“How are you Laurent? Happy to see you,” Ouattara said as Gbagbo arrived at the presidential palace in the Ivorian economic capital Abidjan.
It marked the first time Ouattara and Gbagbo met since the Ivory Coast’s 2010-11 civil war, which claimed more than 3,000 lives.
Gbagbo, 76, has leapt into the spotlight since returning last month from Europe, where he won a landmark case at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
In the last months of his stormy rule from 2000 to 2011, Gbagbo rejected defeat by Ouattara in a presidential ballot.
The ensuing conflict claimed more than 3,000 lives. After he was ousted, Gbagbo was flown to The Hague to face charges of crimes against humanity, of which he was eventually acquitted.
Commentators will be scrutinising Tuesday’s meeting for signs of whether the two former rivals have buried the hatchet, boosting hopes for national rapprochement after deadly clashes last year.
“The mere fact of seeing Ouattara and Gbagbo together is being seen as a sign of healing and a strong image for Ivorians in their quest for peace and national reconciliation,” the opposition newspaper Notre Voie (Our Road) said.
But Gbagbo’s spokesman Justin Katinan Kone urged the public “not to make too much” of the meeting, expected to last about half an hour and to be followed by a news conference.
“This is a courtesy visit to his elder… If it helps to ease the political atmosphere, so much the better,” he said.
“Laurent Gbagbo is in a spirit of openness, dialogue and reconciliation,” Franck Anderson Kouassi, spokesman for Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) party, said on Monday.
Gbagbo stated that he had urged Ouattara to continue peace efforts by releasing other civil war prisoners.
“I informed the president that I was their leader, and you would agree with me that I am out today. They have been imprisoned. I’d like the president to do everything he can to help them “At a joint press conference, Gbagbo stated.
“Meeting president Ouattara is exactly in line with our way of thinking.”
“Dialogue in our country… will continue, because that is the government’s will,” said government spokesman Amadou Coulibaly.
A onetime international banker, Ouattara, 79, won a landslide victory in the last elections on October 31.
But the credibility of the win was undermined by an opposition boycott.
In the runup to the vote, scores of people died in clashes with police after Ouattara unveiled his controversial bid for a third term.
– Moment for symbolism –
In this context, Ouattara has officially welcomed Gbagbo’s return, hoping it will ease tensions.
But the question is whether Gbagbo will stick to the script of statesman or prefer an active political role that may challenge Ouattara.
Gbagbo rose in the 1970s as a left-wing campaigner who helped end Ivory Coast’s one-party system following independence from France in 1960.
His years in power were marked by rebellion, civil war, national divisions and repeatedly postponed elections, but he retains considerable grassroots support. His defenders portray him as a champion of the poor and oppressed.
Commentators are also watching the interplay among Ouattara, Gbagbo and former president Henri Konan Bedie, 87, three men who have dominated the political stage for decades.
On July 11, Gbagbo and Bedie — who were also once rivals — announced that they were united in the goal of forging “final and sustainable peace”.
One lingering matter is a 20-year jail sentence for Gbagbo, who was convicted in absentia of “looting” the Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO) during the 2010-11 conflict.
Authorities have hinted that this sentence will be lifted.
Issiaka Diaby, who heads an association called the Collective of Ivory Coast Victims, lashed out at “selective” decisions by the judicial system.
“We believe that reconciliation cannot be boiled down to a meeting between two citizens,” he said on Tuesday at ceremonies in an Abidjan graveyard to honour fatalities in the 2010-11 crisis.