1990s >> 1996 >> no-1108-december-1996

Who’ll mourn the Emperor?

In 1920, France took full control of their tiny African colony Ubangi-Shari (later

Bokassa’s coronation in 1976

the Central African Republic) and immediately leased 50 percent of it to 17 French companies, giving them freedom to exploit the indigenous population in whatever manner they saw fit.

This exploitation would take the form of forced labour, torture and hostage-taking in an attempt to force the population to collect rubber vine.

It was at the hands of the guards of one of these French companies that a certain Chief Mindogen was flogged to death for failing to provide sufficient rubber vine collectors.

Against this backdrop, Jean Bedal Bokassa, son of Chief Mindogen grew up with a superstitious fascination for French power and an obsession with French history, particularly the Napoleonic era, an obsession which led him to enlist in the French army and which played some part in his sycophantic rise to the rank of lieutenant during French campaigns of the 40s and 50s.

On leaving the army, Bokassa quickly found a position in David Dacko’s corrupt and chaotic government as Chief of Staff of the Ministry of Defence.

At this time the French were a bit uneasy about Dacko’s corrupt government, fearing for their businesses and strategic interests should a potential “Marxist”-led uprising occur and though the country was officially independent—it had been since I960—France still retained the right to interfere at their leisure.

They had in fact been planning a coup when Bokassa, catching a whiff of their intentions, out-manoeuvred them and took control of the capital with forces loyal to himself.

Although the French did not at first take too kindly to this wagon-jumping, Bokassa seemed such a pleasant enough old Francophile that it seemed a shame to oppose him, and besides, he was anything but a “communist”. So they sat back and left the affairs of the Central African Republic to the new president, confident he could fare no worse than Dacko.

However, as Ian Schott points out; “There was little to distinguish Bokassa from any other confused, violent and corrupt post-colonial regime. It was run on the simple maxim ‘to the victors—the spoils”’ (World Famous Dictators, 1992, P-78).

Anything resembling democracy was trampled upon and nepotism was rampant. Those loyal to Bokassa were rewarded with promotion and huge salaries and those who upset him met an early death.

Still France backed him, to the tune of $20 million per year. Most of this, though, was bi-lateral aid which tended to increase France’s interests in the country. It was followed by the donation of French paratroopers to Bokassa’s army.

From then on the country’s budget was treated by Bokassa as his own personal bank account. He privatised state assets, had shares in every national business including the diamond industry and secured a total monopoly on foreign trade. None complained. The entire civil service had either been bribed or were too afraid to speak out.

Twelve years later the country was almost as bankrupt as it had been on 31 December 1965 when Bokassa assumed the tide of President of the Armed Forces, the Ministry of Information and Ministry for Justice.

In December 1976, Bokassa decided it was time his 2.5 million population needed an Emperor—himself. Almost 35 percent of the state’s $70 million budget was subverted to the ensuing Napoleonic-style coronation.

No expense was spared. Bokassa donned a velvet ankle-length sword. He trailed a 30-foot-long crimson velvet, gold-embroidered and ermine-trimmed mantle and was carried to his gold-trimmed throne, backed by a huge golden eagle with outstretched wings, in a gilded coach drawn by eight white Normandy horses.

Although the event was frowned upon by the British and the US, invited representatives of both countries returning their golden invitation cards—the US so infuriated they cut off aid—the French expressed their approval by donating $2.5 million to the event, in order that the 2,500 imbecilic international guests could be ferried about in a huge fleet of limousines escorted by 200 BMW motorbikes.

The world had apparently given Bokassa the legitimacy he had sought and he revelled in it. From this point his extravagance was now only to be matched by his inhumanity.

When he discovered an attempted break-in at his palace, he drove in a fury to the local prison and personally beat three innocent victims to death. When schoolchildren protested at the compulsory wearing of expensive uniforms made at a factory owned by himself, he sent the troops in who promptly massacred between 150 and 200 of them. And when teachers and students distributed leaflets condemning his personal wealth, his “Imperial Guard” rounded up hundreds who were later beaten to death. Bokassa participating fully at Ngaragbi prison—all this in the International Year of the Child!

These and other such episodes finally began to embarrass the French government As they pondered their predicament they set up a five-nation African Mission of Inquiry to investigate the many charges against Bokassa. including cannibalism, whilst at the same time desperately seeking a means of ousting him before he could be found guilty and world opinion turned against a French government that has sponsored him.

The inquiry found him guilty and. a month later, sanctions already beginning to bite, Bokassa went cap-in-hand to Libya’s Colonel Gadaffi for help.

In his absence the French launched “Operation Barracuda”, a bloodless coup, brought David Dacko out of retirement and installed him in Bokassa’s palace as president.

Gadaffi soon got fed up with Bokassa, just as he had with Amin years earlier. Homeless, friendless, Bokassa roamed about until settling down on the Ivory Coast to sell tropical fish. After an even more depressing spell in France, Bokassa returned to his homeland, where his death penalty had been passed in his absence. This was commuted to life imprisonment

Six years later Bokassa was released and immediately applied for the post of president. Amazingly his offer was turned down!

On 3 November 1996 Bokassa died at the age of 75, in a country where the average life expectancy is 48. There is little doubt that there will be few more delighted to see him go than the French government As long as he lived he served as a poignant reminder of France’s imperial excesses.

Bokassa’s type still exist however, in Libya, Zaire and Nigeria and a host of other African countries where the colonial experiment still reverberates down the years—stark reminders of the true nature of capitalism and how the seemingly benevolent gift of “independence” blossoms all too often into abject tyranny and terror when ill-educated dictators try to run a country in a manner in which their colonial forbears also failed.

John Bissett