Ivory Coast's presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara
Ivory Coast's presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara

Part of an Associated Press release reads: "...angry crowds chanted 'All the whites out!'...French soldiers in boats plucked trapped countrymen from the banks of lagoons.....France commandeered commercial airlines after attacks on civilians, peace keepers and foreigners.

"Nine French peace keepers and an American civilian died in a government air attack late last week, prompting the French to destroy Ivory Coast's tiny air force...The retaliation sparked violence by loyalist youths who took to the streets waving machetes, iron bars and clubs and attacking white expatriates."

Sounds familiar? Abidjan, April 2011? This AP article describes a tiny part of the previous mass evacuation which took place on 10 November 2004 towards the end of a civil war which had been raging in the Ivory Coast, the world's largest cocoa producer, since 2002. One expatriate evacuee who was rescued with his wife told AP: "On Sunday night there was a knock on my door. A (French) soldier said 'You have three seconds to go.' It was like a movie....I left."

Over the past few days there have been a number of harrowing Western media reports in an all too similar vein. Then, as now, the "loyalist youths" attacking expatriates and foreigners, as well as fighting rebel forces from the north of the country, support, just deposed President, Laurent Gbagbo.

According to the United Nations, most of the international community and especially the French, the still very influential ex-colonial power, ex- President Gbagbo lost last year's November general election to Alassane Ouattara, the new President of Ivory Coast as of 11 April 2011.

The general election was deemed to have been run fairly and the result properly valid. The outcome showed that Mr Ouattara had won 54 per cent of the vote against 46 per cent for Mr Gbagbo. Mr Gbagbo refused to acknowledge the veracity of the count and claimed that the polls in the north of the country had been rigged by pro-Ouattara forces.

The November 2010 election which the United Nations helped to organise, was vetted by officials from the United Nations, the European Union, the African Union and the West African regional body, Ecowas - the Economic Community of West African States). All declared the results valid and rejected any suggestion of tampering and insisted that President Gbagbo step down.

The contrast seen today in the Ivory Coast with its recent post-colonial past can only be described as one of Africa's greatest tragedies. The country became independent on 7 August 1960 and was led by Félix Houphouët-Boigny, for the first few months as Prime Minister and from 03 November 1960 until 7 December 1993 as President.

Mr Houphouët-Boigny became something of a living legend in French Africa. He served in the French National Assembly and was appointed to ministerial level in a number of administrations, even being a signatory of the Constitution of the Fifth Republic in 1958.

Measures he took or influenced whilst in office in Paris, contributed significantly to the "Ivorian miracle" that he was mostly responsible for shaping after his return to the Ivory Coast in May 1959.

As can be guessed from the length of his tenure in power, "democracy", as we understand it, doesn't exactly describe the government of the Ivory Coast under his watch. The President's pragmatic, Francophile, liberal economic, pro-West, anti- Communist policies were to the fore and he generally surrounded himself with French advisers.

Importantly, these policies worked for a long time and in the first 15 years of Mr Houphouët-Boigny assuming office, the country's GNP rose by more than ten-fold. Annual growth of 10 per cent was achieved frequently throughout his term in power and although President Houphouët-Boigny made his home village Ivory Coast's new capital city - hey, what's the harm?? - quite a lot really, but for another time - Abidjan remained the country's finance, culture and business centre and was called "The Paris of Africa" and the Ivory Coast was the "Jewel of French Africa".

Although very pro-business, Houphouë-Boigny's greatest success was in developing and expanding the primary sector, boosting cocoa production over 300 per cent and coffee 50 per cent between 1960 and 1970. Rich in comparison to other countries in the region, the Ivory Coast attracted immigrants from neighbouring African countries so that by 1980, these immigrants numbered some 25 per cent of the population.

For all Ivory Coast's success, there were some glaring flaws. Development depended on foreign investment and so never became self-sustaining. The income from exports of primary products, a very major part of the economy, suffered every time these commodities took a tumble on the international market. Attempts to withhold cocoa and coffee in particular from the market, in order to increase their price, failed.

After 1978, prices for Ivory Coast's exports deteriorated noticeably and to cap-it-all, the country suffered a two-year drought beginning in 1983. Devastating forests and coffee and cocoa plantations, these events brought the country to the brink of ruin by the mid 80s.

However, it was not until President Houphouët-Boigny was gravely ill in 1989 that he appointed as Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara, who, through stringent belt-tightening measures, was able to bring back stability in the economy and solve the country's debt problem. Mr Ouattara, an economist and one-time member of the International Monetary Fund, became the effective administrator of the country until President Houphouët's death in December 1993 - but was not appointed his successor.

The Ivory Coast began to unravel after President Houphouët-Boigny's death. The following administration deliberately set out to exclude those it claimed to be minorities and not true "Ivorians" and emphasised tribal and religious divisions. A military coup followed and shortly afterwards, in 2002, the country descended into a bitter civil war.

Laurent Gbagbo, now 65 and a former history teacher founded the Ivorian Popular Front Party (FPI) in opposition, sometimes necessarily clandestine, to President Houphouët-Boigny's relatively benign dictatorship. At times in exile in France and on one occasion imprisoned by the administration, it is a strange irony that Mr Gbagbo should have turned into a tyrant.

On 11 April 2011, the BBC Africa desk reported that the vicious civil war over a disputed election, has taken the lives of at least 1,000 people, though casualties in the latest fighting in Abidjan are not yet known. Certainly there are possibly thousands more as there have been massacres perpetrated by both sides during the conflict which will require investigation.

A further million people or more have been displaced and fled their homes. Many of these people are in a perilous condition according the United Nations reports as they lack food and water.

The task for Mr Ouattara, the new President has only just begun and is truly daunting.