "There is still a lot of resentment against the French policy, Nicolas Sarkozy's policy, which was linked to the ouster of Laurent Gbagbo."
"There is still a lot of suspicion regarding the role played by France and other EU countries and the US which were backing France, which seemed to have put [president] Alassane Ouattara in place," he told RFI.
Belgium had less political baggage, making it a perfect choice, reckons Dupuy.
"There are very few Ivoirian citizens in Belgium; and that is important because Laurent Gbagbo is still very popular, and his FPI party still has a lot of supporters," he says.
"And of course Belgium is not France. It would have been very difficult for him to come here given the basis in which he was arrested in April 2011."
All eyes on 2020
Yet Gbagbo will not be returning to Côte d'Ivoire. Under the terms of his release, he has to remain in a host country until the International Criminal Court rules on whether to grant the prosecutors' request for a new trial.
His defence lawyers had argued for him and his co-defendant: Charles Blé Goudé, the former leader of the Young Patriots--to be released immediately without conditions.
Blé Goudé was turned down by Belgium.
Beyond the logistics, observers are looking ahead to what Laurent Gbabgo's release could mean for next year's presidential election in Côte d'Ivoire.
Within the ranks of his FPI party, members are already gearing up for 2020.
"There are a lot of things we have to do," says FPI representative Abdon Bayeto. "We need to reconcile the country (...) we need to stop all this bickering, this external intervention and prevent our leaders being used as puppets."
Among civil society, there are growing calls for the Independent Electoral Commission to be reformed.
"In the presidential elections of 2010, and even in the local elections of 2018, there were numerous irregularities," explains Alexandre Didier Amani, coordinator of the international campaign group Tournons la page, (Let's turn the page).
"We are asking that the commission be reduced from 17 to 13 members, with the majority coming from civil society and an equal distribution of opposition and government members," he told RFI.
Currently, a third of the commission is composed of government members.
What impact will Gbagbo's release have?
It may rejuvenate the FPI, reckons Didier Amani.
"Since Gbagbo was arrested, the FPI party has refused to take part in elections," he says, hoping that those who turned apathetic in his absence could now be rejuvenated ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
"Gbagbo's release is an important step towards reconciliation," continues Didier Amani; "in order for the 2020 elections to take place in a climate of peace, all political actors need to be represented."
President Alassane Ouattara won a second five-year term in 2015 with nearly 84 percent of the vote.
He may struggle to do the same this time round.
"Outtarra has lost most of the support he had in 2010-2011, who are now competing against him for the next election in 2020," comments Emmanuel Dupuy.
Ouattara has not said whether or not he will run for a third term --a move his opponents say would violate the constitution--and the coalition he formed with Henri Konan Bédié, his former ally against Gbagbo, has collapsed.
"The party of Konan Bédié, the PDCI, could align itself with the socialist FPI against Alassane Ouattara," explains Dupuy, saying that the political landscape of 2020 will be very different from that of 2010.
"Right now Ouattara is very isolated," he said.