On May 31, Simone Gbagbo, former First Lady of Côte d’Ivoire, went on trial in Abidjan before the country’s highest criminal court for crimes against humanity. She faces charges for offenses committed during the 2010-2011 post-election crisis, when incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down after losing to opposition leader Alassane Ouattara. What ensued was a military campaign by pro-Ouattara forces that ousted President Gbagbo from power in April 2011, but not before the death of 3,000 civilians and the displacement of hundreds of thousands more. Later that year, citing its own inability to handle the case, the state extradited Laurent Gbagbo to the International Criminal Court (ICC), where he is currently on trial for crimes against humanity allegedly committed during the conflict.

While Laurent Gbagbo is in The Hague, his wife Simone has remained in Côte d’Ivoire despite a 2012 ICC warrant for her arrest. Ivorian authorities have so far refused to extradite her, invoking the principle of complementarity, which holds that national courts, not the ICC, are to be the first resort for criminal proceedings. In a trial last year with eighty-two co-defendants, the former first lady already received a twenty-year sentence for crimes against the state from a court in Côte d’Ivoire. This time around, the country’s high court is prosecuting her for the more severe charge of crimes against humanity.  

Known as the Iron Lady for her brutal grip on power, Simone Gbagbo engenders next to no sympathy from the Ivorian people today. Nevertheless, she vehemently contests accusations that she played a role in the post-election violence. Insisting on the lack of concrete evidence, her defense has claimed that “there is no act that implicates Mrs. Gbagbo in what she is being charged for.” There are also doubts about the court’s objectivity. Human rights groups inside and outside of Côte d’Ivoire decried insufficient evidence and faulty arguments by the prosecution in Simone Gbagbo’s first trial.

According to some, similar problems will mar the second trial. Critics have argued that the trial is likely to be unfair and thus represents a vindictive abuse of power by the Ouattara government. Yet the fact that there is a trial at all is significant. With it, Côte d’Ivoire has shown its willingness to confront its past human rights violations and even to prosecute a former high-ranking public figure. Adding to the case’s unprecedented nature is the charge against a former first lady. Because Simone Gbagbo poses no political threat to the Ouattara government at the moment, all the state can gain from her trial is justice. Ivorian authorities have displayed their willingness to prosecute perpetrators of the recent crisis to the full extent of the law. Despite criticism of the judiciary’s supposed inaction on transitional justice (procedures inside and outside the courts to remedy human rights violations), the state has even gone after pro-Ouattara militants, some of whom it indicted last year.

These signs show that Côte d’Ivoire, for its part, is serious about coming to terms with its violent recent past. That Côte d’Ivoire has charged, apprehended, and tried the former first lady reveals the country’s ability to use its own justice system. A fair, transparent trial in Côte d’Ivoire would set a key precedent for African transitional justice. It furthermore has the potential to serve as a model for prosecuting sitting, not only former, heads of state in Africa.

Recent events suggest that the continent is seizing control of transitional justice mechanisms. A day before Simone Gbagbo’s trial began, the Extraordinary African Chambers — an African Union (AU) court based in Senegal — sentenced Hissène Habré, former President of Chad, to life imprisonment for war crimes. His conviction marked the first time an African court pressed charges via universal jurisdiction, which permits a state to prosecute heinous crimes no matter where they took place. Many have hailed the Habré ruling as a harbinger of justice in a new era of African self-determination, but it remains to be seen how it will influence future decisions on the continent. Together with the Simone Gbagbo case, the Habré decision could mark a turning point in how African countries prosecute violators of human rights.

Africa’s attempt to reclaim transitional justice is certainly not without challenges. For one, there is considerable tension between the continent and western human rights advocates who criticize its inability to hold perpetrators accountable. According to Human Rights Watch, crimes against humanity in Sudan and other violations in South Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, and Zimbabwe have gone unchecked. Released last month, a United Nations report pointed to systemic human rights abuses by the Eritrean government. Yet international attempts to redress violations on the continent have failed. The ICC has been ineffective, to say the least, in taking alleged criminals into custody. Criticism that it disproportionately targets African leaders aside, the ICC has a poor track record of putting criminals on trial. Many arrest warrants fall on deaf ears, and the ICC cannot manage to apprehend a sitting head of state. President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan is a notable example, while current President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya walked free due to insufficient evidence and “disappearing witnesses.” Transitional justice in Africa will not, as recent history tells us, come from an international tribunal if it lacks an enforcement mechanism.

Although the ICC may not be the solution, the Simone Gbagbo case might very well signal a new era for African transitional justice. In Côte d’Ivoire, the judiciary has shown itself capable of trying accused perpetrators in-house. A similar movement toward self-determination might come from the AU, which the United Nations has implored to investigate human rights violations in Eritrea. Better positioned to bring African leaders to justice than the ICC, the AU could take the lead in prosecuting criminals from its own member-states. Meanwhile, the promise Côte d’Ivoire has inspired through the Simone Gbagbo case is encouraging. Time will tell how much it compels other African countries to use domestic institutions for the redress of human rights abuses.          

 Daniel Samet is an intern with the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.