I was writing a book about fallen tyrants. Since my early days as a reporter for Italian newspapers, they have always interested me. What goes through the mind of someone who has had everything and lost it? How does a man grow old with his infamy? What does he tell his grandchildren about himself? What does he tell himself? But the first question, of course, is: how do I persuade them to see me? Ingratiation, unfortunately, is usually the key, but sometimes the courteous letter works and more often it doesn’t. My most remarkable reply came from the former Panamanian dictator General Noriega.
General Manuel Antonio Noriega
August 2, 2000
Distinguido Senor Orizio
Thank you for sending me your book about ‘Lost White Tribes’. With the help of my dictionaries I am reading this interesting book and today I started the chapter about German slaves in Jamaica.
With reference to your request for an interview in connection with a projected book about certain ‘forgotten individuals’, once-powerful people who have been blamed for the problems encountered by their respective countries, etc., my response is that I do not consider myself to be a ‘forgotten individual’, because God, the great Creator of the universe, He who writes straight albeit with occasionally crooked lines, has not yet written the last word on MANUEL A. NORIEGA!
Thank you also for your elegant and generous letter/s of June and also for your telephone call to Don Arturo Blanco.
Manuel Antonio Noriega
But I succeeded, on a different occasion, with Jean-Bédel Bokassa. It was Bokassa, the former self-proclaimed emperor of the Central African Republic, who had set off my interest in the subject of fallen tyrants many years before when I read a report about him in the British Guardian. I still have the cutting in my wallet: former emperor goes home and proclaims his sainthood. On June 8, 1995 I sat in a large house on the outskirts of Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. After some effort I had managed to secure an interview. The house we were in, the Villa Nasser—named for the Egyptian leader—had once been the residence of the Empress Catherine, Bokassa’s estranged wife. Now its courtyards were filled with weeds, its walls crumbling, but the small old man in front of me seemed oblivious to the ruin. Bokassa sat on a large white sofa. Behind him a white curtain was pulled across the window, shielding him from the blazing equatorial sun.
Leaning against a white wall at the far end of the room were the last relics of his empire: a gilded throne upholstered in red velvet, and a suit of armour. ‘See that?’ Bokassa asked me, pointing at the armour with his ivory-tipped cane, the same cane that he had used to beat Michael Goldsmith in 1977, after the English reporter had somehow upset him. With his so-called ‘canne de justice’ he had beaten Goldsmith until he bled, and then forced him to sign a document in which Goldsmith confessed, quite falsely, to being a South African spy.
‘See that?’ Bokassa asked again. I took my eyes from the cane to the armour. ‘It’s medieval. It comes from Spain. General Franco’s gift for my coronation. That day all the powerful people had to come to Bangui. For the first time they bowed to an African emperor. ‘Oh yes,’ he added with a rapt expression on his face, ‘right here in Bangui. And each one had to bring me a magnificent present.’ He stopped and looked at me, his eyes shining like a boy’s on his birthday. I concentrated on taking notes. He seemed disappointed by my failure to share his delight, but he carried on anyway. ‘That day I ceased to be the one who always had to give presents— diamonds, ivory, women… The international leaders respected me because I was an emperor.’ He gestured at the suit of armour again, as if the ancient relic contained—besides a handful of African insects baked to a frazzle by the heat—proof of his imperial dignity.
In 1965, Jean-Bédel Bokassa led a military coup against David Dacko, the president of the Central African Republic. He seized control of the government; Dacko was thrown into prison. Having annulled the constitution, Bokassa made himself President, then President for Life in 1972, then Marshal of the Republic in 1974. In 1977 he decided to crown himself Emperor. His coronation was held on December 4, 1977, in the Palais des Sports Jean-Bédel Bokassa, next to Jean-Bédel Bokassa University, on Bokassa Avenue. (The Vatican had refused permission to use the cathedral.) But it had not gone quite as the former emperor remembered it. The absentees had been more notable than the attendees. Despite Bokassa’s claim, the coronation had not been the first where the ‘civilized world’ had bowed to an African emperor. At Haile Selassie’s coronation in 1930 the celebrations in Addis Ababa had lasted for three days. All the great powers had sent delegations or members of their royal families, despite the difficult journey. George V’s son, the Duke of Gloucester, travelled from London. Prince Eugenio di Savoia came from Rome. Moscow and Washington supplied senior diplomats.
The coronation of Bokassa the First was, by contrast, snubbed even by his fellow autocrats. General Franco stayed away. The Spanish suit of armour travelled alone, by ship. Emperor Hirohito of Japan and Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran, the first to be invited, made their excuses. Of the 500 foreign dignitaries who did make the journey, the most prominent were a relative of the Prince of Liechtenstein, Count Emmanuel, and the Prime Minister of Mauritius, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam. Even Bokassa’s old friends—Idi Amin of Uganda, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire and Omar Bongo of Gabon—declined the invitation.
Many of the ‘magnificent presents’ later turned out to be worthless; only France’s gifts were truly substantial. I reminded Bokassa of the French government’s generosity to the country they had regarded in colonial days as their ‘poor relation’. They had supplied twenty-two million dollars for the coronation. The money had gone towards ceremonial dress for thousands of guests, a throne in the form of a Napoleonic eagle, a gilded imperial carriage with eight white Belgian-trained horses and a crown by the Parisian jeweller, Arthus Bertrand, studded with eighty-carat diamonds. A troop of mounted soldiers in brocade uniforms made especially for the occasion escorted the imperial carriage.
Bokassa also bought 24,000 bottles of Moët & Chandon and 4,000 bottles of Château Mouton-Rothschild and Château Lafite Rothschild. He had sixty Mercedes cars shipped from Germany to Cameroon and then flown 740 miles over the forest of Central Africa to Bangui. He commissioned a French composer to write music for the ceremony. He paid a German artist, Hans Linus, to paint two official portraits of himself.
Bokassa’s eyes lit up as he listened to me run through this catalogue of European luxuries that he had had flown into the heart of Africa, luxuries never before seen in Bangui, a town still permeated with the smoky smell of an African village, on the banks of a muddy river filled with hippos.
‘All true,’ he said, ‘but is there anything wrong with that?’ It was the least the French could do, he said, to repay him for his services as a soldier who had once fought for France and for all the personal favours he had done for French politicians. ‘I am the son of a king. My coronation was organized to give dignity to my country in the eyes of the world. The Central African government did not incur the debt of a single franc for the coronation. I did what any other African king would have done. And if Mobutu and Idi Amin chose not to come, it was because they were jealous of my becoming emperor. Jealous of my idea.’
His eyelids drooped and for a moment I thought he had fallen asleep. A man in a tailcoat tiptoed across the big room towards us, treading warily on the rotten ceramic tiles and flinching whenever one wobbled and grated against its neighbour.
Bokassa opened his eyes at the sound. ‘My cabinet secretary,’ he explained, jabbing his cane in the man’s direction with less enthusiasm than he had jabbed it at the suit of armour. The courtier bowed his head.
Bokassa launched into a tirade against the French. Having spent a few hours in his company I knew this to be a favourite theme. He listed his grievances in a monotonous voice, like a lawyer reading a will whose contents are already known to the family of the deceased.
There was the volte-face of the once-loved adoptive country. He had fought for France in three continents, and what had France done for him in return? Robbed him of his castles, crown and reputation. His ‘dear cousin’ Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the former French president, a keen hunter of elephants and women, had betrayed him by backing the coup that in 1979 had ended his reign. Then there was the infidelity of the Empress Catherine, who Bokassa claimed had slept with d’Estaing and—worse—shared some of the imperial treasure with him.
‘I fought for France in Indochina—oh yes, Indochina. I fought against the Nazis with the forces of the Free French. I sacrificed my youth to France, even though the French killed my father before my very eyes, right in front of M’Baiki’s police headquarters. My father was a chief who opposed the colonial occupation. My mother killed herself shortly afterwards, in desperation. I was six years old. And yet I fought for France for twenty-two years.’ He listed his honours: one Croix de Guerre, two Croix de la Résistance, the Légion d’Honneur, an officer’s pension. But now he hated the French. ‘If I still had those decorations I’d throw them in a dustbin.’
The cabinet secretary began to laugh in an official, practised kind of way. While Bokassa had been berating France, the cabinet secretary had positioned a china tray laden with medicines—small boxes and bottles, all labelled in French—in front of the former emperor, who pretended not to notice. But the cabinet secretary stood resolutely in front of us. Bokassa looked at the tray with disgust. ‘I’m very ill, it’s difficult for me to move now. I can stand up for two minutes, two seconds, that’s all. The French have tried to poison me on several occasions. They did poison me. They have poisoned me.’
The cabinet secretary nodded, and nudged the tray nearer to Bokassa. ‘But I survived. Not thanks to the medicines, but thanks to this.’ He suddenly picked up a heavy silver cross from the coffee table in front of him and waved it at me. It was about half a metre tall, a solid cross with an emaciated Christ in the centre. ‘Paul VI gave this to me when he secretly nominated me thirteenth apostle of Holy Mother Church.’
I looked up from my notebook. Perhaps I hadn’t understood properly. Now for the first time I began to appreciate the former emperor’s outfit. He was dressed in a white priestly robe that reached down to his flip-flops, with a crucifix hanging on a chain around his neck, not at all the Bokassa I remembered from photographs posing in his glorious ‘Marshal of the Republic’ uniform. (In one of these pictures, he was standing in his presidential office holding two enormous rough diamonds. He held them delicately between his thumb and forefinger as if they had just appeared from a drawer in the imperial desk.)
At first Bokassa didn’t respond to my glance. Another distraction had arrived. A small girl wearing a blue school uniform had run into the room and curled up beside him on the sofa. I assumed she was one of his many daughters—he addressed her as ‘Petite’; he had told me earlier that he found it difficult to remember all of their names.
Then, registering my scepticism on the apostolic question, he asked rather angrily if I didn’t believe him. The large cross, he said, had been given to him by the Pope during his visit to the Vatican on July 30,1970. ‘Shortly beforehand, he baptized me with a special ceremony in his private chapel. He asked if I was prepared to receive a great honour. I said I was and he celebrated the rite. My role in the Catholic Church has been a special, secret one ever since. When I was in power I acted as a mediator for the Vatican in various conflicts, such as that between Libya and Egypt. After my overthrow, the Vatican offered me political asylum. I refused. When I was in prison here in Central Africa, awaiting execution, and then when I was expecting to serve a life sentence, an Italian missionary, Brother Angelino, visited me. We became friends. He gave me a Bible. For seven years it was the only book I read and it made me realize that my being sent to prison was an act of divine grace. Now that the life sentence has been quashed and I’m free, I’m also poor. I don’t possess anything, not a square metre of land nor a single diamond. I don’t want anything any more. My only possession is the title of apostle, like Peter and Paul.’
Another lapse into silence. Outside the curtained room the afternoon sun seemed to grow stronger. The cabinet secretary repeated the date of the Vatican visit, presumably to give the revelation greater credibility: July 30, 1970. The former emperor struggled to his feet, and his daughter leaped up to help him. In the silence of the crumbling villa, he repeated, ‘The Pope himself gave me this crucifix. Together with my thirteen Bibles, it is the only thing I have left. Everything else—land, decorations, power, women— belongs to the past. This house, Villa Nasser, I have given to my ex-wife, Madame Catherine, even though she doesn’t deserve it after her adultery with Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. The man stole my diamonds and my wife. A pirate. He treated me like that because I am an African. But no matter. Today, thanks to divine intervention, I am a man of peace and faith. Inside, I am still His Majesty Bokassa the First, Apostle of Peace and Servant of Jesus Christ, Emperor and Marshal of Central Africa.’
The next day I went with him to court. He wore his white robe and his crucifix, and his hands clasped the larger cross he’d waved at me during our interview. Tucked under his arm was a framed print of Christ. We walked in a small procession—myself, the former emperor and his Christian symbols, several of his children, and, still in tails, the cabinet secretary. A few youths in jeans and sunglasses followed us, sniggering. Passers-by greeted him respectfully. Not far away were the muddy banks of the Obangui river where we could see women washing clothes and fishermen in dugout canoes.
Bokassa was in court to apply for the return of his property, nearly all of which had been confiscated after the bloodless coup of 1979, when d’Estaing’s government sent a team of paratroopers to restore David Dacko to power in a mission called ‘Operation Barracuda’. Bokassa, who had been visiting Libya at the time, was forced into exile. Now the current government of the Central African Republic were asserting their ownership of his castles in France. The Bokassa clan, led by ‘Petite’, seated themselves on the public benches. The session was adjourned after only a few minutes.
We trooped back to the Villa Nasser, where Bokassa asked me if I would like to take a photograph of him in uniform. He disappeared into one of his rooms, and then re-emerged into the courtyard in full military rig with the Napoleonic cross of a Marshal on his left breast and seven rows of insignia below it. He once again carried his canne de justice, the weapon that had descended upon his ministers, his opponents, and his own children.
Gazing into space, Bokassa recited his autobiography.
‘My name is Jean Bédel-Bokassa. I was baptized in 1950 at Fréjus, where my old French regiment was based. I received my baptism as thirteenth apostle on July 30, 1970 from Pope Paul VI. I was president from 1966 to 1976. I was, indeed still am, emperor of Central Africa, being crowned on December 4,1977. On September 20, 1979 the French removed me from power with a coup d’état. On November 20, 1980 I was condemned to death in absentia. In the same year I was extradited to a prison in the Ivory Coast, then extradited to France, where I remained under supervision for two years before being finally repatriated to Central Africa on November 23, 1986. My trial lasted from November 23, 1986 until June 2, 1987, when I was again sentenced to death. The sentence was subsequently commuted, first to life imprisonment and twenty years’ forced labour, then to ten years’ forced labour. I was finally freed on September 1, 1993. That is the story of my life, that’s who I am. I am Jean-Bédel Bokassa. And I no longer have any political ambitions. The present Central African leader is President Patasse.’
The recitation over, Bokassa hurried indoors and changed back into his priestly robe. ‘They gave me this robe in prison. It comes from Jerusalem,’ he whispered softly, and then repeated, as if in a reverie, ‘From Jerusalem. From Jerusalem.’
The real story of his life was rather different.
After the success of Operation Barracuda, and following the confiscation of his properties in Switzerland and Central Africa, Bokassa applied to his friend Colonel Gadaffi for asylum, but Gadaffi had his hands full with Idi Amin who had just escaped from Uganda and was now a temporary guest in Tripoli. So the French government turned to Felix Houphouet-Boigny, the President of the Ivory Coast, and persuaded him to accommodate the deposed emperor. Bokassa stayed for several months at the elegant Villa Cocody in Abidjan (he was to remain in the Ivory Coast for four years altogether). The Empress Catherine, meanwhile—having anticipated the coup—was already safely installed in Geneva (some said under the personal protection of D’Estaing). She spent much of her time reading tarot cards.
The deposed emperor was in shock. He spent his days playing, at maximum volume, a patriotic record called Brass Marches and Red Pompon performed by the band of the French Navy. From Bangui came news of statues pulled down, relatives arrested, houses destroyed, former mistresses fled abroad or absorbed into the harems of the new leaders. Then one day a flamboyant French businessman, Bernard Tapie, telephoned him. A few days later Tapie arrived in Abidjan without an appointment. Having gained entry to the villa by bribing the guards, he informed Bokassa that France was about to confiscate all of his French properties. These included four or five chateaux, a villa in Nice and a hotel in the Loire Valley. These properties were the last remnants of Bokassa’s fortune. Apart from them he had nothing. Claiming to have the discreet consent of the French government and Houphouet-Boigny, Tapie offered to buy the lot for 12.5 million francs. This sum amounted to less than half their actual value, but by seven o’clock that evening Bokassa had signed the contract.
Interviewed by the French press a few days later, Tapie admitted that the story of the imminent confiscation was a bluff and declared that he had ‘swindled the brutal Bokassa for the good of France’. The emperor sued and, two years later, won the case: the contract of sale was declared invalid. His French properties were returned to him, though they were later to be confiscated again by the government of the Central African Republic (hence our trip to court during my visit).
This story was not the only one Bokassa omitted from his autobiography. He also left out a discovery that had been made at one of his former residences, the Villa Kolongo. The house stood on the banks of the river in a district called Kilometre 12 outside Bangui. It had been occupied by his Romanian concubine. It was one of Bokassa’s favourite residences, with pools, fountains, tropical gardens, an enormous circular rotating bed, ceilings of rare woods and chandeliers of French crystal. When the French paratroopers searched the house they found diamonds in the safe and a museum which Bokassa had devoted to himself, spread across several rooms. And in the gigantic freezer adjacent to the kitchens they claimed to have discovered human cadavers, including those of the leaders of the student organizations that had opposed Bokassa’s reign. The paratroops cited this find as ‘evidence that [Bokassa] is a cannibal and deserved to be overthrown’.
Bokassa also left out his business dealings, though that would have been an exhausting recitation. He used to describe himself as ‘first peasant and first businessman of Central Africa’. In his presidential residences, in Villa Kolongo and Villa Berengo, Bokassa installed workshops producing textiles and copra. He had a butcher’s shop and a restaurant, both open to the public. He owned two airlines, two condominiums (Pacifique 1 and Pacifique 2) and a boutique which sold clothes made in a factory belonging to the Empress Catherine. He granted exclusive rights to trade in ivory to a Spanish company, La Couronne, in exchange for a third of the profits. La Couronne slaughtered at least 5,000 elephants every year. Then there was the Central African Republic’s diamond trade, at one point run by Bokassa’s Lebanese friend, Adrien Geddai, and his Arab associates, Adnan Khashoggi and René Tamraz.
He had also forgotten to mention the student massacre.
Impressed by the orderly cadres of Chinese students he had seen during a visit to Beijing, and angry at his nation’s disappointing results in the 1977 French baccalaureate examinations, Bokassa decided to bring a degree of military discipline to the classrooms of the Empire. On February 2, 1978, the Education Ministry announced that from October 1 all schoolchildren would be required to wear uniforms designed by the emperor himself. The girls were to wear dark blue dresses with light blue collars and belts, the boys dark blue trousers and light blue jackets. The uniforms were to be manufactured by the ‘Compagnie Industrielle Oubanguienne des Textiles’ or CIOT, a company owned by Bokassa, and they could be bought only in certain shops—shops also owned by Bokassa.
The order was largely ignored. Four months later, the Lycée Bokassa and the Lycée Boganda began to turn away children not wearing uniform. On January 15, 1979, 3,000 students took to the streets shouting, ‘Bokassa, pay our student grants!’ and ‘After the Shah, Bokassa!’ Reza Pahlavi had just been driven out of Teheran by the ayatollahs. In Kampala Idi Amin was about to go. The students smashed the windows of Pacifique 2 and took over Bangui.
At six in the evening the imperial guard intervened, led by Bokassa in army fatigues. Over the next twenty-four hours 150 students were killed by machine-gun fire. There were protests from Amnesty International and other bodies. Bokassa broadcast a speech rescinding the school uniform law. A few weeks later Giscard d’Estaing offered the Empire of Central Africa a loan of one billion French African francs—from ‘cousin’ to ‘cousin’.
The horror of Bokassa’s reign was accompanied by the absurd— two qualities which so often go together. In 1970, he solemnly announced to the nation that he had awarded himself the title of ‘Grand Master of the International Brotherhood of Knights Collectors of Postage Stamps’. On November 12, 1970, the day of General de Gaulle’s funeral, he appeared at the Elysée dressed in the uniform of the French parachute regiment. He proceeded to weep noisily in front of de Gaulle’s perplexed widow, crying ‘ Mon père, mon Papa. I lost my natural father when I was a child. Now I have lost my adoptive father as well. I am an orphan again.’ (De Gaulle had always ridiculed him as ‘Papa Bock’— bock being a beer glass.)
Now he stood in front of me and said: ‘God has absolved me. The people of Central Africa have absolved me, too. Now I don’t owe anything to anybody. Neither to God nor to the people. We’re quits. My people saved me. If the accusations spread by the French about me had been true, I would not be alive today. In Africa one pays with one’s life for evil deeds like cannibalism. I obeyed my people. I disobeyed France. They wanted it all their own way, they wanted to sell us their products at hugely inflated prices and buy our raw materials for a pittance. For years the French vetoed the construction of a cement plant in Central Africa in order to export their own cement. The English were different: they colonized in a more honest way. The only Africans in power today are the puppets of France. But you can’t build a nation like that. I built up this nation in thirteen years. And that did not please France. And for that they stripped me of power.’
I went back to Villa Nasser the next day, this time with Raphael Kopessoua, a journalist with Central African Radio and the local stringer for the Associated Press. It was thanks to him that Bokassa had agreed to talk to me. ‘Come to Bangui,’ he had said eventually when I called him from London, ‘and I will do what I can to help you.’
Raphael was a quiet and unexpressive man, who only grew animated when describing the many scandals and corruptions he felt characterized the workings of the current Central African administration. Despite the humid heat he invariably wore a jacket and tie and he always carried a leather briefcase. After my first couple of visits to the old emperor, I always took Raphael with me. In the morning I would go and pick him up from the radio station, which had neither windows nor chairs and where the only equipment, so far as I could see, consisted of old-fashioned manual typewriters. Many of his colleagues were related to politicians, he said, and rarely turned up for work. He himself was not so well connected. He was a fervent campaigner for honest government and good leadership— so fervent that he has since spent time in prison for agitating against perceived abuses of power.
Yet Raphael seemed oddly well disposed towards Bokassa. He appeared to regard even his most outlandish statements as tolerable eccentricities. I watched in amazement as he nodded at the former emperor’s boast: ‘Of all the African leaders I was the greatest. Why? Because I was the emperor. One step below me was the King of Morocco. A king and a great head of state. Then came all the others: simple presidents. I was the emperor…’
In 1978, at the annual summit of Francophone African nations, Bokassa had asked the French government to ensure that he was addressed as ‘Your Imperial Majesty’ and put first in order of precedence. The French diplomats had refused the request. Only the president of Gabon, Omar Bongo, was in favour, because he too had imperial ambitions.
I tried to press him on the subject of Giscard’s diamonds. Why had he given them to him? The emperor looked at me as if I was mad. ‘He asked for them. Besides, I was his friend, almost like a relative. He came to Central Africa twice a year. I supplied him with virgin women and virgin territory where he shot dozens of elephants without paying a single franc. Sometimes he came with his mistresses, some famous, some not. And I gave him diamonds. He wanted lots. To give to his mistresses. There you have your answer.’
I returned to the apostle question. He came out with a new revelation. ‘At twelve years old, yes, at twelve years old, at twelve… I had three visions of Christ. When I went to Rome I informed the Pope. And he, forty years after the visions, baptized me as an apostle.’
Raphael remained inscrutable. I asked Bokassa about the medals and the jewels, two subjects close to his heart. The emperor replied simply, ‘All stolen by the French. Now all I have is this cross.’ Then he began to list the names of the French officers who had taken part in Operation Barracuda, accusing them of having appropriated his imperial kepi, his pearls, his clothes. When he got to the end of the list, he said, ‘I am prepared to go and live in poverty with my children on the street. This house is Catherine’s. Beautiful woman, but with a cold heart.’
He sighed like a boy in love. ‘I’ve had the most beautiful women in the world. So I forgive Catherine, because her beauty was a ray of sunshine in my life. If she comes back I will hand over Villa Nasser and go and live in the market at Kilometre 5.’
The following day Raphael and I hired a car. He was going to show me the former imperial residences. A friend of Raphael’s came with us, to act as a driver.
The red earth road out of Bangui took us past the Palais des Sports, where the emperor’s coronation had taken place. This was where the presidential guard had held its march pasts. And where, in 1986, Bokassa was tried for the second time by the new government of the Central African Republic. (He was originally tried in absentia in 1980. That trial concluded in the death sentence—later commuted.) The charges against him included cannibalism, misappropriation of public funds and concealment of children’s bodies.
I asked Raphael if we could pull over. Tossed to one side of the stadium, under an arch of crumbling concrete, was Bokassa’s famous throne. It was rusty but instantly recognizable, three and a half metres high, shaped like a Napoleonic eagle with two huge golden wings. Papa Bock had had it constructed in France and placed in the middle of the stadium for the coronation ceremony, surrounded by ermine pelts and swathes of red velvet. The chair of the throne was carved out of the belly of the eagle. At the coronation, Bokassa sat in his eagle, picked up the crown and put it on his own head, in a conscious imitation of Napoleon’s famous gesture at his coronation.
Leaving Bangui we passed Bokassa Stadium. The oval of cracked concrete was deserted. No one in Bangui appeared to play football any more.
Just beyond a roadblock two kilometres outside the capital, we ran over a large porcupine. Raphael got out and dumped it into the boot of the car. ‘Delicious roasted,’ he said.
The eighty-kilometre road between Bangui and Berengo was built by Bokassa in the 1970s. It was the country’s first and only motorway, now reduced to a potholed single lane. In the course of a two-hour drive we saw just two cars and three lorries.
Our destination was the Villa Berengo. During Bokassa’s imperial reign Berengo had been a self-sufficient compound. It had had its own farms, cattle, staff quarters, offices and private houses. There were flats for foreign visitors, carefully furnished with reproduction antique furniture and gilt mirrors. This African Versailles was the home of the Imperial Council, a second government with protocols copied from the court of the Shah of Iran. The Imperial Council’s power and influence was far greater than that of the official government of Prime Minister Patasse.
Before me now lay a wreck surrounded by empty fields. We went inside the main building. Kalashnikov bullets littered the floors and vegetation had invaded the bare rooms. The initials JBK were still visible on the walls, also laurel wreaths in the style of Caesar Augustus and the motto of the empire: dignite, unite, travail. I wondered in which of the rooms the heir to the throne, Prince Saint-Jean de Bokassa de Berengo de Boubangui de Centrafrique, had played.
Raphael suggested we visit one of the bungalows near the entrance to the estate, where the custodian of the grounds lived. The custodian asked where I was from, and when he discovered I was Italian, he invited us to dinner, which consisted of one of the chickens that roamed around the ex-imperial courtyards. His wife served us silently, not sitting down to the table herself. Then, at the end of the meal, her duty done, she spoke at last, in perfect Italian. She had just returned from Rome, where she had worked as a housemaid for many years. A city, she remarked—with no hint of irony—that reminded her of Berengo because it had once been the seat of another imperial court and also had some interesting archaeological ruins.
On the drive back from Berengo a small antelope ran out from the bushes next to the motorway. Instead of swerving to avoid it, Raphael’s friend deliberately ran it over. Raphael got out and put it in the boot of the car with the porcupine. ‘Delicious roasted,’ he remarked.
Our next stop was at Villa Kolongo, at Kilometre 12. A group of baby-faced soldiers took us to see the villa where the Romanian concubine Gabriela Drimba and the imperial babysitter Martine N’Douta had been caught in bed with soldiers of the garrison. N’Douta was killed immediately. Drimba, Bokassa’s favourite among his women, defended herself by accusing Bokassa of ignoring her in favour of his Vietnamese and Gabonese concubines. Bokassa threatened to throw the men to the crocodiles, then relented and had them killed in prison instead.
Kilongo with its courtyards and fountains was like a Mexican hacienda. The ceiling of the banqueting hall had been dismantled. There was no longer any sign of the long table at which, according to statements made by David Dacko, twice president and a cousin of Bokassa, fillet of opposition leader was once served. Delicious roasted, perhaps.
The soldiers marched us round the perimeter of the estate to where Bokassa and Drimba, seated on a kind of altar, had improvised summary trials of their enemies, real or presumed. The emperor and the dancer decided the method of execution, deliberating between the firing squad, the prison, or the crocodiles.
Apart from cadavers in the kitchens, the French soldiers claimed to have found human bones at the bottom of Villa Kilongo’s swimming pools.
The swimming pools were still visible, although they had long since been drained and their blue tiles were now buried beneath layers of soil. The youngest of the soldiers scrambled down into the smallest of the pools. He scrabbled about beneath the weeds and pulled out a smooth white bone, declaring, ‘Human. Eaten by Bokassa. One hundred francs.’ Raphael seized the bone and studied it for a couple of seconds before pronouncing, ‘Goat.’ Faced with such certainty, the soldier conceded. ‘OK. Goat. But eaten by Bokassa.’
On July 29, 1972 the following order, Decree No. 29.058, was issued by the Republic of Central Africa:
Any person discovered in the act of theft shall be subject to the following punishments:
The first time such an offence is committed one ear shall be amputated.
The second time such an offence is committed the other ear shall be amputated.
The third time such an offence is committed one hand shall be amputated.
Amputations will be performed by suitably qualified surgeons within twenty-four hours of sentence being passed.
The decree was put into practice on several occasions. The amputations were carried out in the middle of the market square at Kilometre 5. Bokassa—who was at the time President for Life, Minister of Defence, Minister of Justice, Minister of Home Affairs, Minister of Agriculture, Minister of Health and Minister of Aviation—presided over the operations. The Secretary General of the United Nations, Kurt Waldheim, made a strong protest. Bokassa responded by describing him as ‘a ruffian’, ‘a colonialist,’ and also, strangely, as ‘an imperialist’.
New Year’s Eve 1985 was the twentieth anniversary of the coup that brought Bokassa to power. He spent it in one of the properties he’d won back from Tapie, the Chateau Haudricourt, near Paris. The vast rooms with their portraits of the Empress Catherine, busts of Napoleon and photographs of the battle of Dien Bien Phu (with the legend: ‘They gave their lives for Liberty’) were cold. There was no money for heating. ‘I haven’t got the money to feed the fifteen children who live here with me,’ he told journalists. ‘Every day more bills arrive and I don’t know how to pay them.’
Bokassa was a penniless prisoner. He couldn’t sell his chateaux because Dacko’s government had now laid legal claim to them. He had been forbidden to leave Haudricourt by the French secret services. A book he had written, Ma Verité, was pulped on the orders of Giscard d’Estaing before it reached the shops.
Six months later, however, the situation changed. The tribunal in Paris gave him back the ‘Corvette’, a plane worth six million francs that had been seized by the Central African Republic after Operation Barracuda. The gendarmes guarding the entrance to the chateau were recalled. Papa Bock found himself some new French friends, a lawyer and two former army officers with links to the extreme right. They helped him to sell the plane. The proceeds were invested in a new plan: escape.
On October 21, 1986 Bokassa told his new wife Augustine (whom he had met during his stay in the Ivory Coast) that they would be returning to Bangui next day on a scheduled Air Afrique flight, using forged papers. During their escape someone informed the captain of the plane about his famous passenger. But the captain assumed that if Bokassa was indeed on board he could only be there with the permission of the French government. He saw no reason to divert the flight.
At first, when Bokassa arrived in Bangui airport, no one recognized him. Then someone in the baggage hall shouted, ‘It’s Bokassa!’ The crowd began to buzz. ‘The boss is back… Get to the presidential palace! Get to the presidential palace!’ The airport police fled in terror. The crowd applauded. Bokassa began to make a speech.
Twenty minutes later, Colonel Jean-Claude Mantion, on secondment from Paris to command the new presidential guard, arrived in the baggage hall at a run, followed by dozens of soldiers. He arrested Bokassa, suspecting that the former emperor’s return to Bangui signalled his intention to seize power once again.
‘I’m here just to clear my name,’ Bokassa protested. Eight months later his first trial took place. He was sentenced to be executed. No one could explain why he had left Haudricourt.
‘It was the French secret service. They kidnapped me, my then-concubine and my children and put us on the first plane to Bangui,’ Bokassa told me. ‘I still have the names of all the officers in charge of the operation.’ He appeared to have forgotten about the letter he wrote to President François Mitterrand on the eve of his departure, which began: ‘I return a free man to a free nation. And if I am invited to be of service to it, I shall accept immediately, because my dearest wish is to serve the people. Indeed, to serve all men: a philosophical concept natural to those of us imbued with French culture.’
The crippled children encamped in front of Bangui’s only hotel now recognized me. Morning and evening they greeted me with cries of ‘Bonjour!’
The hotel, which belonged to the French chain Novotel, stood on the banks of the river. Every evening the bar was full of French soldiers in army fatigues. They talked about Rwanda, but only among themselves. Occasionally a girl dressed in yellow came to visit them. She walked barefoot up to the hotel door, with her very high-heeled shoes—also yellow—tucked under her arm. The leader of the crippled children watched the little ceremony. He addressed her as ‘sister’ and earned a tip from the soldiers.
At his home Bokassa often referred to ‘the fruit of my blood’. At first I assumed he meant the child he called Petite, of whom he seemed especially fond. Eventually I realized that he was referring to his French army pension, earned partly through spending ‘six months in a military hospital in Indochina’. The pension allowed him to survive. It also allowed over a hundred of his legitimate and illegitimate children, spread over Africa and France, to survive.
One day, tired of talking about his military experiences, Bokassa returned to the subject of the Bible. He recited the Lord’s Prayer. He compared Christ to Nelson Mandela, saying, ‘He suffered a lot in prison, like me. Mandela is a gift of God to the African people, to compensate them for centuries of suffering.’ Then he told me that he had seen the Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi on the television just after he was elected. ‘I liked him immediately.’
There was The Romanian, The Tunisian, The Gabonese, The French, The Vietnamese, The Belgian, The Libyan, The Cameroonian, The German, The Swede, The Zairean and The Chinese (a ‘present’ from Chiang Kai-shek). And then there was Catherine, the Empress.
Bokassa’s mistresses were the only visible outcome of his frequent official visits abroad. He claimed that they were mostly ‘given’ to him by foreign heads of state as tokens of friendship. Sometimes he would catch sight of a woman while he was on an official engagement, and ask to be introduced to them. If he liked them he took them back to Bangui. He installed each woman in a separate villa.
He met ‘The Gabonese’, Joelle, at the airport in Libreville at the end of an official tour in 1979. She was among the throng of notables who had come to see him off. She was very beautiful. According to the magazine Jeune Afrique, Bokassa whispered to her not to move. ‘I’ll be right back.’ Then he embraced President Omar Bongo and boarded his plane.
Fifteen minutes later he commanded the captain of the presidential jet to turn the plane around. Bongo, who was already being driven away from the airport, was informed that Bokassa had changed his mind. He returned to the airport in a hurry, to find the smiling emperor. ‘Earlier I was here as a head of state. Now I’m here in a private capacity. And I’m about to marry one of your fellow citizens,’ Bokassa announced. A few hours later ‘The Gabonese’ was in Bangui.
Most famous of all his concubines was ‘The Romanian’, Gabriela Drimba. Bokassa had spotted the blonde dancer in a Bucharest nightclub during a visit to his ally Nicolai Ceaucescu. She initially refused to marry him, but turned up a few weeks later in Bangui.
Most mysterious were the three Vietnamese women. One was Bokassa’s wife. Two were his daughters. One daughter was real, the other false. Both bore the name Martine Nguyen. They came to Bangui from Vietnam after Bokassa had searched (with the help of the French government) for his daughter by the wife he married in Saigon in 1953 and then abandoned. The first to arrive in Bangui was the False Martine. But she was exposed as a fraud. The French press fell on the story, ridiculing ‘the monster of Central Africa’. Bokassa responded to his critics by adopting the girl, to show the world how generous he was. Then he found the Real Martine working in a Vietnamese cement factory. She too was persuaded to leave Vietnam for Africa.
Once in Bangui, Bokassa offered both of them in marriage via a kind of public auction. Hundreds of young Central African men bid for them. The eventual winners of the competition were a doctor and an army officer. The sumptuous wedding in the cathedral was even attended by a few heads of state, the most prominent being the ever-faithful Bongo.
The False Martine’s husband, the army officer, eventually attempted a coup and was shot. The Real Martine’s husband, the doctor, remained loyal to Bokassa. He too was shot, but by Bokassa’s enemies after Operation Barracuda.
On my last visit to Villa Nasser I found the emperor alone, holding a Bible. I still had to ask him about the most serious charge, the one that worried him most. ‘The story about cannibalism was invented in order to destroy me. It’s a lie. Do you really believe that a much-decorated French officer could be a cannibal? It’s a lie,’ he repeated. And indeed the famous trial cleared him on this charge. But what about the other crimes? The murders? Bokassa did not deny them. ‘But I was not the only one. What about that Israeli politician, what is he called? Yes, Ariel Sharon. Why has he been forgiven for the massacres at Sabra and Shatila, while I have been forgiven for nothing? Just because I’m African?’
Jean-Bédel Bokassa died a year after we met, on November 3, 1996. He was seventy-five years old. He is buried at Berengo. In its obituary, the Central African state radio described him as ‘illustrious’. Ten years previously, the same radio station described him as ‘the Ogre of Berengo’.
The Empress Catherine lives in Lausanne and refuses to speak about Bokassa.
Giscard d’Estaing remains an influential politician. Few still remember the scandal over the diamonds.
Bernard Tapie has been a government minister, a convict and the owner of the Olympique Marseilles football team, which he had to sell but to which he has subsequently returned. He now works as an actor.
Patasse is president of the Republic of Central Africa. He is an ally of Colonel Gadaffi.
‘The Romanian’, Gabriela Drimba, returned to Bucharest, leaving her daughter, Anne de Berengo, behind in Bangui. Nothing more has been heard of her.
The Real Martine escaped from Bangui after the coup. She now runs a Vietnamese restaurant in Paris.
The False Martine was killed by Bokassa’s bodyguards a year after her husband’s failed coup.
Augustine, the last concubine, returned to Haudricourt where she now lives with several of Bokassa’s children.
Omar Bongo has been president of Gabon since 1969. A wealthy man (unlike surviving members of Bokassa’s family), he has been one of the main private clients of Citibank since 1970.
Ariel Sharon is prime minister of Israel.
Raphael Kopessoua is not, for the moment, in prison.