His name may seem ordinary but Charles Ble Goude is by no means an ordinary man. At the height of his power, this tall charismatic man who ruled the streets of Ivory Coast almost commanded the same level of reverence as the President himself earning him the title "General of the Streets". Renowned for his fiery rhetoric, Goude had the ability to mobilise crowds with relative ease which secured him a place at former President Laurent Gbagbo's side. During Ivory Coast's post-election violent crisis in 2010 -11, this political chess player marshalled millions of supporters for former president Gbagbo on various occasions thus exacerbating the pro-Gbagbo riots.
The fact that he was young, ambitious and driven not only endeared him to former President Gbagbo but probably played a major role in Gbagbo appointing the now 47-year-old as his Minister of Sports and Youth.
His role as Gbagbo's trusted right-hand man saw him arrested and forced to face trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague alongside Gbagbo having been charged with alleged crimes against humanity. During their trial, Prosecutors alleged the crimes committed were part of a wave of violence sparked when Gbagbo refused to concede an election that vote counters and observers said was won by his rival Alassane Ouattara. They further argued that the violence which led to the deaths of thousands of people could have been avoided if Goude had not fuelled them. Goude is said to have coined the slogan: "To each his white", calling for the murder of white foreigners, particularly French citizens during the unrest. Following their trial, Goude and Gbagbo were found not guilty on four counts of murder, rape, and other "inhumane acts."
After their acquittal, the two were freed pending a possible appeal by the prosecution, on condition that they stay in an ICC member state during this time. Goude is living in the Netherlands while Gbagbo is based in Belgium.
Having been acquitted of alleged crimes against humanity committed during the battles of 2010-11, Charles Ble Goude believes that he has a new lease of life. He says that he now wants to help bring peace to his war-ravaged country. Under his ICC release conditions, he has the right to give interviews but not to talk about his case.
He does not wear an electronic monitoring bracelet and can receive visitors at his hotel in The Hague, where he is under strict surveillance with his every move watched by police and private guards.
Turning Over a New Leaf: "I want to be a Statesman..."
The former leader of the Young Patriots, a group which violently backed Gbagbo's victory claim and clashed with President Ouattara supporters, said he would not seek election in a 2020 presidential vote as he simply wants to be a statesman and unite his country.
It is a duty to bring peace to Ivory Coast, this is the campaign I want to engage in," he said.
In an exclusive interview with AFP, Goude briefly narrated his experience in a Dutch prison. He said that during the five years that he spent in prison awaiting trial, he not only got the opportunity to play football with former Democratic Republic of Congo vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba (since acquitted by the ICC on war crimes) but he also had time to reflect and seek to improve himself and his country.
While he does not fancy himself as a chef, Goude says that his stint behind bars has enabled him to work on his culinary skills, and prides himself on having cooked a popular Ivorian rice dish that he shared with Gbagbo.
Prison has been a teacher to me, and I want to share this experience to say that we have to prevent conflicts. I want to play this role in my country. I want to go back to participate in peace and in the reconstruction of my country. In reconciliation."
When asked about his slogan "To each his white", Goude is quick to state that he is not "anti-French" or a racist. He claims to have been the "victim of propaganda" and whatever he did then was what he believed he had to do at the time. That what he did is not who he is. While acknowledging his past mistakes, he said that he is a changed man who only seeks a second chance to right past wrongs.
With respect to his former boss Gbagbo, Goude said that the former should return home because "he is a rallying force, I think he still has a role to play in Ivory Coast". He thinks that Gbagbo can 'bolster social stability' because according to him the same factors that led to violence ten years earlier are still in place. He believes the divisions in President Ouattara's ruling coalition present a dim outlook for the 2020 elections unless a national "campaign of peace" is launched.
He said he was prepared to talk to the Ouattara government: "I want to be a statesman. I am ready to talk to everyone..."
Having stated that he would "not be a candidate for anything", Goude said he was preparing a conference to transform his Cojep movement into a political party to contest future elections, though not the 2020 presidential vote.
Whether or not a leopard can change its spots or a tiger its stripes, one thing that holds true is that everyone should be given a second chance. Hopefully, Goude will keep on the straight and narrow this time around as there are only so many chances that one can be given.
Header image credit - Mail and Guardian