Nostalgia for a nightmare
In his early years in office he was corrupt, brutal and chummy with France. (President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing often came to slaughter elephants in one of his wildlife reserves.) With time, however, Bokassa’s behaviour grew even worse. He fed his enemies to lions and crocodiles. He ordered all schoolchildren to buy new uniforms made by his family firm, rounded up those who protested and massacred at least 100 of them-reportedly joining in the beatings himself. After the French lost patience and overthrew him, the dismembered remains of a maths teacher were found in his fridge. His successor accused him of cannibalism. He always denied it, though at a state banquet he once told a French diplomat: “You never noticed, but you ate human flesh.”
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Bokassa died in 1996. Strangely, he is now enjoying a surge of posthumous popularity in his homeland. Last month a group of admirers recovered and restored what is left of the bejewelled throne on which he crowned himself emperor, Napoleon-style, in 1977 (see picture). The gems and gold-plated eagle that once adorned it are gone. But the frame has been repainted bright yellow and was displayed beside one of the busiest roads in Bangui, the capital, for a few days until the authorities removed it.
“We want this throne to be exhibited and looked after in a museum honouring Jean-Bédel Bokassa,” says Héritier Doneng, a leader of Patriotes Centrafricains, a group that aims to “defend the country’s cultural values” in part by praising the late emperor, whom it credits with building a university and schools.
A tentative rehabilitation of Bokassa has, in fact, been under way for some time. Although he was twice sentenced to death, he served just seven years in prison and was freed in 1993. In 2010 the then-president, François Bozizé, formally rehabilitated him, awarding him the state’s grandest medal of honour. Bokassa had “given a great deal for humanity”, said Mr Bozizé who, like Bokassa, had grabbed power in a coup and later lost it the same way.
Nostalgia for tyrants is not unusual-witness the cults of Stalin and Mao. In the CAR, a rosy view of the 1970s thrives partly because most people have no memory of that decade (the median age is 20). Also, the present is so nasty that many think the past must have been better. The country has been at war more or less constantly since 2004. Perhaps 20% of its people have fled their homes.
A fragile peace allowed the inauguration this year of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, who promises peace, unity and development. As his interior minister, he has appointed Jean-Serge Bokassa, the son of you know who.