Page last updated at 00:37 GMT, Friday, 2 January 2009

'Good old days' under Bokassa?

Self-coronation of Emperor Bokassa I (Jean Bedel Bokassa)

By Mike Thomson
BBC News, Central African Republic

For more than three decades his name has been synonymous with the worst excesses of the sort of dictators who have bedevilled post-colonial Africa.

History largely remembers Jean Bedel Bokassa - or Emperor Bokassa I as he crowned himself in 1977 - as one of the continent's most colourful yet bloodthirsty monsters.

He was a demagogue as ruthless as Mobutu and more flamboyant than Amin.

When Bokassa was overthrown in 1979, jubilant crowds vented their hatred on a giant statue of the tyrant who for almost 14 years ran the Central African Republic (or the Central African Empire as Bokassa had renamed it) like a modern-day Nero.

Jean Serge Bokassa
There is a saying here that when you don't like your dog you declare that it's got rabies
Bokassa's son, Jean Serge
But for Jean Serge Bokassa - one of the emperor's several dozen children - history and the mob have got it wrong.

He argues that his father was "a patriot" who served his country well and who has been smeared by those who wanted to topple him.

Jean Serge was only seven when he was hastily withdrawn from his Swiss boarding school after the French intervened to overthrow Bokassa's regime while he was away on a state visit to Libya.

It was not until Jean Serge and other family members were flown to exile in Gabon that they begin to understand the reason for the interruption to their privileged existence.

"We started to see reports and newspapers saying our father was no longer in power in the Central African Republic," Jean Serge says.

"There was a character assassination by media. They called him a cannibal and a criminal who massacred children."

He adds: "There is a saying here that when you don't like your dog, you declare that it's got rabies."

There are indeed many lurid stories about Bokassa.

Ears cut off

He was variously accused of being a cannibal who ate body parts from those opponents who he did not feed to the lions and crocodiles in his personal zoo.

It was a dictatorship but there was also order and stability. There is no civic responsibility any more
Michel Yambete
Acting governor, Houam Pendi region

Even if these allegations were entirely untrue, there is plenty of evidence of the extreme brutality of Bokassa's rule that cannot easily be dismissed as French disinformation.

Political rivals were murdered or tortured.

Thieves were punished by having their ears cut off.

For most of his rule Bokassa enjoyed the support of the former colonial power France, in whose army he served for more than 20 years.

In 1966, Bokassa, then commander-in-chief of the Central African armed forces, took power in a coup unseating President David Dacko, who was later reinstalled by the French.

Ebbing support

Bokassa enjoyed particularly close relations with the French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

Jean Bedel Bokassa at his coronation in 1977
Bokassa made himself emperor when "president for life" no longer sufficed

The latter even went so far as to declare that he regarded Bokassa as a "friend and family member".

But by 1979 French support was ebbing away from Bokassa.

The final straw may well have been a massacre in which about 100 children and teenagers were killed for protesting against Bokassa's proclamation that they would have to wear expensive uniforms that were only sold by a company that belonged to one of his 17 wives.

According to Amnesty International's report, Bokassa was personally involved with some of the killings.

However, this is all at odds with Jean Serge's recollections of his father in private life.

Monstrous extravagance

"As a son, I have many warm memories," he says.

"He was very affectionate. He loved children. He loved children a lot. And for that reason that he had about 50 kids."

Bokassa and family pictured in 1979
Bokassa had several dozen children by many different wives

Another allegation against Bokassa which is hard to contest is the monstrous extravagance which was a hallmark of his rule.

When the title President for Life was no longer sufficient, he decided to make himself emperor.

Bokassa spent tens of millions of dollars of public money staging a lavish and ludicrous coronation for himself in the capital Bangui.

Wearing costumes styled on Napoleon, he rode in a carriage flanked by soldiers dressed as 19th Century French cavalrymen.

Prison sentence

After he was deposed, Bokassa and several of his children were allowed to enjoy a comfy exile in a chateau in a Paris suburb.

But in 1986 he decided to return home even though a Central African court had sentenced him to death in his absence.

That sentence was upheld by a retrial but later commuted to a prison sentence.

Bokassa was eventually released in 1993. He died three years later from a heart attack aged 75.

Astonishingly, some older Central Africans now look back on the Bokassa years - or at the least the early part of his rule - as a sort of good old days.

Much of the CAR's crumbling infrastructure dates from that time.

'Great things'

It is perhaps a mark of how bad things have got in the CAR that more than one government official that I spoke to there talked about Bokassa in admiring tones.

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Michel Yambete, acting governor of the Houam Pendi region, told me: "It was a dictatorship but there was also order and stability. There is no civic responsibility any more. There is no patriotism either. This is what has brought all these wars and hatred.

"Looking back the time of Bokassa was something to admire. That man did great things."

This sort of selective nostalgia is reminiscent of those Russians of a certain age who speak of the stability that Stalin brought to their country.

Jean Bedel Bokassa at his trial in 1986
Bokassa enjoyed a comfy exile in a chateau in a Paris suburb

But it doesn't surprise Jean Serge Bokassa who is now himself an elected member of the Central African parliament.

After years of political instability and transitions of power through coups rather than electoral means - a trend begun by Bokassa senior - there is now a slim hope for peace.

Talks between the government and rebel groups has produced a tentative agreement that they should work towards forming a government of national unity to rule until elections scheduled for 2010.

"We have to stop the cycle of troubles, military and political crisis. We have to restore a political and economic stability like other nations," Jean Serge told me, speaking before the breakthrough in the peace talks.

But what if democratic politics fails to provide the stability that Central Africans yearn for? Does Jean Serge harbour any ambition to step into his father's ermine-lined slippers and become Emperor Bokassa II?

"No I don't think so," he says.

"I'm not nostalgic for the monarchy or empire. It was a period in our history and we have to accept that it's part of our history. But do I defend the monarchy? No I don't.

"Actually I think its indefensible."

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