The emperor's children: Peter Strandberg went to meet one of the grandchildren of the former emperor of Central African Republic, Jean Bedel Bokassa, and came back with the fascinating story of a family still haunted and hounded by the deeds of the emperor.
Emperor Bokassa, president for life and later the emperor of the Central African Republic from 1966 to 1979, was probably the most bizarre leader to have ever existed on the African continent. The lives of his many children and grandchildren are a fascinating story, yet the dark shadow from the past is always present.
One of his grandchildren--in fact his first grandchild--Jean-Barthelemy Bokassa (or JB as his friends prefer to call him) is 33 years old but looks younger. With his background in three continents and a family spread out around the world, JB seems to fit in and enjoy his life in the Parisian art, literature and fashion circles.
But with his last name Bokassa, JB lives in the shadow of his grandfather's tragic past. The emperor was accused of mass murder and other horrendous human rights violations. Added to this, JB's father was executed for murder, his mother was born in Vietnam and married away in the strangest of circumstances, complete with a presidential palace, French castles and a sudden, dramatic foreign exile.
When we met in Paris just before the 30th anniversary of the coronation of his grandfather, JB was on his way to add an extra section to his earlier book, "Les Diamants de la Trahison" (Treasonous Diamonds) about his grandfather and his mother Martine.
The chapter will include newfound information that will underline the French government's involvement in the rise and fall of Jean Bedel Bokassa.
"The book is not any attempt to clear my grandfather's past or to make him into some kind of angel, but I do want to expose a number of lies and misinformation created and spread out by certain politicians at that time," explains JB.
To understand JB's life, it is necessary to go back to the 1970s, when his grandfather was competing with Uganda's dictator Idi Amin on the front pages of the world press.
Jean Bedel Bokassa was born in 1921 in the village of Bobangi in what was then French Equatorial Africa. His father was killed by the French when Jean Bedel was six years old, and his mother committed suicide shortly after her husband's death.
Bokassa joined the Free French Army in 1939 and took part in both World War II and the Vietnam War in the 1950s, and was decorated several times for his courage, with the Croix de Guerre.
In 1961, Bokassa resigned from the French army and returned home to what is now Central African Republic. Within five years, Bokassa had taken power in a military coup and soon declared himself president for life. During the 1970s, he established important political contacts, especially with the former colonial power, France, and President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who claimed that he was not only Bokassa's friend, but a "family member".
Other close friends were the Romanian president, Nicolae Ceausescu, the Zairean president Mobutu Sese Seko, and the Ugandan president Idi Amin.
On 4 December 1977, Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic, became the centre of the world's news media, when Bokassa was crowned as emperor, in a ceremony inspired by the French emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte. The country was even renamed the Central African Empire.
The coronation cost a tidy US$22m, most of it paid by France. Bokassa got a throne in the form of a Napoleonic eagle, three meters by five meters in size, and a crown created by the Parisian jeweller, Arthus Bertrand, containing diamonds. He also got eight highly-trained Belgium horses, a gilded imperial carriage, 80 Mercedes cars, and around 28,000 bottles of the best champagne France has ever produced--Moet et Chandon, Chateau Mouton-Rothschild and Chateau Lafite Rothschild--all flown into Bangui.
Interestingly, most of the important leaders who had earlier been seen with Bokassa found excuses to stay away from the coronation. Thus, of the 500 foreign dignitaries present, the most prominent were a relative of the prince of Liechtenstein and the prime minister of Mauritius.
Says JB, who was barely three years old at the time: "I only have a few memories from the coronation, the big celebration hall in Palais des Sports [at the time situated on Bokassa Avenue--where else?] and the excitement among my older brothers and sisters."
After a scandal in the French press, where President Valery Giscard d'Estaing's diamond business with Bokassa was exposed, the government in Paris began to lose patience with the emperor.
Paris got its "green light" when students were gunned down by Bokassa's soldiers in Bangui during a peaceful demonstration. In September 1979, a military coup, "Operation Barracuda", was organised by French Special Forces in cahoots with the French Intelligence Service (SDECE, and Bokassa and his family had to escape to Cote d'Ivoire and later, strangely, on to France.
To the children and grandchildren, this was a time of fear. They all remember when screaming soldiers threatened to execute them. They remember the days when they were hiding inside the Ivorian embassy in Bangui, and the flight out of their homeland. For JB, these were days of utter horror, and he was unable to speak for over a year after the event.
They stayed in Cote d'Ivoire for some time, until, during the 1980s, the overthrown emperor and his family moved to France, and their own private castle west of Paris, the Chateau Hardricourt.
"My mother and I only stayed one year in the castle," says JB, "then we moved on to Nancy, but we did visit my grandfather at Christmas and every holiday."
Meanwhile, the new government in Bangui sentenced the emperor to death in his absence. But to the surprise of the whole world, Bokassa suddenly decided in 1986 to return on his own, only to be arrested immediately at the Bangui airport, jailed and sentenced to death.
The death penalty was, however, commuted to life imprisonment, but in 1993 he was amnestied and released. He then returned to his home village and the ruins of his presidential palace.
Three years later, Bokassa died of a heart attack. During the evening of his life, he proclaimed himself the "13th apostle" of Jesus Christ and talked about secret meetings with the Pope.
Says JB: "He just wanted to return home and die, but it was the French who tricked him onto that plane."
When I met JB in Paris in December 2007, it was the first time in many years that any member of the Bokassa family had spoken with a journalist.
"My mother protected me from the press when I was young," he says. "We stayed away from the horror stories about grandfather, it is only now, as a grown-up, that I can handle the past."
He continues: "The French have reacted very positively to my book, lots of people have come up to me and said that they had no idea what really happened in Central African Republic during my grandfather's rule."
JB is not the first Bokassa to write a book--his grandfather wrote one titled Ma Verite (My Truth) in 1985 about his business and relations with President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, but the book was immediately banned by the French authorities.
The two other Bokassas who have had successes as writers are both daughters of the emperor--Marie Ange "Kiki" Bokassa, who has published books for children and art books in her (other) home country, Lebanon; and Marie Yokowo Bokassa, who was born in Angola, but is now living in the USA where she has written several highly-recommended poetry books, translated into English and French. But none of them have mentioned anything about their father or their personal lives. "What caused me to write was my mother Martine, and the book is really about her life," explains JB.
Martine Bokassa's life is an adventure worthy of a movie-script. When Jean Bedel Bokassa was a young officer in the French army and the French Foreign Legion in 1953, he took part in the Vietnam War, at the time French Indochina. It was there he met and married a young Vietnamese woman called Nguyen Thi Hue, who was to give him a daughter.
Years later, in 1970, when Bokassa had seized power in the Central African Republic, he contacted the French consulate in Saigon (Vietnam) to help him trace his by-then lost daughter. Within a year, the lost daughter "Martine" arrived in Bangui, where hundreds of people, media and officials were waiting at the airport for her.
But a few months later, in early 1971, the Vietnamese newspaper, Saigon Trang, revealed the sensational news that "Martine" was not Bokassa's daughter, but a fraud and that the real Martine was still in Vietnam living with her mother.
A few more weeks later, the real Martine arrived in Bangui; this time to no public reception and no media waiting at the airport. Bokassa was angry and accused France of planting a "spy" in his family. He threatened to deport the false Martine, but changed his mind after the French embassy in Bangui intervened, and instead adopted her as his own daughter on his 50th birthday in 1971. The real Martine was now called Martine Kota. She was a bit taller than her adopted sister. And, during something akin to a public auction, Bokassa offered both of them in marriage. Hundreds of young Central African men bid for the two girls. The eventual winners were a doctor and an army officer.
At a big, sumptuous wedding in Palacio de la Renaissance in 1973, which was attended by several heads of state, Martine Kota was married to the doctor, Jean-Bruno Deveavode, and the false Martine ended up with the army officer, Fidel Obrou.
Martine Kota had three children in this marriage; the first born was JB, while the false Martine had one child with her husband.
Three years later, in 1976, Fidel Obrou was executed for an attempted coup against Bokassa. As fate would have it, the false Martine was at the same time in a Bangui hospital giving birth to a son.
Two weeks after the birth, JB's father, the doctor Jean-Bruno Deveavode, killed the newborn with a lethal injection, apparently on the direct orders of the then President for Life, Jean Bedel Bokassa himself.
Then, on the first anniversary of Fidel Obrou's execution, the false Martine disappeared forever during a car ride to the Bangui airport, officially on her way back home to Vietnam. Two of Bokassa's bodyguards were alleged to have strangled her and hid her body somewhere along the road.
During their trial in Bangui in 1987, Bokassa denied that he had ordered the murder of his adoptive daughter and her newborn son.
After the coup in 1979 that overthrew Bokassa, Martine Kota, JB and his younger brother and sister managed to escape to France. Martine's husband, Jean-Bruno Deveavode, was arrested and executed in 1981 after admitting that he killed the false Martine's child. While in France, Martine Kota and her children were forced into a new and completely different life. Together with her mother, Nguyen Thi Hue, Martine today runs two Vietnamese restaurants in France, one of them on the island of Corsica. And, rather wisely, she refuses to talk about her father. "For my mother, he was a husband; and for me he was a father," is all Martine will volunteer.
Apparently, the emperor's appetite for beautiful women was legendary, and he married at least 19 of them from 13 different countries, who bore him 40 children!
Most of the wives were a result of his official visits abroad, and they came to be known as "the German", "the Belgian", "the Vietnamese", "the Lebanese", "the French", "the Angolan" and the "Gabonese".
Most famous of all was the blonde "Romanian" who Bokassa had seen in a Bucharest nightclub during a visit to his friend Nicolae Ceausescu. Her name was Gabriella Drimba and she immediately became a legend in Bangui, because of her allegedly active sex life that cost the lives of several men, when Bokassa discovered what was happening behind his back. Gabriella later gave birth to Bokassa's daughter and then returned home to Romania.
JB is planning to go back home to Central African Republic for the first time since the overthrow of his grandfather. "I have not felt ready to go before, I have been closer to Vietnam than to my home country," he explains. "During many years, I have only spoken French and Vietnamese with my mother, never the local language in the Central African Republic, Sango."
There are still several of his family members living in the home country, the most prominent being Jean-Serge Bokassa who is a member of parliament in Bangui; and Catherine Denguiade, who was the "empress" during the coronation and has just recently returned to Geneva to her old home, "Villa Nasser".
The family in Central African Republic is trying to raise money so "Bokassa's African Versailles" in Berengo can be rebuilt, but, for obvious reasons, the authorities in Bangui have shown no interest in financing the project. The rest of the family members are spread out in exile in Africa, Asia, Europe and the US, and they too have been hit by several tragic events associated with the past deeds of their grandfather and fathers. One of them, Bokassa's son Charlemagne, lived for years in extreme poverty inside the Paris metro (underground train system), where in 2001 he was found dead, aged 31.
The news of his death was too much for his mother, Marie-Joelle, who took her own life as a result, in her home in Libreville in Gabon. Two of Bokassa's other sons--including his eldest--have been in jail in France, for fraud, drugs and theft. For many of them, the name Bokassa has really become a burden.
RELATED ARTICLE: Tanzania: British firm fined for dubious water deal
Tanzanians are celebrating a small but significant legal victory against a World Bank-backed water privatisation project that forced water prices to skyrocket beyond affordability, forcing many to needlessly to thirsty. Towera Malanda reports.
City Water Services, a subsidiary of the British-based water company Biwater, in January lost a legal case for breaching its contract to deliver water and sanitation services in Dar es Salaam, between 2003 and 2005. The company was made to award the Tanzanian government over [pounds sterling]3m in damages and over [pounds sterling]500,000 in legal costs.
In 2003, trumpeted as a modern solution to water supply shortages, the Tanzanian government was happy to secure the services of Biwater to run its water system under a World Bank-inspired privatisation deal.
The Bank had made the privatisation of Dar es Salaam Water and Sewage Authority (Dawasa) a condition for Tanzania receiving debt relief. It also stipulated that a $145m loan package for upgrading the city's water infrastructure would be forthcoming only if a private company operated the water system.
But two years after the deal was done and dusted and Biwater was firmly in charge, water supply and sewerage services in Dar es Salaam began to deteriorate to alarmingly low levels.
Yet Biwater felt no remorse in saddling the Tanzanian people with the $145m debt, while investing only about $4.5 million mainly in standpipes and controversial water meters that forced locals to pay through the nose. In 2005, the Tanzanian government had had enough. Not only did it terminate the contract, it kicked Biwater out of the country.
According to the World Development Movement (WDM), which campaigns against the World Bank's water privatisation schemes in Africa and against the use of UK government aid to fund such project, the legal outcome vindicates the Tanzanian government's decision to terminate the contract when it felt cheated.
Vicky Cann, policy officer at the WDM said: "The evidence clearly shows that water privatisation has been a disastrous policy for poor people around the world, but the World Bank insisted on imposing water privatisation in Tanzania in return for much needed debt relief." She added: "Biwater now has a moral duty to ensure that, despite City Water Services being in liquidation, this money is paid promptly and in full so that the government of Tanzania can focus on making essential improvements to water and sanitation."
In a separate legal case following the collapse of this water privatisation project, Biwater has lodged a case at the International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) against the Tanzanian government. The case is being held in secrecy at The Hague and is thought to involve a claim for approximately $20 million. The ruling is expected later in the year.