On Monday, one day before Ivory Coast celebrated 58 years of independence, the West African country's leader announced that he is granting liberty of another kind to hundreds of Ivorians. In a nationally televised address President Alassane Ouattara declared amnesty for some 800 people involved in the bloodshed that followed the 2010 election — including one of the country's most notorious convicts, its former first lady Simone Gbagbo.
The wife of former President Laurent Gbagbo, Simone was serving a 20-year sentence for supporting her husband's bloody campaign to keep power after losing that election. The defeated strongman's efforts lasted about six months — until his capture, side by side with Simone, put an end to a conflict that claimed at least 3,000 lives and left others maimed or raped.
Simone Gbagbo was convicted in 2015 of crimes ranging from organizing armed gangs to "attempting to undermine the security of the state," though she was later acquitted of crimes against humanity in a separate trial. She is still wanted by the International Criminal Court, which issued a warrant for her arrest — and is currently trying her husband for crimes against humanity, including murder and rape.
But on Monday, Ouattara said it is time for "peace and real reconciliation"
"The father of the nation, Félix H. Boigny, said that there is no sacrifice too great for peace," the president explained in his address.
Of the 800 people marked for forgiveness, a number that includes several former ministers, Ouattara said about 500 have already been released from prison but will have the crimes expunged from their records. The rest will be released from custody soon.
Gbagbo had not been expecting the announcement, her lawyer tells the weekly Jeune Afrique, but "she is delighted and cannot wait to go home."
Yet her daughter, Marie Antoinette Singleton, sounded a more skeptical note in conversation with the BBC: "It cannot be about national reconciliation. It's been eight years and the government has not done much to get the people to reconcile."
Years earlier, in an interview with NPR, Singleton dismissed the trials of her parents as "a political issue" but added that reconciliation would be possible — provided Ouattara changed how he treats his erstwhile opponents, many of whom were exiled.
"Nothing is done to bring them back," Singleton said at the time. "Nothing is done to give them their wealth and their possessions back. Nothing is done to bring peace between the people."
Now, with another presidential election looming in 2020, it appears Ouattara is seeking to shore up the state's stability to avoid a repeat of the strife in 2010.
Earlier this summer, Ouattara's comments also raised talk of another possibility. Speaking with Jeune Afrique the two-term president said he believes the country's new constitution, passed in 2016 under boycott from the opposition, allows him to run for another term in office — despite the two-term limit established by the document. The implication being, as Reuters notes, that his two terms under the old constitution effectively don't count.
"I will only make a definitive decision then, based on the situation in Ivory Coast," Ouattara said in June, according to Reuters' translation. But, as if already aware of the eyebrows likely to be raised, he added: "Stability and peace come before all else, including my principles."
During his speech Monday, Ouattara made a plea to the newly forgiven convicts to use their new freedom to learn from past bloodshed.
"I invite all the beneficiaries of this amnesty to ensure that our country will never again relive such events," he said, "and never sink into violence again."