There was a time when anything was possible in this remote country in the heart of Africa, if only Jean-Bedel Bokassa wanted it. When he wanted all women freed from prison on Mother’s Day in 1971, it was done. Then he wanted all prisoners convicted of crimes against women executed. Done.
Over the years, he lusted for other men’s wives, and invariably got what he wanted--even if, as happened at least once, it was over the husband’s dead body. It was said that he dealt with political prisoners in his palace courtyard by sending them either to the lions’ den or the crocodile pond, depending on his whim.
When Bokassa wanted to be an emperor, he made his dream come true one Sunday afternoon in 1977 with a diamond-studded, $10-million coronation in his impoverished country--already renamed the Central African Empire. Then he ordered his subjects to hail him “from six steps away while making a slight forward indication of the head.”
These days, it is the ex-emperor who bows respectfully, from about six paces away, to three red-robed judges and a jury of six fellow citizens of the Central African Republic. For three months he has been on trial in a hot courtroom here, sitting with his shoulders hunched humbly forward in a tailored, dark wool suit, the jacket always buttoned. He sports a gray-flecked beard and an attentive, occasionally bewildered look on his face.
Bokassa, 66, for 14 years one of independent Africa’s most brutal and bizarre dictators, surprised nearly everyone here when he showed up at the airport in Bangui last October, ending seven years of exile. Although he had been tried and sentenced to death in his absence here in 1980, Bokassa was said to have thought the worst that could happen to him was to be banished to his home village.
Arrested on Arrival
But the days when Jean-Bedel Bokassa could have his way in the Central African Republic had long passed. He was arrested upon arrival, and President Andre Kolingba ordered a new trial so that “the past can be buried forever.” In the process, the wide-open proceedings also have become an unusual public lesson in the potential wickedness of unrestrained power.
Bokassa is charged with, among other things, murdering some of his army officers, poisoning his grandchild, hiding corpses, cannibalism and supervising an operation in which at least 50 schoolchildren were killed in the streets and in Bangui’s Ngaragba Prison for protesting the mandatory wearing of uniforms to classes.
Since December, the trial, broadcast live on radio and replayed nightly on television, has held hundreds of thousands of Central Africans so spellbound that offices in the capital virtually ceased to function. The problem was so serious that the government stepped in a few weeks ago and moved the trial to afternoons, beginning at 1:30, after most offices and banks have closed for the day.
Spectators now crowd into the courtroom, sitting on yellow plastic folding chairs arranged in concentric half-circles on risers, facing the judge and jury. Bokassa sits in front of his attorneys’ table, flanked by three uniformed presidential security guards in red berets. He occasionally raises his right hand in front of him, with his head bowed, seeking permission to speak. Witnesses refer to him simply as “the accused.”
‘My Brain Is Very Small’
When the judge scolded him for making contradictory remarks recently, Bokassa pleaded: “Your honor, my brain is very small. It would be very hard for any Central African or anyone to be in my shoes right now and remember everything. But I am here. I am not running away from my responsibility.”
Prosecutor Gabriel M’bodou, a tall man with a snarling, lion-like face, scoffed at Bokassa’s appeal for sympathy.
“He’s trying to make us think he’s not right in the mind,” M’bodou said loudly. “He’s pretending he has some mental problems.”
Bokassa seems a rather innocuous figure these days. His right foot is swollen with gout, and his high blood pressure must be kept in check with medication. But Central Africans remember their fears during Bokassa’s capricious rule, their relatives who were picked up and never seen again, their government paychecks that came late or not at all because Bokassa was paying for such things as his coronation. They still despise him for the ugly worldwide reputation that his actions brought on the country.
Emperor Bokassa I was overthrown in a bloodless coup staged by French troops in September, 1979, after reports by Amnesty International and other human rights groups that palace soldiers and perhaps Bokassa himself had killed children protesting the emperor’s order that they all buy $25 uniforms bearing Bokassa’s picture from a factory that Bokassa owned.
Exile in France
Bokassa spent his first years in exile in the Ivory Coast and later moved to an 18th-Century chateau west of Paris, where he complained bitterly that the French had him under house arrest and that he was unable to support his family on his $1,000-a-month French army pension. He also complained about the cold winters and often talked of returning to Bangui.
But when he actually managed to slip out of Paris and show up in Africa on Oct. 23, Central Africans were stunned.
“We had an eye on him, more or less,” an official in the French External Relations Ministry said recently. “But bombs were going off all over Paris, and we had more important things to do. Besides, he seems no longer to be such a dangerous, crazy man.”
However, witnesses in the trial have painted a lurid portrait of Bokassa’s tenure. For instance:
- One of Bokassa’s former security officers testified that Bokassa had a maid and a member of his security staff tortured and killed after finding photographs of them cavorting around the palace pool with his wife, Gabriella, a Romanian ballet dancer. The wife was deported.
- Several witnesses who went to Bokassa’s palace after the coup, searching for relatives who had been missing for years, found corpses and parts of corpses stacked in the refrigerators. David Dacko, who succeeded Bokassa as president, said French soldiers also told him on the night of the coup that they had found bodies in the palace.
- Philippe Linguissa, a cook, said he was called one day to prepare a special meal for Bokassa--and was horrified when he learned that the main course was a human corpse that Bokassa had stored in the walk-in refrigerator.
- A woman testified that Bokassa had her husband, Gen. Auguste M’bongo, killed after M’bongo refused the president’s request that he be allowed to sleep with the general’s wife. “I take moral responsibility in the death of this general,” Bokassa said in court, and he begged the woman’s forgiveness.
- A second woman testified that an elderly woman was arrested and shot on Bokassa’s orders because she was a “monkey woman” born with four breasts and magical powers to free her son, another general, from his prison cell. The general, denied food and water in prison, died.
The warden at Bangui’s stonewalled Bgaragba Prison at the time, Joseph Mokoa, was executed in 1980 for his crimes. But his testimony then, introduced here as evidence, implicated Bokassa as personally ordering most of the torturing and killing at the prison.
In frequent statements to the court, Bokassa has repeatedly expressed his dismay at being accused of such horrible crimes. He has denied ever personally ordering the torture or death of anyone, ever keeping corpses in his palace, ever clubbing children to death or ever eating human flesh. He acknowledges moral responsibility for the arrest and detention of some people, however.
The former emperor suggests that the allegations stem from rumors advanced by “my political opponents” or from actions carried out by zealous underlings acting on their own without orders from him.
Although virtually everyone in Bokassa’s regime walked outside the law, several officials have testified that only a foolish man would have issued an order to imprison or kill someone in those days without Bokassa’s tacit approval.
“There was no way to control Bokassa. He became almost crazy,” said former President Dacko, who was ousted by the current president, Kolingba, in a bloodless coup in 1981.
Few Doubt His Guilt
Despite the wide interest in the trial here, most Central Africans see it as little more than a formality. They expect a guilty verdict when the trial ends, probably sometime late this month.
“We know this man is the cause of our suffering,” said Joseph Ngonzo, a recent college graduate in Bangui. “If this country is down today, it’s not because people are lazy or have no resources. It’s simply because one man got us down there because he was so selfish.”
Even some members of Bokassa’s own tribe, the M’baka, have come to that conclusion.
“If you talk to me as a member of his tribe, I say ‘No, he is not guilty,’ ” said Claude Gogbama, one of Bokassa’s tribesmen in Bangui. “But if you ask me as a Central African, in the name of justice, he is guilty.”
But Central Africans have become hooked on the trial because of its opportunity to peek into the world of the rich and powerful in their country. Trial watchers were delighted when they heard, for example, that Alphonse Koyamba’s surprisingly rapid rise up the government ladder, from finance minister to vice prime minister, was helped along by the fact that Bokassa was having an affair with Koyamba’s sister.
The daily dispatches printed in Le Songo, the country’s daily newspaper, give some hint of how sincere Central Africans think Bokassa’s denials are. In one trial story, the reporter wrote: “For Bokassa to say he has not been personally involved is a poor excuse.”
Death Sentence Unlikely
A more recent story said Bokassa “pretended to be outraged” at the suggestion that he had kept bodies in his palace.
Even if convicted, Bokassa probably will not be put to death, observers of the trial say. No executions have occurred under Kolingba, and most people expect that Bokassa will end up in internal exile in one of the many remote, virtually uninhabited regions of this Texas-size country.
“You may feel sorry for him sitting there, talking meekly and acting pitiful,” one Central African watching the trial said not long ago. “But if by some stroke of fate he came to power again, he would never forget. He was always the type who would talk nice to people and later on kill them.”