By Patience Folley | 05 February 2019

Five former Ministers of State from Cote d’Ivoire who have been in exile in Ghana since 2011 have voluntarily returned home with the help of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency Representation in Ghana and the Ghana Refugee Board, whose officials escorted the 54 refugees, including the ex-ministers, to the Noe border where they were received by officials of Direction D’Aide et d’Assistance aux Refugies et aux Apatrides (DAARA) and UNHCR Cote d’Ivoire.

Their aim, they said was to go back to help build their country. The mood of the refugees before departure was that of hope.

Thomas Yao N’Guessan is a former Minister for Higher Education in Cote d’Ivoire. He’s been a refugee in Ghana since April, 2011. He says his decision to go back home was partly as a result of the amnesty granted to all political prisoners by the Ouattara government in August 2018 which was soon followed with the acquittal of Laurent Gbagbo. “It’s painful not being able to go home at a time when I lost some close family members because I didn’t feel safe to go back then. But now, it feels safe to return” he indicated.  Mr. N’Guessan says he will miss his parishners at the St. Francis of Asissi Church in Lashibi where he had been fellowshipping during his stay in Ghana.

Former Minister of Higher Education, Mr. N’Guessan

A former Minister for Interior and ex Member of Parliament, Emile Guirieoulou was full of praises for the warm reception accorded Ivorian refugees by the government and people of Ghana. He says his stay in Ghana was peaceful. “The people of Ghana are very hospitable and very good. 8 years in exile is not easy. But now there is need to go back home to help address the issues in my country and to help rebuild it” says Mr. Guirieoulou. Initially, the refugees had expressed concerns about the incarceration of their compatriots who returned home by the current government. The former Minister however says that with the granting of general amnesty, they feel safe to return. “I expect that the country will be peaceful. I expect the current government will stop imprisoning people and do what is good for the country” he added.

Former Ivorian Interior Minister at the UNHCR Office in Accra before departure

For 79 year old retired lecturer and former Minister for Professional Education in Gbagbo’s administration, Gnonsoa Angele, leaving her country was a difficult decision but ending up in Ghana turned out a good thing. She had always admired Ghana’s first president Dr. Kwame Nkrumah and an opportunity to have lived in Nkrumah’s Ghana for 8 years while in exile is rewarding for her. “I feel very happy to go back to meet my family, friends and to touch the soil of my country. Thank you UNHCR and thank you Ghana government for hosting all our brothers and sisters who continue to live in the various refugee camps” she noted. Madam Gnonsoa said she was looking forward to spending more time with her grandchildren and family as she returned home.

Madam Angele Gnonsoa with Lizon, one of her daughters as they prepare for departure

It’s been about 8 years since the civil war in Ivory Coast broke out. Over 450,000 people had to flee their homes as a result of an electoral dispute where the current Ivorian president, Alhassane Ouattara, took over power from Laurent Gbagbo, the president at that time. Ghana has been a gracious host to over 20,000 Ivorian refugees who came in the heat of that emergency.

In August of 2018, President Alassane Ouattara announced a presidential pardon to about 800 prisoners. Among those pardoned was the former First Lady, Simone Gbagbo. The move was seen as a boost to the post-crisis reconstruction in Cote d’Ivoire following the post-electoral crisis of 2011. A subsequent acquittal of former President Laurent Gbagbo has given further impetus to the desire of the 54 refugees who voluntarily decided to return back home to their country.

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency works together with government to promote enabling conditions for voluntary repatriation, to ensure the exercise of a free and informed choice, and to mobilize support for returnees. Some efforts to facilitate voluntary repatriation have included organizing a “go-and-see” visit and a subsequent “come and tell” visit for refugees, information sharing and providing return assistance amongst others. The UNHCR Representation in Ghana currently hosts about 13,000 refugees with about 50% being Ivorian refugees mostly living in 3 camps in the country.

At the Noe Border with some border officials.