There was a time when Laurent Gbagbo was the rebel.
In his twenties, the young history lecturer spent two years in jail after his teaching and criticism of the Ivory Coast regime were judged “subversive”.
By last year, Gbagbo had been president for a decade as he campaigned for re-election. Along the way he had spent more time in prison and a spell in exile. The renowned orator had also learned how and when to cut deals with his enemies.
His political upward curve began in the 1970s, when President Felix Houphouet Boigny was in power. Gbagbo, an active trade unionist among academics, was not afraid to challenge Ivory Coast’s founding leader.
By 1995, he was taking on Boigny’s successor, Henri Konan Bédié.
As leader of the Ivorian Popular Front, Gbagbo opposed Bédié‘s new concept of “Ivorianness” and, in doing so, allied himself with one Alassane Ouattara in boycotting the presidential election.
In due course, Gbagbo would be accused of stirring up nationalist sentiment. For now, pragmatism ruled the day.
In 1999 he welcomed the army’s “decisive contribution to the democratic process”, even though he had once been jailed by the general who seized power.
By now, Gbagbo’s own moment was about to arrive.
After 20 years in opposition, he was elected Ivory Coast’s president in 2000.
But his challenge had received a huge boost from the Supreme Court. It declared Ouattara’s candidacy invalid: he was not Ivorian enough.
The nationalist concept that Gbagbo had so opposed was now working to his advantage.
The violent fallout has been felt ever since. With Ivory Coast divided between Christian south and Muslim north, pro-Ouattara northern rebels attempted a coup.
Ivory Coast sank into civil war.
Later, when the UN arrived to keep the peace, Laurent Gbagbo had a new target, one that he has regularly attacked ever since: “foreign interference”.
Gbagbo signed the agreement at Marcoussis in France in 2003 which officially ended the war and kept him in power. But in private he treated it with disdain. On the ground, he and his supporters were accused of violating it.
Gbagbo regularly castigated France and the UN for not putting down the rebellion. In the streets, his “young patriots” often demonstrated their support for his cause.
By 2007 the president was proudly declaring the country was unified.
But for many, Gbagbo is the very symbol of Ivory Coast’s divisions. Even before this conflict he became known as “the baker”, for rolling his opponents in flour.
Such manipulative qualities have long kept him in power.