When the independence movement swept Africa in the late 1950s, the region was among the first to break away from its colonial masters. The first president, Barthélémy Boganda, consolidated power in 1958 and tried to build a democracy out of the green web of clans and villages that shared little but language and hunger. The name, Central African Republic, was as empty as the results. The first of a long series of military coups took place eight years after independence, when General Jean-Bédel Bokassa and a band of soliders took control of the Presidential Palace. Bokassa began an aggressive program of building up the nations infrastructure, and his own wealth, in the process. About half of the 375 kilometers of asphalt road in the countrymostly potholed streets in Banguican be credited to Bokassas initiative at teasing development money in exchange for uranium that helped France build its nuclear program.
Bokassas ego was titanic, even by the supersized standards of twentieth-century African strongmen. He built a new television station to broadcast his speeches, even though there were an estimated forty sets in the entire country at the time. He married seventeen wives, converted back and forth from Islam to Christianity, and had an extra-long military jacket tailored to accommodate all the various medals he awarded himself. But it was not enough. To the astonishment of even his most dedicated sycophants, he decided to declare himself "Emperor Bokassa I," and changed the name of his landlocked nation to the Central African Empire to suit his new title.
He had himself crowned emperor on December 4, 1977, in a spectacle that cost about a third of the nations gross national product. Hundreds of mango trees that had lined Banguis wide avenues were cut down to better accommodate the imperial procession, and a good portion of the capitals population was compelled to march behind a train of white horses imported from Belgium, pulling an antique coach decorated with golden eagles. Inside was the new Emperor Bokassa, almost lost within a 32-pound coronation robe with 2 million tiny pearls and crystal beads sewn into the fabric. Atop his head was a crown that cost $2 million, with a doorknob-sized 138-carat diamond as centerpiece.
It was an appropriate symbol, for diamonds had helped keep him in power. Bokassa had given several of his countrys big-carat discoveries to his close ally and game-hunting partner, French president Valéry Giscard dEstaing. The disclosure of the gifts embarrassed the French president, but not nearly as much as what happened in the winter of 1979. Bokassa decreed that all the nations schoolchildren should wear uniformsand the only uniform producer in Bangui happened to be one of his wives. Poor children (there is almost no other variety of child in Bangui) couldnt begin to afford the expense and a group of them threw rocks at the emperors limousine one day in protest. An enraged Bokassa rounded up approximately one hundred children, innocent and guilty alike, and had them murdered. Bokassa killed many himself, and kept their remains in a refrigerator in his palace.
In the same larder he kept the corpses of some of the political enemies he had liquidated, and Bokassa was said to have snacked on their brains and hearts. The French were mortified enough to engineer a coup that relieved the emperor of power, especially after Bokassa claimed that he had surreptitiously fed human flesh to an unwitting President Giscard dEstaing during several of their banquets together. The testimony of the palace chef at a 1986 trial was damning. Bokassa was sentenced to lifetime house arrest in a small house in Bangui, where he was treated something like an aged lion in a zoo. He died in 1996.
Copyright © 2006 by Tom Zoellner
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