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The 13th Apostle
Jean-Bédel Bokassa, the dictator of the Central African Republic, treated the country as his private estate, and his coronation as emperor took place amid the most extravagant appearances.
Bokassa was only six years old when his father, the chief of a village belonging to the powerful M’baka tribe, was beaten to death by soldiers of the French colonial army for resisting their demands. A week later his mother took her own life. He and his 11 siblings were then raised by his grandfather, and not long before the outbreak of World War II his guardian convinced him to enlist in the French army. He participated in the Allied landing at Provence and fought in the Indochina War, and in 1962 his relative, the president of the newly independent Central African Republic, David Dacko, entrusted him with organizing the country’s military.
“CENTRAL AFRICA’S FIRST PEASANT”
On New Year’s Eve in 1965 he used a method especially popular with high-ranking military officers around the world, the coup d’état, to seize power. As president he introduced a number of bizarre measures. He banned drumming on weekdays – with the exception of the evening hours – but held progressive views regarding female equality: He ended the practice of female circumcision and became the first African head of state to appoint a woman as head of government. However, he was less gracious toward others: He ordered the ears of thieves to be cut off, while his political rivals (real or imagined) would face torture and execution.
Meanwhile, he proved to be a pragmatic leader in the field of foreign policy, as best evidenced by his decision to convert to Islam and take the name Salah Eddine Ahmed Bokassa in the hope of winning support (i.e. weapons and financial aid) from Muammar Gaddafi after his visit to Libya in October 1976. It took him only a few months to convert back to Catholicism, and he would later claim that Jesus had appeared to him thrice when he was twelve and that Pope Paul VI had secretly named him the 13th Apostle.
The president would also refer to himself as “Central Africa’s first peasant and businessman”, and the latter title rang especially true, as his family owned several companies. Corruption was rampant and, of course, much of the aid sent to the country ended up in Bokassa’s pocket. This all took place with the assistance of the French, who enjoyed special advantages in their former colony. Bokassa would simply call Charles de Gaulle “Papa”, and while the French leader did not really appreciate the gesture, he excused the impudence in exchange for favored access to the country’s tropical wood, uranium, and diamond reserves. Bokassa had an especially good relationship with Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who was president of France between 1974 and 1981, even giving him a gift of diamonds when he was Minister of Finance. The French president went so far as to regard Bokassa as a “friend and family member” for a long time.
THE AFRICAN NAPOLEON
Like most dictators who make many enemies and are willing to employ any means to hold onto their power, Bokassa became increasingly distrustful of the people around him, and after a while he had very few associates who he did not suspect of conspiring against him. And sometimes his suspicions were right. The chief architect of one of the many attempted coups aimed at removing him was his son-in-law Fidéle Obrou. The conspirators planned to assassinate the president at the Bangui airport in February 1976, but the plan failed, and Bokassa had Obrou and his accomplices executed.
Even though in 1972 Bokassa made himself president for life like many of his fellow dictators, unlike them he was not satisfied with the position, which might have partially been due to the 1976 assassination plot. Therefore, on December 4, 1977, exactly a year after he officially transformed the state from a republic into an empire, he had himself crowned emperor – just like his role model Napoleon had done.
The ceremony was held in a sports arena named after the dictator, located on avenue Bokassa next to a university also bearing his name. He arrived at the venue in a carriage flanked by soldiers dressed as 19th century horsemen. The costs of the ceremony totaled 22 million dollars – equal to 5% of the Central African Republic’s GDP. His diamond-encrusted crown alone cost $5 million, and the two-ton throne was made of gilded bronze. A German artist was commissioned to paint two portraits of Bokassa, a poet wrote an ode and 20 poems for the occasion, a French composer contributed two musical pieces to the event, and 240 tons of delicacies were flown in for the banquet. Much of the tab was picked up by the French government, who were eager to maintain their advantageous position in their former colony, but local businesspeople also helped cover the costs of the ceremony.
THE BUTCHER OF BANGUI
Bokassa’s eventual downfall was – indirectly – caused by mandatory school uniforms. The emperor ordered that, as of October 1, 1978, every elementary and high school student should wear a uniform manufactured by a company belonging to one of his wives. However, many families could not afford the government-sanctioned clothing and sent their children to school without it. Protests broke out in January 1979 after two high schools expelled students who had failed to comply with the rule. The authorities eventually managed to violently suppress the demonstrations, but disgruntled citizens took to the streets again in April. This time the students erected barricades, but the uprising was once again beaten down. In June an international committee of inquiry found that roughly one hundred people had lost their lives in the clashes in January and April, and that Bokassa himself had also actively taken part in the execution of prisoners, most of whom were minors (although this was never credibly proven).
The events of 1979 finally proved to be too much even for the French, and while Bokassa – who had come to be known as the Butcher of Bangui – was staying in Libya he was overthrown on the night of September 20, 1979. His predecessor, David Dacko, was installed in his seat, and he immediately restored the republic.
A CANNIBAL EMPEROR?
According to one of the most frequent charges against Bokassa, he would feed his enemies to crocodiles and lions at his luxurious Villa Kolongo residence. While it is true that he would threaten to throw people to the wild animals, which he kept in a zoo built for his Romanian mistress, according to Brian Titley, an expert on the subject and the author of a book on Bokassa, there is no evidence for these stories of cold-blooded murder.
Another rumor about the emperor suggested that he would sometimes engage in cannibalism, and the story only caught on even more when, at his coronation ceremony, Bokassa allegedly remarked – presumably in jest – to French Minister of Cooperation Robert Galley: “You didn’t notice but you just ate human flesh.” Moreover, after the September 1979 coup, French soldiers claimed to have found in one of Villa Kolongo’s refrigerators the dismembered body of a math teacher who had been one of the leaders of the 1979 Bangui protests.
However, during his trial Bokassa was cleared of the charge of cannibalism, as the prosecution was unable to produce a witness to corroborate any of the allegations. Brian Titley has concluded that, since the rumors of cannibalism reinforced the image that Bokassa was trying to cultivate, he had no reason to deny them. Many in his country believed that those who eat human flesh would receive superhuman powers, and this superstition only helped Bokassa inspire fear and obedience among his subjects. Meanwhile, the gruesome stories of body parts in refrigerators and bones in swimming pools that sprang up after Bokassa’s removal were likely meant to justify the French intervention and help prevent the former emperor’s return to power.
Bokassa never denied the murders, but argued – with several holes in his reasoning – that it was unfair that he was being held accountable for every one of his deeds by an international community which had previously forgiven Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s Minister of Defense and future Prime Minister, for the massacre committed in 1982 by Lebanese Christian militias (Phalangists) and witnessed by their Israeli allies in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut. “Just because I am African?” he asked one year before his death.
Bokassa was the first African leader to be put on trial in the country he used to lead. He was sentenced to death in absentia but still chose to return to the country in 1986, when he was tried again, this time in person, but ultimately with the same outcome. However, his sentence was later commuted to life in prison and forced labor, then finally to twenty years of confinement, of which he went on to serve only seven. He was released in 1993 and died three years later of a heart attack.
Recent years have revealed a surge of nostalgia for the rule of oppressive dictators in multiple countries – just think of Stalin’s rehabilitation in Russia or the cult of Mao in China. And the situation today is not much different in the Central African Republic, where economic hopelessness and renewed clashes between Muslim and Christian militias have led many people to think back fondly on the imperial era.
An important step toward the rehabilitation of Bokassa was when President François Bozizé posthumously awarded him the country’s highest decoration in 2010. Later, during the summer of 2016, a group of his admirers restored his former throne, which had been stripped of its golden eagle and many precious stones, and put it on display by one of the busiest roads in Bangui. The same year, current president Faustin-Archange Touadéra appointed the dictator’s son Jean-Serge Bokassa as Minister of the Interior.
He was accused of cannibalism, complicity in the murder of students, and throwing his enemies to wild animals. Although the stories of him eating people and leaving his victims at the mercy of lions and crocodiles are likely just fictional parts of his legend, Jean-Bédel Bokassa – like many of his fellow dictators – had few reservations when it came to getting rid of his enemies in cruel ways. He treated the Central African Republic as his private estate, and his coronation as emperor took place amid the most extravagant appearances.
Did you know?
Bokassa had 17 wives and officially recognized 54 children as his own. Not long before his death, he confessed to having problems with remembering all of their names.
The dictator looked up Charles de Gaulle and regarded him as a kind of father figure. However, de Gaulle scornfully called him “Papa Bock” (bock means a small glass of beer in French).
Bokassa asked Pope Paul VI to hand over to him the crown that he would have put on his head during his coronation ceremony. Sadly for Bokassa, the pope refused.
Journalist Michael Goldsmith was present at Bokassa’s coronation, but when he tried to send his detailed account of the event to his employer via telex the system malfunctioned and the piece was sent to the government of the Central African Government instead. The officials were convinced that they were dealing with a coded message sent by a South African spy. Goldsmith was arrested and nearly beaten to death. According to his account, Bokassa himself also took part in his torture using his “stick of truth”.