At the end of his book, which very few people even know about, Charles Blé Goudé rejects all the accusations made against him. “No, I am not anti-French. No, I am not a militia leader. No, I am not the alleged assassin of northerners. No, I am not a supporter of violence!”
Though his trial at the ICC is set to begin, Blé Goudé has already made his defence. Indeed, after fleeing Côte d’Ivoire in April 2011 at the peak of post-election violence, the former leader of the political youth movement “Young Patriots” wrote a book from exile entitled Traquenard Electoral (The Electoral Trap).
Published in December 2011, the book is framed as a plea of innocence to a fictional judge. Blé Goudé, whose charisma and magnetism easily rallied huge crowds, was already subject to an arrest warrant issued by Côte d’Ivoire. But it would be nearly two years until the ICC would unseal an arrest warrant against him in September 2013.
He is now being tried for crimes against humanity in a joint trial with ex-president Laurent Gbagbo, whom Blé Goudé refers to in his book as his political mentor and even a father figure. Following the 2010 disputed elections, Gbagbo appointed Blé Goudé as Minister of Youth, though his government was not recognised internationally. Their proximity is key to the trial, as the prosecution aims to establish that Blé Goudé held a crucial role in Gbagbo’s “inner circle” and served as the link to the pro-Gbagbo youth militias during the 2010-2011 crisis.
The situation in Côte d’Ivoire has calmed down since Blé Goudé galvanized crowds and ignited feelings of vengeance in politicized youth. But, in a tug of war with the past, his defence at the ICC could bring back to the fore those tense times for Ivoirians following the trial.
So, besides being a consultant of political communication, as he introduced himself to the ICC judges, how does Blé Goudé want to be seen and how does he view the court?
A Pacifist on Trial?
In his book, Blé Goudé seeks to counter the perception of himself as a demagogue who incites youth to xenophobic violence. He wants to be seen, instead, as a non-violent resistance fighter in a two-front struggle. For him, he peacefully defended his country against an armed revolt and French neo-colonialism – but ended up as a victim of international criminal law, governed not by fairness but by power.
Though a clearly self-serving and biased portrait – and one that I do not endorse – Blé Goudé’s crafted persona is a pacifist who models himself after Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. but who has the misfortune of living in the era of the ICC.
A Life-Long Youth Leader
Now in his forties, Charles Blé Goudé has been a youth leader for quite a long time. Having served as Secretary-General of the infamous student union, Federation of Students and School Pupils of Côte d’Ivoire (FESCI), he was also involved in creating and leading several political youth movements, including the Alliance of Youth Patriots for National Survival (AJPSN), or “Jeunes Patriotes”.
When, in September 2002 a coup took place that triggered a long civil war, Blé Goudé was in England studying at the University of Manchester. “Sacrificing my scholarship and the occidental freshness” (possibly a jab at British weather?), Blé Goudé returned to Côte d’Ivoire to “defend my land” against the perceived aggression by the armed group Forces Nouvelles.
Throughout the 2002-2011 conflict, President Gbagbo benefitted from Blé Goudé’s talent to mobilise pro-Gbagbo youth. It isn’t difficult to understand how he became known as the “Street General.”
Placed under UN sanctions in 2006, Blé Goudé has been accused of inciting violence against foreigners (namely the French) and those deemed to be non-Ivoirians, primarily those with links to neighbouring countries such as Burkina Faso who were viewed as being pro-Ouattara. Blé Goudé’s ICC trial concerns such targeted attacks against opposition supporters by pro-Gbagbo youth, who were allegedly acting under his instructions during the 2010-2011 crisis.
The Peaceful “Street General”?
Dismissing the accusation that he was a youth militia leader, Blé Goudé argues that the sobriquet of ‘Street General’ has nothing to do with the military term and was simply used as an abbreviation when he served as Secretary-General of the student union. “I was called ‘General’ because I led a mass of bare-handed unarmed young patriots, unlike the rebels….”
Blé Goudé defends his “legitimate non-violent struggle” by instead reiterating the imagery of a mattress as emblematic of his peaceful sit-in protests. He cynically asked the ICC judges, “Is there an Article in the Rome Statute that requires us to convict those who take a mattress to go on hunger strike?” At odds with his typically anti-French stance, he even compares his followers to the resistance fighters in France in 1940 who answered General Charles de Gaulle’s call “to restore France’s dignity.”
In the confirmation of charges against him, however, the Chamber has already challenged this argument, noting that Blé Goudé’s references to combat and readiness to die for the cause were calls for actual violence “and not mere hyperbole.”
Self-Determination as a Crime Against Humanity?
Even though Blé Goudé laments what he views as the political instrumentalization of international law by strong powers, he articulates his own defence through the prism of international criminal law – but flips it on its head.
For instance, in his vision of Côte d’Ivoire – French relations, Blé Goudé argues that political self-determination has been “deemed a crime against humanity”, punishable by humiliation, kidnapping, and deportation. For him, Laurent Gbagbo paid that price when he was arrested in April 2011 after the French army “dropped 800 tons of ‘democratic bombs’” on the presidential residence. For Blé Goudé, France used the defence of democracy as a dubious justification for illegitimate and illegal intervention during the 2010-2011 crisis. From his perspective, standing up to former colonial powers is “subject to the political death penalty.”
Addressing his own situation, Blé Goudé argues that the United Nations violated his right to life and his children’s right to an education, “inscribed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” when they imposed sanctions on him, in effect “nailing me to the floor and locking me in an open-air jail.”
By manipulating the terminology of international criminal law, Blé Goudé aims to show the ease of interpreting law to one’s own interest and implicitly challenges the credibility and coherence of the whole endeavour. Though unconvincing to this author, his version of international law did resonate strongly with his followers.
Known for his power of persuasion and hyperbolic style (he even compares parts of the 2010-2011 crisis to the Barbarian invasions), Blé Goudé is likely to use his testimony during his trial at the ICC to further develop this rhetoric and, in a sense, attempt to put international criminal law itself on trial.