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Jean-Bedel Bokassa; African Leader Jailed for Abuses

<i> From Times Staff and Wire Reports</i>

Jean-Bedel Bokassa, the former self-proclaimed emperor of the Central African Republic who was accused of slaughtering and eating some of his critics, has died at the age of 75.

Bokassa died of a heart attack Sunday evening at a clinic in this capital city. He had been in poor health since suffering a brain hemorrhage in October 1995.

The national radio made no mention of the death of Bokassa, who ruled from 1966 until 1979 in one of Africa’s most brutal dictatorships. But word of his passing spread quickly, and by midmorning several thousand people had gathered outside the main hospital, where Bokassa’s body lay in a morgue.

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Some wept, apparently willing to forget Bokassa’s violent and tyrannical rule. The government said Monday that the former ruler would be given a state funeral.

Bokassa, an army lieutenant colonel, seized power Jan. 1, 1966, six years after the country gained independence from France. He was ousted in a French-backed coup in 1979 after a bizarre rule that included proclaiming himself Emperor Bokassa I in 1976.

With the title came a lavish ceremony, patterned after the coronation of his idol Napoleon, at an estimated cost of one-fourth the poor nation’s annual foreign earnings. The somber procession was replete with horse-drawn carriages and Mercedes automobiles. Bokassa wore a long red velvet train and placed a diamond-studded gold crown on his own head.

Bokassa had many mistresses and wives--including a Romanian ballet dancer who left him when she discovered she would not be named empress--and at least 54 children.

He used the country’s resources, particularly diamonds, to increase his fortune, while the living standards of his 3.4 million subjects stagnated.

For years, France backed Bokassa, in part because of its interest in the African country’s uranium trade. However, relations gradually frayed.

In the 1970s, Bokassa embarrassed French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing by announcing that he had given Giscard diamonds. Giscard said he sold the diamonds and gave the proceeds to charity, but the affair tainted his image at home.

Bokassa’s human rights abuses increasingly alienated France. In 1979, 100 children were slaughtered after complaining about school uniforms that Bokassa required them to buy.

Later that year, Bokassa was ousted by French troops, who reinstated the country’s first president, David Dacko.

Bokassa was sentenced to death in absentia, but nevertheless spent the next seven years in luxurious exile in France and Ivory Coast. For part of that period, he and 15 of his children lived outside Paris, where he owned four chateaux, a hotel and a villa.

But he complained that the winters in Europe were too cold and that he was homesick. So in 1987 he returned to the Central African Republic “to face the justice of my people.”

“I returned to my country to be judged,” he told the court. “I only want to live in peace as a simple citizen.”

In a trial as shocking as the accused man, Bokassa became the first deposed African chief of state tried for murder, torture and cannibalism.

Prosecutors said Bokassa’s palace was filled with evidence of atrocities, including the frozen body of a teacher hanging on a freezer hook and mounds of human flesh prepared for roasting.

Bokassa’s former cook testified that he prepared meals with human flesh that his boss ate “with relish.” Other witnesses testified that Bokassa enjoyed fooling visiting foreign dignitaries by serving up his opponents as roast beef.

A tearful Bokassa protested, “I am not a cannibal.”

He was acquitted of the cannibalism charges, but was convicted of murder, embezzling $50 million in public funds and ordering arbitrary arrests.

Bokassa was sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to 20 years in prison, and he was freed in 1993.

He came from a violent background. His father, a village chief, was assassinated when Bokassa was 6. After his mother committed suicide, he was raised by French missionaries. At 18, he joined the French army and later went to Indochina, winning 12 medals for battlefield bravery.


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