The saga of Laurent Gbagbo, ex-president of Cote D’Ivoire, is nothing if not a dramatic one. An activist historian and political subversive, Gbagbo spent much of the 1970s and ‘80s imprisoned or exiled for his teachings. Installed as president after a confused, violent election in 2000, Gbagbo ruled a bitterly divided country that erupted into civil war in the mid ‘Aughts. Gbagbo lost 2010 elections to Alassane Outtara but refused to leave office, citing voter fraud and demanding annulment of results from some regions of the country. After a spat of vicious violence, Gbagbo was ousted by forces loyal to Outtara backed by French troops.


On June 12, Laurent Gbagbo was officially indicted by the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands for crimes against humanity, the first former Head of State to be so. He stands accused of four counts of murder, attempted murder or inhumane acts, rape and persecution. ICC prosecutors allege that Gbagbo actively participated in planning and instigating the post-election violence that ripped apart Cote D’Ivoire, killing over 3,000 people and resulting in the rapes of over 150 women.


There is no doubt that crimes against humanity were indeed committed in the horrific spiral of hatred and violence that followed Gbagbo’s refusal to step down. Pro-Gbagbo forces murdered political rivals, instigated racial loathing and perpetrated acts of appalling sexual violence, summarily executed alleged Outarra supporters at informal checkpoints and used TV and media to fan the flames of ethnic conflagration.


The conflict splintered along racial and religious lines, with the largely Christian supporters of Gbagbo squaring off with the majority Muslim Outarra advocates. Pro-Outarra forces were by no means innocent victims themselves. Outarra supporters killed, raped and tortured those who shared ethnic roots with Gbagbo, burning villages and laying waste to swaths of territory to the west of the country.


What remains to be seen is the extent of the role played by Gbagbo in encouraging and instigating the atrocities. ICC prosecutors allege that Gbagbo and members of his inner circle – including his wife Simone Gbagbo, who in an unprecedented decision has also been charged by the ICC – actively conspired to commit crimes against humanity, and should be held responsible. The ensuing trial will be noteworthy, as the sordid history of Gbagbo’s fall from grace is unearthed and trotted out before the world.


In a larger sense, the indictment reflects some of the systemic issues at play in the eleven-year history of the ICC and its relationship to the wider world. Critics have accused the ICC of indirectly affirming the concept of “victor’s justice,” where international law applies only to leaders ousted from positions of power. Gbagbo’s case is wide open to such criticism, with ICC indictments exclusively arrayed against Gbagbo cronies with no current attempts to investigate Outarra’s role in the tragedy. This mirrors the situation in Cote D’Ivoire, where no Outarra supporters have been punished for their crimes.


There is some controversy over whether or not the ICC unfairly targets African leaders. The debate reached a boiling point in recent months when outrage over the indictment of Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta – himself an exception to the phenomenon of “victor’s justice” – resulted in a failed attempt to realize a mass exodus of African countries from the ICC. Gbagbo’s indictment will likely continue to fuel speculation of prejudice and neo-colonialism amongst ICC detractors.


Be that as it may, there is no doubt Laurent Gbagbo ruled with unconscionable brutality. In the complex, ever-shifting campaign to provide an international legal platform for the defense of basic human rights, his indictment marks a heartening step forward. Mr. Gbagbo has much to answer to. It is best he answer in a court of law, before the scales of justice.


What do you think? Should Laurent Gbagbo be held accountable for his crimes, or should the ICC pull back on their prosecutions of African leaders? Start the conversation in the comments below or connect with me on Twitter @aa_murph