Obituary: Jean-Bedel Bokassa

Brian Cathcart
Tuesday 05 November 1996 01:02 GMT

When Jean-Bedel Bokassa met Idi Amin for the first time, he wore his decorations. The jacket of his Field Marshal's uniform, especially lengthened and strengthened for the purpose, glittered from neck to knee with every medal he had ever received and every order he had ever dreamt up to present himself. Since he was a short, stout man, and the jacket tapered outwards, the effect was of a Christmas tree without its fairy. Amin, who had turned up in battledress, was furious to find himself so upstaged and, it was said, immediately set his jewellers to work on a comparable display for himself.

That is a story of the vanity of tyrants. Modern Africa has known dictators more cruel and corrupt than Jean-Bedel Bokassa - Amin was one, Mobutu of Zaire is another - but it has never seen one more vain. He liked nothing more than the limelight and would do almost anything to turn its glow upon himself.

It is as well in a sense that the country he ruled for 13 years is one of the poorest in the world, so that the lack of means set limits to his excesses. His most glorious moments of folie de grandeur, however, elevated him firmly on to the world stage.

The Napoleonic coronation in 1977, at which he became Emperor Bokassa I of Central Africa, on its own would have assured him a place in history. Horses, carriages, jewelled crowns and fur-lined robes, champagne and caviar, thrones and court musicians, all were imported from Europe. Surely no public occasion in the 20th century has been more lurid or insane.

But it was not only by extravagance that he courted attention; his friendship with the presidents of France was just as effective. A former soldier in the French army, he is said to have called de Gaulle "Papa". Valery Giscard d'Estaing, an occasional guest at his game reserve, returned the compliment by referring to Bokassa as his cousin. It was Giscard who ordered the coup in 1979 which ended Bokassa's reign and, by an elegant twist, scandal over a gift of diamonds from Bok-assa contributed to Giscard's election defeat two years later.

In a dull moment, Bokassa would declare to a foreign reporter his intention of acquiring the atomic bomb, or he would fly to Libya and, to please Gaddafi, convert to Islam. His unhappiest years were those of his exile in France in the early 1980s, when he was reduced to seeking press attention by claiming to be broke and greeting callers at his chateau by candlelight.

A hatred of obscurity may have been what drove him back, in 1986, to face trial in Bangui, his former capital, where he had already been condemned to death in his absence. For a few days it worked, and the merry old showman again had an audience for his act, but the trial lasted months and the old man's spirit was eventually broken by the unrelenting recital of his acts of tyranny.

For he had been a tyrant, murdering and torturing while the world laughed at him. His life was a tragic one, although not for him personally - he largely escaped the consequences of his actions, dying a free man of 75 in a land where average male life expectancy is 41. The tragedy is Central Africa's, the poor, remote and new country on which he visited such misery. This is a place so remote and sparsely populated, and so lacking in strategic significance, that it was 1905 before anyone bothered to ink it in on the map as a colony.

Bokassa was born not long afterwards, in 1921, at Bobangui in the south- west of the country. He belonged to the Mbaka ethnic group, which had the closest links to the French colonists and which since independence has provided most of the country's ruling clique.

The French avoided offering education to native people, but they were prepared to take them as soldiers and that is what the young Bokassa became. Joining up in 1939, he is said to have taken part in Free French campaigns in Africa in the Second World War and he certainly fought in the Indochina War. By 1958 he was an officer, and as his country moved towards independence he became involved in the creation of the Central African army.

The independence movement was led by a visionary figure, Barthelemy Boganda, whom Bokassa claimed as his cousin. But Boganda died in a plane crash shortly before independence came in 1960. The French took advantage, establishing a puppet regime led by a young teacher, David Dacko.

Bokassa, meanwhile, profiting from his ethnic background and his French training, rose to become chief of staff of the army. When Dacko's government failed, as it was doomed to in a country so unprepared for self-government, he was ready.

At 11pm on New Year's Eve, 1965, troops loyal to Bokassa and to another Indochina veteran, Alexandre Banza, sealed off the centre of Bangui and took charge in a classic African coup. The head of the gendarmerie, who presented the principal threat to the plotters, was arrested and never seen again.

It began well, and there is some evidence that, initially, Bokassa intended to put the country's affairs in order and then step aside. His early actions, which included steps to improve meat supplies in Bangui and the introduction of bus services, were popular, but before long he succumbed to the paranoia and greed that seizes almost all dictators.

In 1969 Banza was arrested on suspicion of plotting a coup, then tortured and executed. Bokassa, unwilling to trust his own troops, persuaded the French to send troops to support him. Meanwhile the economic rape of Central Africa had begun, as the president learned to "privatise" public enterprises, usually monopolies, by simply transferring them to his personal ownership. And he learnt to spend. A country with total government revenues roughly equivalent to those of a large Western department store suddenly found itself trying to pay for a a private hunting estate for the head of state, a runway to serve it and a presidential airliner to land on it.

There were coup attempts, real as well as imagined. In February 1976 Bokassa narrowly escaped an attack at Bangui airport for which his own son-in-law was summarily executed. Months later his son Georges was accused of plotting and fled to France.

Then in December 1976 Bokassa announced that the country was to be an empire, he was to be emperor and his favourite son (by his favourite wife) was his heir. The affair was pure pantomime, boycotted by foreign governments but generously attended by the world's press. Quite how much was spent on it, on banquets, Belgian steeds and triumphal arches, will never be known, but it was now clear that the man was mad.

His legend grew: it was reported, for example, that he kept a harem of mistresses at his palace, and that he threw courtiers who displeased him to the lions and crocodiles in his private zoo. Whatever the truth, beneath the brash surface his rule was crumbling. The French were becoming squeamish about supporting him, he had ruined the diamond business (the principal source of hard currency) and he could not pay his civil servants. His soldiers, also unpaid, were touring the wildlife reserves with AK-47s in hand, slaughtering the elephants for their ivory.

Fittingly, it was personal greed which provoked the denouement. On 18 January, street protests began in Bangui when he decreed that all schoolchildren and all students at Jean-Bedel Bokassa University must wear uniforms - only one supplier of uniforms existed, and it was owned by the Empress Catherine, Bokassa's wife.

Troops fired on the crowds and dozens, perhaps hundreds, were killed, but the unrest, mostly in the form of school strikes, continued until April, when Bokassa, now in a state of fury, ordered a round-up of the troublemakers. Mostly boys aged between 12 and 16, they were hauled off to Ngaragba Prison on the edge of Bangui. There followed a night of appalling violence in which Bokassa personally played a leading part. Children were beaten to death, tortured, stoned and suffocated in overcrowded cells. The final death toll was about 100, and a few of the victims were as young as eight years old.

The massacre was revealed by Amnesty International and the details were quickly confirmed by an international commission of inquiry which the French forced Bokassa to accept. Giscard d'Estaing ordered a coup and David Dacko, whom Bokassa had toppled 13 years earlier, returned to power.

The rest of Bokassa's life, spent in the Ivory Coast, France and finally in his native country, was devoted to the pursuit of publicity, which he used mainly in attempts to embarrass France.

In 1986 he surprised everyone by returning to Bangui, where he was tried for his crimes. Few fallen African dictators have been so fortunate in their treatment by the people they oppressed. The case was conducted in public and with dignity, restraint and thoroughness, and a limited number of specific crimes - half a dozen specific murders in the years 1966-78 and the Ngaragba massacre - were examined and proven.

(The most famous charge against Bokassa, that he was a cannibal, was dropped for lack of evidence. There are grounds for believing that the whole story of human meat kept in a freezer, which circulated first in the days after he was toppled, is a myth.)

Bokassa was condemned to death, but the sentence was commuted to 20 years' imprisonment and he was eventually released three years ago. The experience did not reform or humble him: his first act on being freed was to apply, in the name of Bokassa the First, to stand for president.

The truth about Bokassa, for all his antics, is not amusing but squalid. He was a military dictator of low intelligence but some cunning who took a poor country and over 13 years exploited its few assets relentlessly for his own grotesque advantage, ultimately leaving it in a state of anarchy and ruin.

Jean-Bedel Bokassa, soldier and dictator: born Bobangui, French Equatorial Africa 22 February 1921; Army Chief of Staff, Central African Republic 1963-79, Prime Minister 1966-75, President 1966-79, President for Life 1972-79, proclaimed Emperor 1976, crowned 1977, deposed 1979; died Bangui, Central African Republic 3 November 1996.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in