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Bokassa I, The Cannibal Emperor Of Africa

March 15, 2021

Bokassa I, The Cannibal Emperor Of Africa
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We explore the life and legacy of Jean-Bédel Bokassa, better known as Emperor Bokassa. We examine his rise to power, his outrageous spending habits, and his fall from grace.
We discuss his obsession with Napoleon and his lust for power that drove him to commit some of the most depraved acts imaginable.

As they say, absolute power corrupts, absolutely.


"This is Colonel Bokassa speaking to you.
At 3 a.m. this morning, your army took control of the government. The Dacko government has resigned.
The hour of justice is at hand! The bourgeoisie is abolished.
A new era of equality among all has begun. 
Central Africans, wherever you may be, be assured that the army will defend you and your property.
Long live the Central African Republic!"

- Emperor Bokassa - 1965

 

Further Reading

  • The Secret History of the Great Dictators: Idi Amin & Emperor Bokassa I by Diane Law
  • Dark Age: The Political Odyssey of Emperor Bokassa by Brian Titley

 

Attributions:

The Ice Giants by Kevin MacLeod
License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

https://freesound.org/people/uair01/sounds/242497
https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

Transcript


"This is Colonel Bokassa speaking to you. At 3 a.m. this morning, your army took control of the government. The Dacko government has resigned. The hour of justice is at hand. The bourgeoisie is abolished. A new era of equality among all has begun. Central Africans, wherever you may be, be assured that the army will defend you and your property ... Long live the Central African Republic!

 

This was the message that crackled through the airwaves in the capital city of Bangui on New Years Eve of 1965.

 

With only one president having served prior to this, the country would’ve had no idea that over the next 20 years, this one man would bankrupt the country, cripple its emerging industries, declare himself emperor and torture, murder and/or cannibalise hundreds of its citizens.

 

You’re listening to Anthology Of Heroes, and this is the story of the bloody reign of Emperor Bokassa I, The Cannibal Emperor of Africa.

 

Listener discretion is advised for this one.




The Central African Republic is a landlocked country in the middle of Africa.

Out of every country in the world, It has the lowest rate of life expectancy, the lowest per capita income and the worst rate of literacy - with over half its population unable to read. 

 

Terrorism and civil war are rampant making it one of the worst countries to be a young person, or a woman.

 

Over its 620,000 square kilometres are vast reserves Oil, lumber, gold, cobalt, uranium, timber and even diamonds - this country could have been something great. What happened?

 

Well i’ll tell you. It all started back to the 1960s; when a flamboyant army colonel named Jean-Bédel Bokassar overthrew the democratically elected president, who also happened to be his cousin.

 



The state we now know as ‘The Central African Republic’ was a French colony up until 1960. A developing nation's path to democracy is always wobbly, and this was no exception.

 

The first to champion the idea of decolonisation and racial equality was Barthélemy Boganda, in the late 1950s.

When he died in a suspicious plane crash, his cousin and interior minister David Dacko took over and became the first president of the Central African Republic.

 

It wasn’t exactly open democracy, he ran a one party state, and increased the term limits - but it did seem like his heart was in the right place.

 

President Dacko invested heavily in the country’s emerging diamond mining industry - but caught between not wanting to look like a French pawn, but still needing their financial aid - he lost popularity with his countrymen.

 

After 6 years with his popularity at an all time low, Colonel Bokassa swept in one night.

 

Bokassa, was well known within the inner circles of the government and he came from good pedigree, hailing from the same tribe as both Dacko and Boganda he was also a decorated War veteran who served in the French Free Forces.



But i'm jumping the gun here - let me take you back a bit.

 

Growing up, Bokassa’s family lived a poor, rural lifestyle common to most of the country. Little better than slaves, they were forced to tap rubber trees which were refined into car tires back in France. 



The industry was lucrative, but not for the farmers. Those involved were given aggressive quotas, and if they were unable to meet them - they, or members of their family were beaten, mutilated or killed.

 

Bokassa's father fell under the influence of a religious figure who preached anti-colonial sentiments. When the French authorities found out, they had him beaten to death in the town square as an example. A week later his mother, overwhelmed by grief committed suicide.

 

Bokassa was taken into a French orphanage, where he busied himself in French literature as he learnt to read. He was particularly fond of a French author, called ‘Jean Bedel’. So much so, the nuns gave him this nickname, which never left him.



After a few odd jobs, Bokassa joined up to The French Colonial army. Over a 20 year period he rose through the ranks scoring numerous medals for courage, and impressing his superiors with his fascination of French culture. While in Indochina, he married and had a child with a 17 year old Vietnamese woman, who he lost contact with when he was recalled.

 

In 1959 he returned home to Bangui, the capital of the central african republic and 

As an esteemed soldier and worldly traveler, a new sense of self-importance returned home with him.



He immediately inserted himself into governmental affairs, and his cousin, President Dacko was warned time and time again that the man was mentally unstable, and hungry for the top job.

 

Dacko seemed amused by the stories and casually played down his cousins flaws stating that he was too stupid to stage a coup, and only wanted to collect medals.

 

Interestingly, Bokassa wasn’t the only one who wanted Dacko out of the way. The French also wanted Dacko gone, as he was cosying up a little too close to communist China for their liking.



Infact, its likely Bokassa knew about this coup, and wanted to get his own coup first! Imagine being poor old President Dacko, its not a matter of if the coup happens, its a matter of when ONE OF THEM happens



On the night of December 31st 1965 the hemhem unthinkable  happened. When Dacko was out of the palace, Bokassa slipped in with his personal guard of 500 and overthrew the democratically elected, yet very unpopular government with relative ease in a bloodless coup de tat.

Dacko slipped away to France, and we’ll get back to him later.



On the 1st day of 1966, the citizens awoke to the voice of their new president


"This is Colonel Bokassa speaking to you. At 3 a.m. this morning, your army took control of the government. The Dacko government has resigned. The hour of justice is at hand. The bourgeoisie is abolished. A new era of equality among all has begun. Central Africans, wherever you may be, be assured that the army will defend you and your property ... Long live the Central African Republic!

 

Bokassa quickly swept aside the few fragile sprigs of democracy that the Dacko’s government had planted. 

  • In place of the national assembly, he instituted the morality brigade that monitored bars and dance clubs for lewdness. 
  • He banned polygamy, female genital mutilation and dowry payments
  • He started works on a highway to connect the villages to the cities
  • And he donated his first month's salary in office to building a new hospital.

 

Ok not so bad right? A right-wing dictator, sure - but one who seems to want to bring his country into the 21st century.

 

Bokassa did his best to ensure popularity around the capital. Purchasing a fleet of mercedes, he toured around the provinces displaying his war medals and telling anyone who would listen that his coup d'etat was needed because Communist China had infiltrated the Dacko government and was bringing it down.

 

While these stories may have bought over a few peasant farmers, internationally - no one was fooled. Apart from their neighbor, Chad - no countries would recognise Bokassa as the legitimate head of the state.



Which was a pity, because Bokassa needed that foreign aid, particularly because he had raised the wages of all soldiers in the country.



France particularly, contributed a sizable portion of aid to the country - and being such an avid Francophile - Bokassa must have felt hurt that Charles De Gaul, one of his hero’s would not recognise his government.

 

Bokassa met with whomever would meet him. Including infamous Romanian dictator Nicolae Chowchesko - who famously constructed the most expensive administrative building in the history of the world (valued at 3.4 billion US dollars)  - boy I bet those two would’ve had a lot to talk about.

 

Finally, in late 1966 - after threatening to stop using the French Franc as the currency of the country, President Charles De Gaul accepted one of the many invitations to come tour The Central African Republic. To Bokassa, this meant recognition of his legitimacy.

 

Charles De Gaul, however did not feel the same and regarded Bokassa as an unfortunate necessity. Privately deriding him with nicknames such as ‘Papa Bok’ - meaning something like ‘little beer’ in France - owing to Bokassa's small stature and skin color.

 

Infact, in one meeting with his ministers, unable to even recall the man's name called out 

 

‘Who is that idiot we have over in Bangui?’



Bokassa probably never learnt of his hero’s utter disdain for him - and was just happy the French aid money would likely start flowing again.

 

Good thing too, because by now Bokassa had a growing share of dissidents in his cabinet he wanted to take care of.

Many of the lower ranking pen-pushers who may have been plotting against him were quietly murdered and replaced with men from his own tribe whose loyalty was more obvious.

 

Despite this there was one man he could not shift.




Alexandre Banza was a military man like Bokassa, and was very likely the mastermind behind the original coup. The two men were close friends, but Banza was smarter and much more logical than the hotheaded dictator.

 

The two had a major falling out during a discussion on the country's budget and when Bokassa demoted him to minister of health, he began planning a coup of his own!

 

Bokassa used his new French connections to get a handful of French paratroopers in to keep watch on Banza, meanwhile he had men loyal to Banza sent to the country's frontiers, bringing his own men closer to the capital.

 

Banza, knowing the declining sanity of Bokassa should’ve kept quiet - but he couldn't. He had put this man in power, and dammit he should be shown some respect.

 

He disclosed his plan to stage a coup to a friend, who played along - but immediately informed Bokassa.

 

Two of Bokassa’s goons were sent to apprehend Banzai immediately. When they found him, he gave the fight for his life; well aware of his horrible fate if he was taken.

 

Eventually the two men had to break both of his arms before binding him, and throwing him in the trunk of his mercedes.

 

Once he found out that Banzai couldn’t hit him back, Bokkassa arrived at the hidden interrogation room and beat him inches from death. He was only saved when a minister advised him, maybe he should be kept alive for a show trial.

 

The show trial was over quickly, and the punishment was predictable, and at this point - probably merciful. Death by firing squad.

 

Before he was executed, there are claims that Bokassa had beaten him again, until the point where his spine protrudes from his back, and slashed apart his face with a razor, dragging the wretched specimen through the streets of the capital, to the place of his final execution.

 

Bokassa was well and truly off the deep end at this point, but despite stories of these atrocities  flowing out of Africa and into Europe; there was very little; if any ramifications.

 

The USA and the rest of Europe knew the man was unstable - but had little political interest in the region. If France didn’t want to reign him; well - not my circus, not my monkeys

 

Bokassa knew where his bread was buttered and chummed up with French prime-minister, Valéry Giscard. The two regularly went on safari hunting trips in Bokassas private game reserve. And you can bet, whenever he touched down in Bangui, Bokassa was waiting with open arms, with a new diamond necklace for his lovely wife - who often accompanied him.



Throughout the 1970s, France increased their aid to the dictator's regime from 50M francs in 1973 to 83M by 1976.

 

But this wasn’t enough. Not fussed about where the money came from Bokassa privatised the most valuable industries within the Central African Republic, including diamond processing. The French were thrilled about this, as almost the full share of the countries diamond mining was owned by a handful of French companies.

 

And speaking of handfuls, Bokassa was known to carry a handful of diamonds in his pristine, navy suit pockets - I mean, you never know when you need to grease the wheels a little!

 

The beautiful wildlife of Africa too was not spared, by Bokassa’s own estimates, 50% of the elephants within the Central African Republic were hunted for tusks.

 

But there were no hospitals constructed this time around. The money didn’t even stay in the country. Instead, the money was to build two beautiful French chateaus around the French countryside. Oh and one restaurant, just for - you know good measure.



With the struggling country growing poorer while he enriched himself there was understandably some civil disturbances.Coup attempts were becoming a bi-annual event. Crime too was rising, and people were going to the source. In 1973 there was an attempted break in at one his palaces - the thieves got away empty-handed but to Bokassa that wasn’t justice.

 

As the perpetrators couldn’t be found, he went to a local jail and personally beat to death three men who had been convicted of unrelated burglary charges.



But something was missing from the life of Jean Bedel Bokassa.




Sure, his government and people lived in fear of him - but surely there was more to life. And so, one day; probably thumbing through old photos and love letters he had written to Napoleon he had a brainwave. He would become Emperor!

 

I mean, Napoleon was emperor, so why couldn't he be one too? What do you need? A pope and a golden rod? Surely these couldn’t be too hard to find!



So, Bokassa did what he always did in this situation. Groveled to the French government for more money. But upon hearing the reason for wanting more money, France finally put their foot down. This was one step too far, even for them.

 

Imagine if De Gaul was still around ‘he wants to be what?’

 

Upset, but not too surprised. Bokassa took the Kim Jon Un strategy and deliberately antagonized France. He reopened negotiations with communist China, and even more bizarrely met with Colonel Gaddafi and converted to Islam.

 

Backing France into a corner, they sighed and opened their checkbook once again to Bokassa or (Saladin Ahmad Bokassa as he now called himself).



In contrary to all of Bokassa’s half-assed attempts to run the country, he put extreme care into the planning of his coronation ceremony. It had to be absolutely perfect, just like Napoleons.

 

Realising quickly that he needed a pope or at least a priest, he dropped Islam - which he was getting tired of anyway due to its ban on alcohol.

 

He reached out to the royal families of Morocco, Japan and Saudi Arabia to get their thoughts on how best to conduct a coronation.

 

In one of the most strange crossovers of my personal interests, he also reached out to the Greek government to understand the coronation of Constantine Paleologos - the last Roman Emperor from 1448. I suppose this fits, as the Byzantines were in as much peril as he was during that time.



In December 1976, he announced over the radio, the  dissolution of  the Central African Republic, and the birth of the Central African Empire *queue scattered applause*



He also announced he was once again Catholic. It seemed stingy old Gaddafi wasn’t bringing the doh quick enough for him.



The Coronation for Emperor Bokassa I -  had to be perfect.

He had studied pictures of Napoleon's coronation, and tried to mimic it in every way he could.

 

He had men handpicked from his army sent to France months in advance for lessons on how to make horses canter and rear on queue. The horses too, were flown in from France - all white, of course.

 

Bokassa had his fleet of 60 brand new mercedes limousines drive through the starving and dusty streets of his country as he sat inside the air-conditioned car, throwing out  money to the crowd in a white gloved hand.



The ceremony was ludicrously expensive. His throne was an imperial eagle with its wings outstretched, 3.5m and 4.5m wide; it weighed two tons and was solid bronze with a gold plating.

 

His gown, slippers and crown were all sourced from the same firms Napoleon used in France. His red velvet trimmed toga was embroidered with 10’s of thousands of pearls, as were his slippers, all together costing around 145k

 

His headpiece was a classically styled golden crown full of diamonds and a large map of the world, where Africa was centred in gold. Once again trimmed with red velvet and sourced from France. It cost $2.5M.

 

The total estimated cost for the jewelry he and his wife - errr sorry, Empress, wore was $5M. 




Bokassa invited every world leader he knew to attend the ceremony - but none did. Not even his mate in Chad wanted to go near this train wreck.

Later, when asked why he no one attended by a media representative, Bokassa replied that ‘they were all jealous that he had an empire and they didn’t’ - I remember telling people the same thing about my Nintendo when I was 8 years old





With his coronation complete, the feasting could begin.

Bokassa had 40,000 bottles of 1971 French Wine, 24,000 of Moet champagne flown in. As well as an equal number of Chivas Regal Whisky - The Emperors favourite.

Nice choice there Bokassa.

The total cost of the one day even came to around 22M, about one third of his empire's budget.

France picked up most of the bill, but Emperor Bokassa made it clear to any large companies that if they were not willing to be generous to their emperor with ‘gifts’ they would have trouble operating in the near future. One gutsy diamond merchant named Albert Jolis, provided Bokassa with a ‘flawless black diamond’ that he had fashioned onto an impressive gaudy ring Bokassa was thrilled, and wore the ring everywhere he went - telling anyone who would listen it cost $50k.

Little did he know he was wearing a shined up bortstone - worth about $250. Jolis reckoned that his emperor probably knew very little about diamonds apart from them being shiny.




Though the ceremony was snubbed by world leaders - the press couldn’t get enough of it.

Emperor Bokassa was understandably the laughing stock of the world for a few weeks.

Back in France, it was all cringes and forced smiles. Their problem child was now on the world stage and people. Were. laughing.

But after the laughter subsided, people were appalled at the ridiculous waste of the ceremony itself.

France was in the spotlight for keeping this lunatic propped up. It was now painfully clear to the world where their aid money was going.

 

Bokassa, or should I say His Imperial Majesty Bokassa I considered the coronation a success. He wanted his empire to stand out from the rest of Africa and boy did he get that wish.

He was so impressed with how all his men looked dressed up in French uniforms, he ordered them to be mandatory. And, bizarrely, ordered that all school children must also wear French style uniforms to school - which they would also need to purchase.

Many school children found themselves turned away from their education if they weren’t wearing the clothing, which - in the African heat - was stiflingly hot.



As food shortages spread, so did protests - they were non-violent. Mostly children and teachers handing around leaflets denouncing the ridiculous coronation ceremony.

But, as you can guess - Emperor Bokassa was furious when he found out.

He personally travelled to the district, where the protests took place.

The school children,and their teachers were rounded up by his thugs and taken to a prison.

There, the elementary school children were beaten to death - His Majesty taking personal involvement in the torture.

 

It seemed the sadistic emperor could sink no lower - but once he had ran out of space to store the bodies he had them frozen in his cellar at his palace, while others were fed to crocodiles.

It's from here, the infamous story of the cannibal emperor originates.

The international press ran with this story and added in the unlikely addition  that during Bokassa’s coronation ceremony, he ran out of food; so he ground up his own people and disguised it as beef and pork. Bokassa was later cleared of these charges - the man had bankrupted his country for a perfect ceremony, there's no way he would’ve spoiled it with this.



After these stories went international, the pressure on France became too much for them to stand by. All the diamonds and uranium in the world weren’t worth endorsing this deranged psychopath for. 

On the 20th of April, 1979. France launched ‘Operation Baracuda’ - a counter co’up to put David Dacko back in power. The co’up was over in a few hours. No blood was spilled, no one was willing to die for their emperor.

 

Meanwhile, Emperor Bokassa or should I say again - Saladin Ahmad Bokassa had turned up in Libya seeking protection of his old friend Gadaffi - who was always up for anything if it involved pissing off the West.

While he was away, he was sentenced to death in absentia by The Dacko government.

With his homeland cutting him off, and Gadaffi probably getting tired of him sleeping on his couch - Bokassa tried his luck back in France, who denied his request for asylum.



It seemed no one had time for dear old Bokassa I. 

Things were looking bleak until The President of The Ivory Coast accepted his plea for asylum stating

“It is not for us to judge the acts of our unfortunate guest, God will take care of that.”

Bokassa stayed for four years. According to some sources, he sold swimwear to help finance himself.

Makes sense to me. Resume - dictator 10 years, experienced in diamonds, budgeting skills - lacking. After 4 years of sizing women for bikinis. By drawing on his service record in the military, Bokassa finally got approved for asylum in France.

 

Just like everywhere else, Bokassa was an embarrassment. The French ministers who had previously supported him wanted him as far away from the public eye as possible But as usual, Bokassa preferred to bask in the public spotlight, and within a few years he had sold all his french chateaus - and was so broke that his water and gas were cut off.

 

Bokssa told anyone who would listen to him (hint: not many) that 3 million of his quote ‘impoverished compatriots’ wished for him to return home and liberate them from the corrupt government.

 

And so 24 October 1986., flat broke with a few suitcases, his wife and 5 children - Emperor Bokassa I snuck out of France, and headed back to Bangui.

French authorities claimed they did not know he was planning to leave.

I guess it's fair to assume they wouldn’t really expect him to head somewhere where had a  death warrant.



As soon as his plane touched down, Bokassa was immediately arrested and put on trial for a long list of crimes including: illegal use of property, assault, murder,cannibalism, and battery embezzlement and treason.

 

The  Palais de Justice in central Bangui is packed with members of the press from around the world. 

I imagina Bokassa probably glared at them thinking ‘oh you can make my trial - but couldn't find the time for my coronation hey?’

Predictably, Bokassa hired two French lawyers.

Much like the final episode of Seinfeld, all the people that Bokassa had ever wronged were trotted out to testify against him.

 

A convincing paper trail was put together by a government accountant which showed Bokassa’s wilful involvement in embezzling funds.

 

One of the children who survived the prison massacre told of how he had screamed at the school children while they cried, and then personally smashed the skulls of 5 of them with his ebony cane. Bokassa’s persona chef testified that the Emperor had commanded he serve him up cooked human flesh on several occasions.

 

With his back to the wall, Bokassa cowardly tried to defer blame to his cabinet ministers and when that didn’t work - tried to appeal to the laymen of the court by gesticulating ‘I'm not a saint. I am a man like everyone else!’




Many times throughout the trial, The Dictator's infamous temper flared, and he stood up from his seat - yelling at lawyers, jurors or witnesses.

The accusation of cannibalism was a complicated one. For a reason, I don't think I’ll ever understand consumption of human flesh was only a misdemeanour in the Central African Republic. 

 

And when David Dacko had been reinstalled as president, he announced an amnesty for all misdemeanour crimes committed under the reign of Bokassa. So technically, this meant Bokassa even if found guilty of cannibalism could not be indicted for it. 

 

On 12th June, 1987 - Bokassa was acquitted on cannibal charges, but found guilty and sentenced to death on all other charges.

The usually flamboyant and vocal emperor wept silently as the charges were read out.



Only a year later, the country's new president; André Kolingba - who gained power from Dacko in yet ANOTHER coup made an example of his new policy of the death sentence by commuting Bokassa’s sentence to 20 years in prison. All to be served in solitary confinement. 

 

Only a few years after that, President Kolingba agreed to release Bokassa as an act of clemency when he left the office.

Bokassa was released back to the village he grew up in. Never one to go quietly, he announced that he had been in secret talks with the Pope in Rome and that he was the thirteenth apostle.

Mercifully he didn't hang around much longer and finally died at the age of 75 from a heart attack. 

It's not clear how many of his 17 wives and 50 children attended his funeral.

Sadly, his legacy was not left in the mud where it belongs.

After his death, the state radio proclaimed that the central african republic had lost a ‘illustrious’ man.

 

And in 2010 - President Francois Bezize, fully exonerated Bokassa for his crimes dignifying him as ,‘a son of the nation recognised by all as a great builder".




Well, that's the story of Jean Bedel Bokassa. Or more formally - His Imperial Majesty Bokassa the First, Apostle of Peace and Servant of Jesus Christ, Emperor and Marshal of Central Africa

 

It's a shame that the legacy of this man is not as tarred with as much filth as it should be. 

 

Just like colonising nations that skip over all the nasty things their empire did, its difficult for a nation to stand up and admit that someone as horrible as Bokassa was in power for so long.

I think this is particularly true for a struggling nation like The Central African Republic; it can be easier to inspire patriotism and trust in the government if there is a legacy to be proud of.

 

Since Bokassa’s death, the road to democracy in the Central African Republic has been very much, two steps forward, one step back. Claims of election fraud, forced boycotts and threats to voters have all made things that much harder. Democracy is a fragile thing, and once it's gone, it's always a messy process trying to get it back.

 

And, for me this is the biggest tragedy of this story. A country so rich in culture and tradition, with such diverse animals and scenery is one I will likely never see in person during my lifetime.