With Emperor Bokassa's downfall disappears a magnificent if brutal buffoon derided by some whites as proof of black Africa's manifold excesses, yet secretly admired by many of his fellow leaders on the continent.
The spectacle of a latter-day black Napoleon who started life as an orphaned colonial army trooper crowning himself emperor in December 1977 was more than enough to inspire both laughter and envy.
Here was an alcoholic ruler of one of the world's 25 poorest countries squandering as much as $20 million on his elaborate coronation -- knowing all along that much of the money was provided by France, the former colonial power.
Megalomania, deep-seated insecurity, the tumblers of neat scotch he so liked all have been invoked to explain his obsessive determination to turn a forgotten, landlocked nation into the grand-sounding Central African Empire.
But for many of the new leaders of the fragile continent's often arbitrarily designed fledgling nations, it was a logical culmination. Outwardly Bokassa and many of his fellow leaders had everything -- honors, power, riches, fame and the love of women. In Bokassa's case that meant uranium, diamonds, cotton, at least three wifes and 35 children.
Yet lurking in the shadows was the knowledge that somehow that unlimited power -- which made it all but impossible to distinguish where Bokassa's possessions ended and the state's began -- was as subject to decomposition and decay as were the seemingly most solid constructions in his sweltering tropical capital of Bangui.
The French basically put up with Bokassa's vagaries because of uranium and diamonds, but also because their neocolonial policy in their former possessions -- and elsewhere -- in Africa dictated keeping every local potentate on his throne.
Living with Bokassa's occasional bouts of violence was just as important as dropping foreign legionnaires on the mining town of Kolwezi to protect Zaire from disintegrating before an Angola-based invasion force in 1978.
Propping up Bokassa with money and men reassured more conservative and more important former French colonies and kept them from straying elsewhere, apologists for French policy have argued.
In a way Jean-Bedel Bokassa at 58 was the quintessential product of both French colonialism and neocolonialism. His father was liquidated, allegedly for his anti-French activities, when Bokassa was 6 years old. His mother died soon thereafter. He was educated by Roman Catholic missionaries, enlisted in the colonial army and became a genuine war hero in Indochina.
In a pattern repeated all over the continent, he was first promoted to officer rank at the time of independence in 1960, then jumped ahead to become head of the Army. That was the way to power.
On New Year's Eve 1965 he astonished the white and black elite of Bangui gathered at the select Rock Hotel by appearing soon after midnight with President (and cousin) David Dacko and announcing that he was taking over. The guests had mistaken the shooting and commotion for a fireworks display.
Within the first hours of his rule Bokassa set a pattern for zaniness. He released all criminals from jail and drank so much champagne that he startled the French ambassador by appearing on his lawn at dawn and shouting "Long live France, long live free France."
Bokassa's penchant for paternalism prompted him to call the last Charles de Gaulle "papa" and the present French President Valery Giscard d'Estainy "dear relative."
His basic insecurity prompted him to follow the long-established dictatorship tradition of decorating statues, stamps, bank notes, a sports stadium, fledgling university and Army headquarters with his own likeness or name.
So taken was he with decorations that he once had an extra-long coat designed to accommodate his collection of medals, which included one from a stamp collectors' group and a French police officers' association.
His absolute power led him at one time or another to imprison many fellow citizens and expel many French citizens. But prison often was a kind of holding pattern until investigations of alleged wrongdoing could run their course. Often imprisoned ministers and dignitaries would then be freed and promoted.
Such was the case of Dacko, who, upon his release from jail, received all his back pay and a job as key government adviser.It was that position Dacko used Thursday to oust the man who had ousted him almost 14 years earler.
Such carrot-and-stick tactics were typical of the balancing act Bokassa practiced for so long with the nearly 30 nations that maintained embassies in his backwater of a capital.
He had both an Israeli and an Arab adviser, the first involved with diamond mining and South Africa (both sources of income), the second persuasive enough to have persuaded Iraq to provide free oil at one point.
With the years, however, he became obsessed with becoming emperor, especially after 1974 when the last major potentate in Africa, Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, was overthrown.
I fell afoul of this obsession in July 1977, while traveling with Michael Goldsmith of the Associated Press, who made the mistake of sending by telex to his office in South Africa a dispatch on the forthcoming coronation.
Arrested without warning one midnight, I was held incommunicado and never interrogated or formally charged. A week later, I was finally served up as Exhibit A for the diplomatic corps and the empire's two governments (one for normal affairs, the other for court matters).
I was thrust barefoot, unshaven and handcuffed before the astounded excellencies assembled in an auditorium at the imperial court about 40 miles southwest of Bangui. His imperial majesty, dressed in a dark leisure suit and occasionally ringing a small bell like an acolyte, denounced me as a spy, then exonerated me.
He charged the United States with "all Africa's problems," banned all American tourists, then relented. Finally, I was photographed and turned over to the U.S. charge d'affaires and ordered expelled.
Yet, despite the fear and uncertainty of a week's incarceration -- and the unsolicited acquaintance of thousands of mosquitoes -- I found myself oddly admiring Bokassa. There I was in theory humiliated, but chuckling when the emperor, in reading aloud my seized notes, came across the passage dealing with his prodigious sex life.
"Yes, I had women in homes all over Bangui, but what was I supposed to do, put them all in a barracks?"
I would have forgiven Bokassa the whole ordeal had it not been for Goldsmith's worrying absence from my mock trial and the later knowledge that my colleague had been beaten to within an inch of his life at the emperor's hands.
More than a hundred children of Bangui had no such luck.