French President Valery Giscard d'estaing was visiting Jean-bedel Bokassa's chateau La Cottenciere in the fabled French hunting country of Sologne in 1974 when -- by Bokassa's account -- he responded to one of many gifts of diamonds from Bokassa with a guest-book inscription that startled the despotic then-ruler of the Central African Republic.
Giscard's message said: "To my relative and my friend." Bokassa says he warily asked Giscard, "Do you think I deserve to be a relative with you?"
"No, no," Bokassa says Giscard responded. "Our relations will be the relations of one realtive to another."
Thus begins the story by one of Africa's most ruthless dictators of a long and complicated relationship with the French president who engineered his ouster 18 months ago. From his exile quarters in the Ivory Coast, Bokassa, aging, thinning, and draped in garish jewelry, last month bitterly described lavish gifts, favors and business arrangements that he claimed were the foundation of a deep and paternal interest by Giscard in France's small, landlocked former colony. a
In the obsession of his bleak exile, Bokassa believes it was Gisard alone who stripped him of the wealth and grandeur he possessed in Central Africa. And so, brooding in an apartment in an Abidjan skyscraper between long nights of entertaining, his eyes cloudy and his memory fading, the man who once crowned himself an emperor tried to use his vast reservoir of bitterness to depose the French president, who was then facing the election runoff he lost last Sunday to Socialist Francois Mitterrand.
"For 10 years, I was with Giscard," he said during two late-afternon interviews on April 5-6 with The Washington Post in a hotel suite near his quarters. "If I was a cannibal, he was a cannibal. For 10 years, I was with Giscard. If I stole diamonds, he should be punished, too, because he got his diamonds."
Now a pathetic figure, the 60-year-old former emperor, was, however, as self-aggrandizing in the interviews as he was in 13 years of power. Bedecked with canary diamonds and yet surrounded by family members he said he could no longer adequately support, he pulled this correspondent into the bathroom twice to whisper the name of sources. Queried about previously published charges, Bokassa repeated them and then went on to add others, many of which turned out to be unprovable in four weeks of subsequent checking by The Post.
An article summarizing the main points of Bokassa's accusations and the investigation was published in The Washington Post on May 8, while preparation of this fuller account continued.
Some of Bokassa's allegations have appeared the French press and in a book by Roger Delpey, "The Manipulation" published here in March. The Giscard government has never commented for the record on these or any other charges made in connection with the outgoing president's relationship with Bokassa. Giscard himself has publicly sought to discredit Bokassa as someone blinded by his desire for revenge.
What emerges from Bokassa's account is an interesting portrait of the outgoing is an interesting portrait of the outgoing French president, one that is murky in places but suggests much about Giscard's power, his fascination with Africa and big-game hunting and the sometimes curious cast given to international politics when a former colonial power patronizes and manipulates its old subjects.
Perhaps most intriguing is the light Bokassa sought to shed on the perceived arrogance that last week helped to defeat Giscard at the polls. In fact, Giscard's family connections, acceptance of diamonds and other gifts, and his maintenance of a 3,000-square-mile hunting preserve while in office made the Central African Republic appear to be little more than a suburb of Paris. It was as if the 21-year-old African nation were still one of the "children" that former president Charles de Gaulle said he watched over.
The symbol of these presidential privileges has become the diamonds -- small stones gracefully arranged in circles, hearts, and triangles on soft black wax. Ever since Bokassa's bloodless removal, Giscard has been dogged by reports of the gems he and his family accepted from the emperor, and Bokassa claims be gave dozens of such gifts, and even larger ones, to Giscard and his family over a period of eight years.
"The Giscard's need lots of money, lots," Bokassa noted acidly."And they they need money any way they can get it." He did not elaborate.
Whatever Giscard's actual responsibilty in accepting the diamonds, Bokassa claims that the French president was even more favored when it came to elephant hunting in Central Africa. In that this well-watered plateau country, there are millions of acres of wild hunting land, preserved by Central Africa's lack of economic or industrial development.
Elephants used to be plentiful there, too, until Bokassa arrived and failed to establish the parks and other protections common in some other African countries.
Bokassa says he first met Giscard during a hunting trip when Giscard was finance minister. Bokassa says he later granted Giscard a 3,000-square-mile hunting preserve in the Obo Zemio region. In addition, Bokassa said he waived for Giscard the $1,000 fee levied for each elephant killed in a hunt.
Near the Giscard preserve in the southeastern corner of Central Africa, Bokassa said he granted separate preserves to Giscard's cousin, Francois Giscard d'Estaing, and a wealthy French industrialist who served along with Francois as the president's personal emissary to the emperor.
Giscard went to his preserve twice a year for about a week at a time, Bokassa said, and was not interested in hunting anything but elephants. But, Bokassa noted with undisguised resentment, the French president had never invited him along on his hunting trips.
Yet, on his way to and from the hunting ground, Giscardd usually stayed overnight at Bokassa's native village of Berengo and the two men would spend a great deal of time together, Bokassa said. During such visits in Africa and France, Bokassa said, he became a true "relative" of Giscard -- although one who was patronized -- in a way that went far beyond his relations with Giscard's predecessor, Georges Pompidou. "With Giscard, we entered into family relations," he said. "With Pompidou, they were the relations of chief of state to chief of state."
Yet, Bokassa cited a series of manipulative demands that he claims were made by Giscard and his family on matters ranging from petty aspects of the hunting preserve to cloudy business transactions to matters of foreign policy. It was only when he balked at several of these orders, he claims, that Giscard turned against him.
At one time, Bokassa objected to Giscard's demand that Central African troops be stationed on his preserve to halt the activities of poachers from nearby Sudan.
More significantly, Bokassa said that the first thing Giscard asked from his after being elected president in 1974 was to cut his ties with Jacques Foccart, for years de Gaulle's chief aide for African affairs and his personal spymaster. "I did it," Bokassa said. "I regret it a lot now, but it's too late."
In fact, it appears that followers of Giscard and Foccart frequently attempted to use Bokassa and his country in political battles to discredit each other. A French Intelligence veteran who knows Central Africa well and remains on close terms with Bokassa listed a number of incidents he interpreted as attempts to embarass Giscard by the followers of Foccart, who this year publicly supported Gaullist Party leader Jacques Chirac's presidential campaign.
The most convincing example offered was the public way in which Central African state archives were transferred after Bokassa's downfall by French troops to the French Embassy under the eyes of a large number of French and foreign journalists.
The scene lead to demands in the French National Assembly to know what became of the archives, and the suggestion is that Gaullist-oriented operatives deliberately carried out orders to seize the records of a foreign state so that the operation would be seen by all.
The crowning incident of attempted manipulation that Bokassa cites is a complicated dispute in 1978 over a business arrangement involving Giscard's cousin, Francois demanded, Bokassa said, that the emperor write him a check for $96,000, which Francois said was owed to him and a group of businessmen by Bokassa's honorary "son" Ali Hijazi, a Lebanese diamond merchant.
Bokassa said that Francois belonged to a group that owned a satchel of diamonds that had disappeared five years before while in the possession of Hijazi. After he refused to pay the debt, Bokassa said Francois came to see him with a message from Giscard in early October 1978. "The president," Bokassa says Francois said, "has instructed me to warn you that neither France nor he will be in a position to help you if something happens to you in Central Africa."
That exchange, Bokassa says, was the beginning of his abandonment by Giscard, a year-long freeze that he says forced him to seek help simultaneously from Libya, Iraq and Israel.
There were many reasons for the French to depose Bokassa that the former emperor chooses to disregard -- among them his use of Central African industries and resources solely for his personal gain, his jailings and even beatings of visitors who displeased him and his cruel and sometimes arbitrary measures of internal rule that caused him to be ranked second in international opinion only to Uganda's Idi Amin among brutal African rulers.
Instead, Bokassa is obsessed with rebutting several of the specific reasons cited by Giscard and other French officials for his downfall. French officials focused their explanations after the overthrow on indications that Bokassa was about to deliver his country to Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, a massacre of Central African children in which Bokassa, according to a special African commission, "almost certainly" took part, and an incident in which Bokassa allegedly threatened to beat Giscard's African affairs counselor, Rene Journiac.
Bokassa denies the substance of all three of these charges, and says that Giscard personally intervened to alter the findings of the special commission after it could not link him to the child murders. Although his assertion that the claims were constructed and manipulated by Giscard has not been substantiated, it does appear that Giscard and his ministers felt obligated to spend months meticulously arranging for and rationalizing the departure of a government considered ludicrous, if not evil, all over the world.
For months before he was replaced by former president David Dacko, the specialized African press based in Paris was full of speculation about when Bokassa would be overthrown and who would replace him. Henri Maidou, Bokassa's prime minister, said in an interview with the Paris-based African weekly Jeune Afrique in January 1980 that exactly a year earlier -- nine months before the overthrow -- he stopped in Paris and "began to alert French authorities and to conceive a plan with them."
Meanwhile, Bokassa says, he was driven into the arms of Libya's Qaddafi by Giscard, who he said cut off Central Africa's supplies. Bokassa was in Libya seeking help when the French paratroopers -- and Dacko -- arrived in Central Africa.
At the same time, Bokassa said, he brought Iraq, a serious rival of Libya, into a uranium-mining venture that also involved a Swiss company and French national firms represented by another Giscard cousin, Jacques Giscard d'Estaing. He said he was advised on other matters by Israelis, including tank Gen. Shmuel Gonen, known as "the conqueror of Sinai."
Iraq's interest in Bokassa stemmed from its involvement in a French managed nuclear energy and research program. Bokassa said that shares in the Central African company that was to develop a large uranium deposit at Bakouma were transferred to Iraq in exchange for the financing of 400-mile access roads to the remote mine.
A spokesman for Alusuisse, the Zurich company that manages the Central African uranium company and owns a third of it, confirmed that in 1978 the Central African government said it planned to transfer part of its third interest to Iraq, but said that as far as he knew nothing had come of the deal and there had been no work on the road.
The alleged incident involving Journiac occurred a month before his overthrow. According to several of those present, Bokassa met with Journiac, who asked for his abdication, and Bokassa refused. French government officials, including the spokeswoman of the African Cooperation Ministry, widely circulated the story that Bokassa had struck Journiac with his baton and broken his glasses -- or at least theatened to. Bokassa had sealed his fate with that gesture, the story went.
Bokassa strongly denies that any such thing happened, however, and he is supported in that contention by Gabonese President Omar Bongo, who was present, and by the family of Journiac, who is now dead.
President Bongo would not let himself be interviewed by telephone, but he answered questions passed through by his executive aide. Of Bokassa, the aide later said, "He didn't threaten, he didn't hit, he didn't do anything at all."
Bokassa claims that the reason the French felt the need to use questionable incidents like this against him is that finally, he was neither better or worse than other African leaders. If he is guilty of crimes, he says, then Giscard -- his relative -- is guilty of them too.
"If Giscard deposed me for the massacre of children it is false," he says from his exile. "Now, if there are other problems, I'd like them to be examined around every African chief of state, to see, because in Africa, the methods are almost identical. And personally, I know a lot of things."