Simone, wife of President Laurent Gbagbo of Côte d’Ivoire, is a political prisoner. The only reason why she’s in prison today is because her husband was overthrown in a military coup by the forces of the man under whose order she’s currently languishing in jail. Simone didn’t commit any crime. Indeed she won her parliamentary seat handily in the 2010 elections, and unlike the presidential election, that election result wasn’t contested by opposing parties. As women around the world celebrate International Women’s Day, and given that the month of March is dedicated to attracting attention to women’s issues, one needs to ask why there’s silence from all quarters about the ignoble treatment Simone Gbagbo is being subjected to.
Secretary Clinton said in her message to mark the day that many women are prisoners of conscience around the world. She was recently in Côte d’Ivoire, did she not think that First Lady Simone doesn’t deserve the humiliating treatment she’s been going through since the coup d’état that ousted her husband?
Nicholas Sarkozy had threatened to take Gbagbo and his wife to the ICC in the Hague if he didn’t hand over power to his chosen candidate in the 2010 Ivoirian presidential election. Sarkozy is a French, not an Ivorian citizen. Why he should have such a personal stake in who becomes president of a sovereign country is puzzling. And so he has made good his threat. Laurent Gbagbo is already being held in the Hague as a political prisoner, on trumped up charges, and his wife is rumoured to be on the waiting list.
When the French forces used their superior military power, using mainly aerial bombardment, to penetrate and desecrate the Ivoirian presidential palace, the world was shown a dishevelled Simone, sitting beside her husband, evidently being manhandled by the marauding soldiers. The French press made a big show of how their military prowess was used to achieve the ‘victory’ in Côte d’Ivoire. We know what soldiers normally do to their women captives. Gbagbo’s son, Michel, is also being held captive, just for being Gbagbo’s son. Desmond Tutu was on target when he said that what’s happening in Côte d’Ivoire may appear to be victor’s justice.
Neither Gbagbo nor his wife committed any crime that warrants such ignoble treatment. He was faithfully following the laws of his country in the disputed elections. On top of that, he asked for an international delegation of internationally acclaimed men and women of integrity to come and verify the disputed election results, with the pledge that should such a delegation ascertain that his rival won the election, he would hand over to him in an orderly manner. His rival refused to make such a pledge, and refused to accept such a delegation. Gbagbo’s language was the language of a man who was sure that he won the elections. If in doubt, compare it to the languages of Mwai Kibaki of Kenya after the 2007 hotly contested elections, which he lost, or that of Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe after the 2008 equally hotly contested elections, which he also lost, or finally, to that of Joseph Kabila of the DRC after the 2011 elections that international observers, among them the Carter Centre, clearly said were not credible, and which Kabila lost anyway.
Given this scenario, on what grounds should this woman continue to be humiliated by the military ‘victors’? After being detained without trial for much longer than the laws of the country permitted, Gbagbo, his wife, and close allies, (one of whom, the interior minister, was extra-judicially murdered in front of his principal, President Gbagbo), were charged with phantom ‘economic’ crimes. The reason was simple: there was no Ivorian law under which they could be credibly charged. And the economic crime charge was laughable. Any person who cares to do a little research could easily discover that the economy of Côte d’Ivoire improved greatly under Gbagbo - he took the country from one that was highly indebted to one whose debts were brought under tight control, thereby ensuring a very strong growth - despite having to fight an intractable war, financed from overseas, for a decade. Indeed the person who sparked the post electoral crises was the one who illegally declared himself president because his foreign masters had assured him that the ‘international community’ would be lined up in his support, a feat they went ahead to achieve with their very powerful media. The new authorities seemed rather confused about how to handle the President, for no sooner had they started with the trial for the ‘economic crimes’ than he was again kidnapped and sent to the Hague where he’s being accused of committing ‘crimes against humanity.’
For the record, there was indeed a crime against humanity during the post electoral crises, but it was committed by the rebel forces of Gbagbo’s rival, the forces that are now part of the regular army of the country. The crime was committed in the glare of a horrified world in the town Douekué where more than 800 civilians were butchered in very horrific manners. So far, no one has been charged for that crime.
Simone didn’t commit any crime. There is no reason for her continued incarceration. Progressive women and first ladies around the world should speak up for the liberation of one of their own. Simone might have frailties like every human being, but being married to a man who was the president is not a crime. No woman should be punished for that. And no woman should be punished for standing with her beleaguered husband, especially when that husband had not committed any crime but was merely doing his duty as stipulated by the Constitution he swore to respect and protect. As at the time of the military putsch, Gbagbo was the only legitimate president of his country. The man to whom the ‘international community’ handed the country over as a prize had to get the Chief Justice to swear him in, despite the fact that he had claimed to have been ‘sworn in’ before in his hotel suite.
Before she met Laurent Gbagbo, Simone was already a well-established political figure in her own right in Côte d’Ivoire. She didn’t need any help from the men to win her own elections. Indeed both she and her husband met on the terrain of political activism. Maybe that’s why they are afraid of her.
In her speech to mark this year’s International Women’s Day, Secretary of State Clinton has this to say, among other things: ‘Too many women have found their attempts to participate in government, in the economy, and in society blocked. Women still disproportionately suffer from poverty and violence. Their voices are muffled and their presence denied at the places where critical decisions are made. They face nationality laws that deny them equal rights to citizenship. And women and girls are all too frequently deprived of access to reproductive healthcare, education, and the credit needed to launch small businesses.’
In Simone Gbagbo we have a woman who rose through many obstacles in a society dominated by men, to become a prominent political figure in her own right. She doesn’t deserve the kind of treatment she’s getting from the present authorities in her country. No woman deserves to be treated the way she’s being treated simply because she married a man who happened to be president. I think Clinton should know this quite well, which is why she could use her very powerful voice to help in galvanizing other progressive women and first ladies to ensure that Simone is freed without further delay. And that she gets redress for her illegal incarceration and abuse.
* Uchenna Osigwe, Ph.D. (Laval University, Quebec)