Jean-Bedel Bokassa and the early years of the Central African Republic

CAR President Jean-Bedel Bokassa with Romanian Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu By unknown, image comes from the National Archives [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

CAR President Jean-Bedel Bokassa with Romanian Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu
By unknown, image comes from the National Archives [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

I am currently working through Martin Meredith’s mammoth volume, The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence. While I am only half-finished (the paperback version is nearly 700 pages), my impression is that Meredith does an excellent job laying out the “what” of Africa since independence—what happened and when. Less impressive, however, is his ability to address the tougher questions—the “why” and the “how”—the underlying trends and factors that drove the feeble African states emerging in the 1950s and 1960s to where they are today. Nonetheless, as we think about present day Africa, Meredith’s book can serve as a useful frame of reference for exploring a number of interesting puzzles.

For example, consider one passage about the Central African Republic (CAR), which nominally gained independence from France in 1960 but has since been overwhelmingly dependent on foreign countries for both security and economic development. To paint a portrait of the CAR that emerged after independence—and to compare with where it is today—it is worth quoting Meredith at length:

“In the rush to independence, [Jean-Bedel] Bokassa gained rapid promotion. After serving as a sergeant for seventeen years, he left the French army in 1961 with the rank of captain and was given the task of helping to set up a national army. Three years later, at the age of forty-two, he was appointed chief of staff of the CAR’s 500-man army.

Bokassa seized power on 31 December 1965, after learning that President David Dacko, his cousin, intended to replace him. Initially Bokassa’s regime was not especially brutal…Bokassa’s preoccupation was to enjoy the pomp and power of office and to amass a fortune for himself.

He liked to describe himself as an ‘absolute monarch’ and forbade mention of the words democracy and elections…His every whim became government policy. He himself held twelve ministerial portfolios and interfered in all the others. He controlled all decision-making, every promotion or demotion, every reward or punishment. Ministers were shuffled with monotonous regularity, as often as six times a year, to ensure that they did not become a threat…

Using government funds at will and fortunate he made from diamond and ivory deals, Bokassa acquired a whole string of valuable properties in Europe, including four chateaux in France, a fifty-room mansion, houses in Nice and Toulouse and a villa in Berne…His sexual proclivities were voracious. He installed wives and mistresses in separate residences, leaving his palace several times each day to pay them visits, holding up traffic on the way…

The French, keen to ensure that Central African Republic remained within the French orbit, continued to underwrite Bokassa’s regime with financial and military support…It was during Giscard’s presidency that the French indulged Bokassa’s greatest foie de grandeur…Bokassa declared the Central African Republic an empire and himself emperor of its 2 million subjects and made elaborate arrangements for his own coronation, using as a model the ceremony in which Napoleon had crowned himself emperor of France in 1804. From France he ordered all the trappings of a monarchy: a crown of diamonds; an imperial throne, shaped like a golden eagle; an antique couch; thoroughbred horses; coronation robes; brass helmets and breastplates for the Imperial Guard; tons of food, wine, fireworks and flowers for the festivities and sixty Mercedes-Benz cars for the guests.

The spectacle of Bokassa’s lavish coronation, costing $22 million, in a country with few government services, huge infant mortality, widespread illiteracy, only 260 miles of paved roads and in serious economic difficulty, aroused universal criticism. But the French, who picked up most of the bill, curtly dismissed all such criticism…

The ultimate irony was that less than two years after the coronation, as a result of Bokassa’s violent conduct, the French themselves felt obliged to step in and remove him from power. Bokassa’s propensity for violence became increasingly evident during the 1970s. In 1972, in a campaign against theft…he personally led a bevy of ministers to Ngaragba prison where he ordered guards to beat convicted thieves with wooden staves. As the convicts screamed in agony, Bokassa turned to a foreign newspaper to observe: ‘It’s tough, but that’s life.’…Bokassa was also said to hold kangaroo courts in the gardens of the Villa Kolongo, sentencing men to be killed by lions or crocodiles he kept there.

No longer able to stand the embarrassment of propping up Bokassa’s regime, the French, after considerable prevarication, decided to remove him. On 20 September (1979) while Bokassa was on a visit to Libya, French troops stationed in Gabon and Chad flew into Bangui, took control and installed David Dacko as president.” (pp. 224-230)

Bokassa’s proclivity for opulence, absolutism, and violent repression was hardly rare in Central Africa. Meredith also offers fine descriptions of the whims of several other infamous autocrats, including Uganda’s Idi Amin, Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko, Zanzibar’s Abeid Karume, and Equatorial Guinea’s Francisco Macias Nguema. Released in his home country after serving seven years in prison, Bokassa had perhaps the best luck of the crop—he was the only strongman not to die in prison, exile, or at the barrel of a gun. Yet the Central African Republic that emerged after his removal was in many ways doomed to stagnate or collapse. Already set back by its unfortunate geography and poor infrastructure, the Central African Republic suffered from Bokassa’s borderline maniacal quest to preserve his personal power and wealth, which left the country bankrupt and with near-nonexistent institutions. Michel Djotodia’s coup d’état last year that set in motion the present conflict facing the CAR today was the country’s fourth since Bokassa’s rule. But no military or civilian government has been able to substantially reverse the country’s fortunes.

The irony is that the gradual disintegration of state control in the CAR since 1979 lends some degree of credibility to the ubiquitous claim proffered by the autocrats of Bokassa’s time: “Because of the internal tensions and rivalries afflicting most African states, only strong government could provide the stability they needed to develop and prosper.” (p. 175) In other words, better a peaceful autocracy than a nation riven by anarchy and violence. As Mobutu would remark years later: “après moi, le deluge” (“after me, the flood”). Thus the dilemma that Meredith helps to portray.

From Syria to Egypt to Rwanda and elsewhere, this same dichotomy frustrates the policies of Western governments today. In an environment where a free, multiparty democracy is not a viable option, how does one address growing despotism? Is it better to excuse a burgeoning autocracy in the name of stability (see present-day Egypt or Uganda), or pull the plug on a brutal dictator where leader and government are one and the same, with wildly unpredictable consequences (see 2003 Iraq, 2011 Libya)? There will be many lessons learned when the story of the CAR’s present violence is written, and most of them will have little to do with these questions. Yet as we survey the African continent today—both its advances and setbacks—it is useful to shed light on the decades immediately following independence, when expectations soared across the continent—only to be dashed by the bouts of autocracy and anarchy that followed.

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