‘Emperor’ Bokassa Ends Exile, Is Arrested in His Homeland

Times Staff Writer

Jean Bedel Bokassa, who once crowned himself emperor and then darkened the image of Africa with a flair for terrifying comedy and capricious cruelty, slipped out of exile in France and returned to his native Central African Republic on Thursday in the face of a sentence of death.

Soldiers arrested the 65-year-old Bokassa as soon as he arrived in Bangui, the capital of the former French colony in equatorial Africa, and took him to the offices of President Andre Kolingba. His wife and five children were stopped at the airport and sent back to Europe.

The sudden departure of Bokassa surprised French officials, who seemed to look on it as an irrational act.


Bokassa’s son, George, told journalists in Paris: “My father runs the risk of being executed. We have to find him a good lawyer quickly. I am doing an investigation to find out who counseled my father. As for me, I opposed any initiative of this nature.”

Condemned to Death

The elder Bokassa, while in exile, had been convicted in the Central African Republic six years ago of murder and cannibalism and condemned to death.

Bokassa ruled the Central African Republic for 13 years before he was ousted in 1979 in a military coup encouraged by the French government and supported by French paratroopers. By then, Bokassa, who proclaimed himself emperor in a lavish ceremony that featured a crown supposedly worth $5 million and reportedly ordered the massacre of 100 schoolchildren for refusing to buy uniforms from one of his companies, had completely discredited himself in Africa, France and much of the rest of the world.

In exile, Bokassa had lived in an 18th-Century chateau 25 miles west of Paris. Though not under house arrest, he was supposed to be under surveillance, and French officials acknowledged that if they had seen him rushing off to the Central African Republic, they would have stopped him. But Bokassa drove north to Brussels Wednesday night, flew to Rome and boarded an Air Afrique flight that brought him to Bangui on Thursday morning.

After his departure, an open letter to President Francois Mitterrand and Premier Jacques Chirac arrived in the offices of Agence France-Presse, the French news agency.

No ‘Second Thoughts’

In the letter, Bokassa, who had long complained about his living conditions in France, wrote that he was returning home “a free and dignified citizen, without rancor, without second thoughts and without any other desire than to be faithful to the word liberty.”

He paid tribute to France as his “second homeland” and signed the letter “Bokassa the First.”

Bokassa, a soldier who rose to the rank of captain in the French army before taking command of the Central African army, seized power on the last day of 1965 in a coup that ousted his cousin, David Dacko. He then began a reign that shamed Africa.

Bokassa kept promoting himself, from general to marshal in the army, from president to president-for-life, and, finally, to emperor. The extravagance of his coronation, which he tried to pattern after that of his hero, Napoleon I, provoked both shock and contemptuous laughter from outsiders.

Although the Central African Republic is landlocked, sparsely populated and little-known, Bokassa’s flamboyance and cruelty attracted a great deal of attention. In 1971, he ordered and in some cases personally supervised the hacking off of ears and arms of convicted thieves in the main square of Bangui.

Children Massacred

The massacre of the children was investigated by a special commission of African jurists who concluded in 1979 that Bokassa had arrested the children for failing to buy his uniforms and then ordered them beaten to death. The commission said there was a possibility that Bokassa may have taken part in the beatings himself.

Bokassa had an odd relationship with French presidents. He landed in southern France during World War II with the Free French forces of Gen. Charles de Gaulle and received the Croix de Guerre and membership in the Legion of Honor for his service. The African leader always described President de Gaulle as “my adopted father.” When De Gaulle died, in 1970, he announced, “I am now an orphan.”

His relationship with President Valery Giscard d’Estaing was more troubled. Bokassa, when emperor, gave Giscard d’Estaing gifts of diamonds that were reportedly worth several hundred thousand dollars. When this was exposed in the French press, the president, after a delay of a year, finally acknowledged receiving the gifts but said he had sold them and distributed the proceeds to charity.

Many political analysts believe this scandal contributed to the French leader’s defeat in his bid for reelection in 1981.

Overthrown in 1979

Bokassa was overthrown in 1979 and replaced by Dacko, the cousin he had overthrown 13 years earlier. Bokassa, on a visit to Libya when the coup took place, tried to enter France, claiming French citizenship as a result of his service in the French army during and after World War II.

But the French refused him entry, and Ivory Coast, after a good deal of hesitation, accepted him. Ivory Coast expelled him three years ago, and the French reluctantly accepted him as an exile.

Amid all the cruelty of his reign, Bokassa sometimes titillated the world with moments of comedy. Like many Africans, Bokassa had several wives and was reported to have 55 children. In 1970 he ordered a massive search for an illegitimate daughter he had fathered while on duty with the French army in Vietnam. Amid great fanfare, a young woman arrived in Bangui for grand festivities but turned out to be an impostor. Nevertheless, Bokassa, without any show of anger, announced that he would accept her as his own.