Gbagbo was extradited to the International Criminal Court at The Hague in 2011 and spent eight years awaiting trial on war crimes charges. A judge acquitted him in 2019, saying prosecutors had failed to prove their case.
The verdict was appealed but upheld in late March, clearing the way for Gbagbo to leave Belgium, where he had spent the past two years.
After coming down the steps to the runway, Gbagbo soon made his way to a vehicle that was then surrounded by crowds as it headed toward the city.
He later made a brief but emotional speech to his supporters at his former campaign headquarters in Cocody.
“I am happy to return to Ivory Coast and to Africa,” he said before adding: “I know that I am Ivorian but in prison I knew that I belonged to Africa.”
While the government led by his longtime rival President Alassane Ouattara has allowed Gbagbo’s return to Ivorian soil, there already have been concerns about what impact his presence will have on the nation's political stability. It is not immediately known whether the 76-year-old ex-president will seek to re-enter politics.
Tensions between the jubilant crowds and security forces were high, with tear gas being used to disperse people coming to greet Gbagbo near the airport on Thursday. Clashes continued later along the route Gbagbo's vehicle took toward his former campaign headquarters.
His opponents, though, maintain he should be jailed in Ivory Coast, not given a statesman’s welcome. Some demonstrated outside Gbagbo’s residence in the Cocody on Wednesday.
Thursday remained mostly a day of jubilation for Gbagbo’s supporters, who long have maintained his prosecution was unfair and politically motivated. The ex-president garnered nearly 46% of the vote in 2010 and maintains a strong base of supporters.
“After his arrival we want peace and reconciliation, we want to live together because we were born together so we are obliged to live together” said Chief Tanouh, a traditional leader from the country's east.
Ouattara, who was ultimately declared the winner of the 2010 vote and has been president of Ivory Coast ever since, did not greet Gbagbo at the airport Thursday. The current president won a controversial third term in office late last year after the opposition claimed many of its candidates were disqualified including Gbagbo.
It still remains unclear what will become of other pending criminal charges against the ex-president.
Gbagbo and three of his former ministers were sentenced to 20 years in prison on charges they broke into the Abidjan branch of the Central Bank of West African States to get cash amid the post-election crisis in January 2011.
It’s unlikely that Ivorian authorities will jail the ex-president, says Ousmane Zina, a political scientist at the University of Bouake. However, Ouattara is likely to attach conditions to Gbagbo’s return in an effort to avoid reigniting tensions of the past, he added.
“Before granting a pardon or amnesty, he will want to obtain a guarantee that the country will remain peaceful,” Zina said.
Associated Press journalists Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal; and Bishr El- Touni, Mark Carlson and Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed.