Sunday, 17 February 2013 11:00
THE HAGUE: Ivory Coast ex-president Laurent Gbagbo's bloody bid to cling to power eclipsed his past as a union activist and opposition leader and has made him the first former head of state to face charges at the International Criminal Court.
He held doggedly to power for double his five-year mandate at the helm of the west African country, repeatedly promising elections that came only in 2010 -- then plunged the world's largest cocoa producer into deadly conflict by refusing to accept the results.
But after a decade of having his way, Gbagbo saw his fortunes plummet, with the burly ex-president with the big smile on Tuesday to face ICC judges who will decide whether there is enough evidence to charge him with crimes against humanity.
For Gbagbo, former colonial power France is behind a plot that sees him now behind bars in The Hague, from where he can watch on television his supporters continue to demand his freedom, whether from outside the courtroom in the Netherlands or on the streets of Ivory Coast's commercial capital Abidjan.
"He hasn't changed (but) you can tell he's bored out of his mind, he told me so," journalist Francis Kpatinde, who visited the former leader last year, told AFP.
Gbagbo has been sent "hundreds of books" in prison and reads for hours after his morning exercise, Kpatinde said.
Gbagbo, 67, is accused of involvement in the deaths of about 1,000 people in the crisis sparked by his refusal to concede defeat to Alassane Ouattara after November 2010 polls.
The subsequent violence left about 3,000 people dead and threatened to plunge the country back into a full-scale conflict eight years after civil war split the nation in two.
Pro-Ouattara fighters backed by French and UN forces stormed his residence in Abidjan and arrested him and his wife Simone in April.
His nemesis Ouattara, whom he always accused of being a puppet of former colonial power France, was sworn in the following month.
A skilled orator who likes to play the man of the people, shedding suits and ties for African shirts, Gbagbo was once nicknamed Cicero for his love of Latin studies.
Born on May 31, 1945, Gbagbo was educated at a Christian seminary before training as a historian.
He became a trade union activist and political opponent of Ivory Coast's "father of the nation" Felix Houphouet-Boigny and eventually went into exile in France in the 1980s, where he founded the left-wing Ivorian Popular Front (FPI).
A member of the Bete ethnic group traditionally excluded from power, Gbagbo openly went into politics in 1990, when a multiparty system was introduced.
His hour was to come in October 2000, when he was elected president under conditions he himself described as "calamitous" following a poll from which Ouattara was barred on the grounds he had more roots in neighbouring Burkina Faso than in Ivory Coast.
Gbagbo went on to impose his thuggish style on the country and was accused of surfing on a wave of xenophobia.
Two years later, he managed to stay in his post after an attempted coup but only kept control of the southern half of Ivory Coast while a rebel movement took the north.
His electoral term ended in 2005, but with the agreement of the United Nations he was able to stay in power for another five years, until the elections that spelled his downfall.
A member of a Christian evangelical church who talks openly about his faith, Gbagbo has three children: a son from his first marriage to a French woman and two daughters with his wife and hardline supporter, Simone.
Simone is still detained in northern Ivory Coast, where the former "Iron Lady" is also sought by the ICC for alleged crimes against humanity.
Copyright AFP (Agence France-Presse), 2013