ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Each morning, briefcase in hand, Laurent Boblet takes two taxis and two minibuses to the headquarters of the Ivorian Popular Front, the party of Ivory Coast's former strongman who is now facing international charges of crimes against humanity.
The three-floor villa in Abidjan's upscale Riviera 2 neighborhood was once a hub of political activity and in 2010 was in full election mode: televisions blared, grounds were swarmed by campaign staffers, and party leaders stopped by daily. Nearly two years later – following Laurent Gbagbo's defeat to current President Alassane Ouattara, months of postelection violence that claimed 3,000 lives and Gbagbo's eventual arrest _the villa is bare, its rooms empty save for plastic chairs, the occasional table and exposed wires marking where computers have been ripped from the walls.
The party, known by its French acronym of FPI, is now a mere trace of the force that dominated Ivorian politics for a decade. Gbagbo, who once had an office and resting quarters on the villa's top floor, is being held at the International Criminal Court in The Hague on four counts of crimes against humanity. His wife, Simone, who Boblet remembers would regularly stop by to assess the campaign's progress, has been detained by local authorities in the northern town of Odienne.
Still, Boblet and three or four other staffers show up to the headquarters every day, keeping it presentable for party officials while hoping the former president will be set free.
"For sustainable peace, I need to have my brother by me because he has some ideas to get peace in this country," Boblet said, referring to Gbagbo. "He needs to be here to contribute to the development of the country."
This has increasingly become the FPI's defining position as it struggles to maintain the influence it once did.
In April, top FPI officials declined to participate actively in a gathering of political parties, making engagement with the government conditional on the release of Gbagbo and other detained FPI leaders. Though the FPI attended a meeting with the prime minister last week, spokesman Augustin Geuhoun said the party would continue to press for the release of its leaders.
More than 100 Gbagbo loyalists have been charged domestically with crimes committed during violence that stemmed from November 2010 elections. The conflict originated when Gbagbo refused to leave office after losing to Ouattara. But international human rights groups have also accused pro-Ouattara forces of committing postelection atrocities, and no member of Ouattara's administration or security force has been detained or credibly investigated.
"How can you sit at the table and discuss with someone who has killed your mother and imprisoned your brother?" Guehoun said.
Following the FPI's decision not to participate in an April forum, Human Rights Watch accused the party of being interested in scoring political points at the expense of stability.
"These preconditions not only expose the FPI political elite's contempt for the thousands of victims of often heinous forms of political violence," HRW said, "but also reinforce the perception that the party remains more interested in hardline politics than in helping end the root causes of the country's grave human rights abuses."
Civil society activist Yacouba Doumbia said he believed the demands were symptomatic of a party in disarray. "We can say that the politicians have their own logic that we are not mastering, because this precondition is not reasonable," he said, noting that Ouattara's government has no control over the ICC.
He agreed with FPI leaders that both sides should be investigated for postelection crimes, but also called on the ICC process to be respected.
Boblet, an FPI supporter since its founding in 1982, said he still believes Gbagbo is the right person to lead the country. "It's because Gbagbo said he was entering politics to become a representative of the poor," Boblet said while tidying the party villa's main gathering hall. "Since he is from a relatively poor family, I believe he is the right person to be this type of representative."
He denied being discouraged by challenges facing the FPI. The party boycotted legislative elections last December, and in a report released soon afterward the International Crisis Group described it as "torn between moderates and radicals and also geographically dispersed," with some leaders in exile in Ghana, Togo, Benin and elsewhere.
"It's a simple matter of conviction. The fact that we're still working will encourage other members that are hesitating to come mobilize for the party," Boblet said. "The life of the party does not stop because we are disorganized and some leaders are in exile or in prison."
As he spoke, other workers sat behind a plastic table selling various items bearing the former president's image. T-shirts were available starting at about $4, while large towels were going for $15. Large signs featuring Gbagbo and other FPI figures decorated the compound. One near the entrance shows two photos of the former president and displays a phrase he uttered at his first ICC appearance last December: "We will go on to the end."