Thursday, April 30, 2015

Dangerous Dictators: Jean-Bedel Bokassa

Jean-Bedel Bokassa during his coronation
Known for brutality and outrageous extravagance, Jean-Bedel Bokassa showed an example of how authoritarian military rulers turning into despotic megalomania. From a soldier in the French Army to his country’s Emperor, Bokassa brought terror and poverty to his people.

Jean-Bedel Bokassa, born on February 22, 1921, came from a distinguish family in Bobangui in Lobaye located in the French colony of Oubangui-Chari. His father served as a chief of the Mbaka tribe until his sudden demise in 1927, when the young Jean-Bedel was only 6 years old. Tragedy marred his childhood when suddenly, just few months after his father passed away, his mother committed suicide. The orphaned Bokassa lived under the supervision and education of Franciscan missionaries.

His military career began with World War II. He joined the French colonial army and fought in Europe. In 1944, he took part in the allied landings in Provence, France under Operation Dragoon. After the World War, he continued to serve under the French and fought in Indochina and Algeria. He fought well under the French and won awards and promotions. He became a captain and received great honor such as the Legion d’Honneur. While serving the French Army, Bokassa then became acquainted with the great French General Napoleon Bonaparte. He admired the Corsican-born general and later made him his inspiration for one of his greatest squandering of his people’s wealth.

On the other hand, back at home, Oubangui-Chari declared its independence from France and became the Central African Republic. David Dacko became its first President. Dacko invited Bokassa to help in the formation of the country’s armed forces, which Bokassa reluctantly accepted. Bokassa and Dacko became close and in 1964, made him colonel and later army chief of staff.

Under Dacko, the Central African Republic was one of the poorest countries in the world. Dacko wanted to improve the situation and attempted to break free from what it seemed neocolonialism of the French. Although officially independent, Central African Republic remained economically tied to France and French capital. The French had their interest for keeping their eye and hands on the Central African Republic. The landlocked country had a lucrative diamond mines and most importantly, it had uranium that the French needed for her atomic weapons and nuclear plants. Dacko, on the other hand, wanted the Central African Republic to benefit from the profits of diamonds and uranium from their country. He made efforts to reduce French involvement in the economy, most especially, in diamonds, and supported the locals in selling the diamonds they mine. In addition, Dacko also started to become cozy with Communist China. Obviously, the French did not liked his economic policies and his alignment with the communist and the relation of Dacko and Paris soured.

France then looked for someone to overthrow Dacko, someone who could be their “partner” in their economic ventures in Central African Republic. The French did need to look for long. On the night between December 31, 1965 and January 1, 1966, Bokassa orchestrated the so-called Saint-Sylvestre Coup. His troops arrested President Dacko and made him hand over power to the military.

For the next 11 years, Bokassa served as his countries President. Ruled with the support of the French and launched economic programs aimed to make Central African Republic reliant. He started an economic initiative known as Operation Bokassa. With government support and finance, farms and small industries, mostly making food stuffs, aimed in securing food supply for the country. France funded most of Bokassa’s programs. However, corruption and mismanagement spoiled Operation Bokassa and it failed.

France and Bokassa’s relationship continued as long as Bokassa secured French profits from diamonds and supply of uranium. Much if not all profits from the transaction went to Bokassa’s pockets and not the people of the Central African Republic. Bokassa then used the money in order to support his new lavish lifestyle and also his own businesses and that of his relatives. The French did not care about the corruption or even about the dark side of Bokassa’s rule as long as they had what they want – diamond and uranium.

Bokassa ruled with a bloody iron fist. Internationally, Bokassa became notorious for his violations of human rights. He killed and tortured many of his political opponents under true or false accusations of sedition or conspiracies to overthrow or kill him. One of which was in 1976, when an officer threw a grenade to Bokassa in the Bangui Airport. The faulty grenade failed to explode and Bokassa survived. He then launched a crackdown against the plotter and caught 8 of them and had them tried and summarily executed. Many military officers, ministers, and advisers fell prey to Bokassa’s purges. Other than that, the military went into a rampaged in the streets, people feared government troops for the tendency of looting and rape. Bokassa became Central African Republic’s Joseph Stalin, brutal and merciless.

Besides his brutality, Bokassa also showed his megalomania. He made sure that what he wants became true. One ridiculous story had been his nepotism. It was said that Bokassa appointed his babies to army position and received pay from that post. At the age of four, some of his children became corporals. His thirst for power continued in 1972 when he made himself President for life and gave himself the position of Field Marshal of the Armed Forces. But worst came later. Bokassa’s obsession with power erupted in 1976 when he decided to fully imitate Napoleon by declaring himself Emperor.

On December 4, 1976, Jean-Bedel Bokassa became Emperor Bokassa I and changed the country’s name to Central African Empire. He did not had Napoleon’s territorial and imperial ambitions but he compensated in the extravagance of his coronation he saw fit to his idol. Cost around $22 million in a country where an average man earned only $122 a year and one-third of his country annual budget, Bokassa orchestrated a disgusting squandering of wealth for his coronation and that of her wife. Much of the coronation cost fell to Bokassa’s close friend France and many of the regalia, costumes, horses, throne, and even the rose petals he walked on came from France. More than 45 pounds of petals came from France for Bokassa’s coronation. He also commissioned from France a crown studded with 2,000 diamonds and a huge 15x18 foot imperial eagle designed solid gold throne. In addition, he also imported from France 35 horses that pulled his carriages also from France and wore an imported pearl-studded shoes. His wife and later Empress, Catherine Dangueade, wore a gown decorated with precious stones like rubies and emeralds. After crowning his latest wife as Empress, he made his family, which include 17 wives and 55 children and relatives nobles of the Central African Republic and founded the House of Bokassa. He spent lavishly to his royal coronation banquet and served exquisite meals to his visitors. He invited many heads of states to his coronation but none attend because of the wasteful cost.

But Bokassa’s coronation marked his downfall instead of his rise. Two years into his reign, on April 1979, he made a huge blunder. In his quest to make a westernized and uniformed society, he decided to make students and pupils to wear uniforms. But in an impoverish country, uniforms added more expenses and much of the uniforms must be made by a factory owned by Bokassa’s wife. Seeing their Emperor’s imposition of additional expenses to their tight budget and his way of getting money from the people once again, students and teachers in Bangui protested and attacked buildings and even Bokassa’s car on the 17th of April. In anger from the protest and from the attack on his car, Bokassa ordered a bloody reprisal. From the 18th to the 19th Bokassa had his troops round up teachers, students, and even children aged 8 to 16 deemed as involved from the ruckus. After gathering them, he soldiers opened fired and killed more than hundreds of children in the process. Rumors spread that Bokasssa even ate some parts of the victims. The Bangui Massacre caused a huge international condemnation. 1979 had been deemed as International Year of the Children and the action of Bokassa disregards and tarnished children’s rights. Even France reacted furiously from Bokassa’s actions and started to him as a liability. Meanwhile, the people of Central African Republic yearned for their Emperor’s downfall.

Bokassa’s fall came on September 1979. While Bokassa visited Tripoli, Libya, French troops captured Bangui Airport, then captured the capital city and reinstated President David Dacko as President. Bokassa had no choice but to go to exile in Cote D’Ivoire and later France. In 1980, courts in Central African Republic found Bokassa guilty of his crimes against humanity but not in cannibalism and sentenced him to death. In 1986, the aging Bokassa returned to the Central African Republic but found himself arrested and formally sentenced to death. In 1993, President Andre Kolingba pardoned the old Bokassa and the late Emperor became free. As if his megalomania ended with his reign, it did not. Even during his last years, Bokassa claimed himself as the Last Apostle of Christ. Jean-Bedel Bokassa passed away in the age of 75 in 1996. His name forever tarnish with his brutality, corruption, and his mind on the brink of insanity. He showed how absolute power corrupts absolutely.

See also:
Mobutu Sese Seko

"Emperor's Coronation Dazzles Poor Country" p. 10 in Sarasota Journal, December 5, 1977.

General Reference:
“Boukassa I” in Historical Dictionary of Central African Republic. Pierre Kalck (ed.). Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2005.

Young, Eric. “Bokassa, Jean-Bedel.” Encyclopedia of Africa v. 2. Edited by Kwame Appiah & Henry Gates (ed.), New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Chirot, Daniel. Modern Tyrants: The Power and Prevalence of Evil in Our Age. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994.

McKenna, Amy. The History of Central and Eastern Africa. New York, New York: Britannica educational Publishing, 2011.

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