After Bokassa’s ouster in 1979, the French troops who drained the emperor’s crocodile pond at his residence discovered bone fragments belonging to some 30 victims, writes historian Martin Meredith. Body parts were found in a refrigerator. Locals testified that others were regularly fed to the lions. On trial in 1987, the ex-emperor was accused of cannibalism, torture, killing army officers —even poisoning his own grandchild.
Yet today, astonishingly, the emperor has been fully rehabilitated. Even though Bokassa was tried and sentenced to death twice (once in absentia, once in person), he managed to escape execution. In 1993, he was set free under a general amnesty by then-President André Kolingba, having served just seven years in prison. Then, in 2010, another president, Francois Bozize, officially rehabilitated the former leader, who had died in 1996. Bozize said that Bokassa had “given a great deal to humanity.”
Since then, the attempts to rehabilitate Bokassa’s legacy have continued. His children tried to turn his palace into a tourist attraction in the early 2000s — but instead of tourists, the palace ended up housing armed militants and child soldiers. One of the emperor’s several dozen ex-wives tried, unsuccessfully, to set up a foundation in her late husband’s name. Last year, civil society activists displayed the remnants of the leader’s throne — long since stripped of its gold eagle wings — in the center of the capital. It was quickly removed by authorities. One of Bokassa’s sons, Jean-Serge Bokassa, now serves as the Central African Republic’s minister for internal security and remains a proud defender of his father’s legacy.
Nostalgia for past dictators is not entirely new. Many Russians still venerate Stalin. There are Brazilians who long for the days of their country’s violent military dictatorship of the 1970s. But why such adulation for the Butcher of Bangui?
In the CAR, a great deal of Bokassa’s popularity has to do with his reputation as a nation-builder. His legacy is especially visible in the capital, where he was responsible for building the university, the airport, many schools and sprawling boulevards. It was under him that the city earned the nickname “Bangui la Coquette” (Bangui the Beautiful City), once proudly displayed in giant Hollywood-like letters on one of its lush green hilltops.
Since then, activists say, successive rulers have done little but destroy what the emperor left behind. His demise was followed by decades of underinvestment, corruption, exploitation, civil wars and no less than four coups d’état. The latest crisis toppled the government in 2013. At the time, the United Nations warned of possible genocide, citing mass killings, rapes and pillaging by rival armed gangs.
A rose-tinted view of the past offers welcome relief from the brutal present. The fact that no fewer than three sons of the country’s past leaders (including the one now serving as security minister) ran in the most recent presidential elections is a case in point.
Somewhat paradoxically, Bokassa’s reputation has been burnished by the fact that he is the only former leader to have faced some form of accountability. Toppled from power during a trip to Libya, he found exile in Ivory Coast, but ultimately opted to return home in 1986 to face a range of charges. He underwent a humiliating court trial and spent seven years behind bars. Today, the country’s justice system is in utter disarray, with few functioning courts outside Bangui. A new Special Criminal Court, set up in 2015, has the potential to break the cycles of impunity but has yet to become operational.
Though now governed by a democratically elected president, the country is still ravaged by violence. In Bangui, signs of bygone splendor still abound, while in the countryside, entire villages have been deserted or burned to the ground. Per capita GDP is just $306. The “La Coquette” sign in Bangui disappeared a long time ago. “Now it’s ‘Bangui La Roquette’ (Bangui the Rocket),” a taxi driver quipped. The specter of Emperor Bokassa still looms large. But his crimes seem to have receded into distant memory, overtaken by present-day violence, chaos and bloodshed.