The Cannibal Emperor of Bangui and Africa's Forgotten Conflict

This article originally appeared in VICE on 19 September 2014.

Tomorrow marks the 35th anniversary of the French-organized military coup that ousted the cannibalistic self-proclaimed Emperor of the Central African Republic, Jean-Bédel Bokassa.

Today, Bokassa’s former ‘empire’ is still a hotbed of unspeakable cruelty and war, mired in a sectarian conflict that teeters on the edge of genocide but has not (yet) fallen into that abyss. After a Muslim rebel group—known as the Séléka—toppled President François Bozizé in March 2013, the country has been stuck in a vicious cycle of violence.  One thousand civilians were killed over just a two-day period in December 2013 and thousands more have been killed since. Attacks by Muslim militias are met with reprisal attacks from Christian militias; attacks from Christian militias are met with reprisal attacks from Muslims militias. The conflict is relentlessly brutal.

War crimes have gone largely unnoticed in the international press. Countless children have been hacked to death with machetes in the streets. Women have been gang raped. Others suffer both: being kidnapped and raped if the demanded ransom goes unpaid.

These horrors are obscured by the towering shadows of other conflicts in Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, and Libya. But even out of the spotlight, these preventable tragedies are unfolding relentlessly—in this obscure country almost the size of Texas, with a population a little larger than Los Angeles, but a national economy that is 1/100th the size of decaying Detroit. 

The echoes of history ring loudly today in the Central African Republic, as the conflict’s current brutality is strongly reminiscent of Bokassa’s earlier ‘empire.’

Jean-Bedel Bokassa took power in a military coup in 1966, and then proclaimed himself Emperor of the Central Africa ten years later. The ceremony nearly bankrupted the impoverished country (his diamond-encrusted crown itself cost nearly $5 million). Bokassa even used state funds to fly his horse guard to France for special training. And when he crowned himself, he wore a 20-foot long velvet and ermine cloak.

Bokassa was also a monster. His reign was repulsively savage, even on a continent notorious for brutal dictators. Bokassa ordered that thieves be beaten, usually with hammers and chains while he watched. He also relished feeding accused criminals to his personal crocodiles and lions at his lavish Villa Kolongo. Worst of all, Bokassa was allegedly a cannibal, keeping human flesh in his kitchen that he supposedly served to unsuspecting guests. During the coronation ceremony, the newly crowned emperor turned to a French minister in attendance and whispered, “You never noticed, but you ate human flesh.”  

In spite of these horrors, the French government called Bokassa “a friend and family member.” Bokassa exploited that friendship for weapons and foreign aid, the nectar of corruption for his kleptocracy. In return, the French president at the time, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, gallivanted around Central Africa killing elephants on hunting trips with the emperor and eagerly bought uranium from the Central Africa Republic to fuel France’s nuclear industry.

This friendship, combined with the “empire’s” penchant for exporting diamonds and Bokassa’s particular taste for poaching elephants for their ivory, kept the emperor in power for thirteen years. 

Yet, when news broke in France that Bokassa had personally beaten as many as one hundred children to death with canes and stones because they had resisted wearing his government-produced school uniforms, it was too much for even his French allies. On September 20, 1979, French special forces overthrew Bokassa in a carefully executed military coup d’état, ending the emperor’s brutal reign.

Unfortunately for the Central African Republic, the adage that history repeats itself is being proven yet again throughout the bloodstained country. 

 

Image via Wikimedia Commons  

Just as diamonds and ivory kept Bokassa in power, the same resources are being used to fuel today’s militias. Just as children were brutally murdered by Bokassa and his henchmen, militias are following in those bloody footsteps. In January, journalist Giovanna Cipriana was at Complex Pédiatrique, a children’s hospital in the capital, Bangui, when ten badly mutilated children arrived covered in blood. All of them had been made to watch while the fighters hacked their parents to death with machetes. The men then sliced the children physically with their blades to match the inevitable emotional scars that they will never be free from.

Even cannibalism is rearing its ugly head again in Bangui. A video recently emerged of a man who calls himself “Mad Dog” channeling Bokassa’s legacy. After hacking a Muslim man to death, cooking his flesh in the street, and eating his limbs, he boasted to a BBC reporter: “I ate his leg, right down to the white bone.”

How many future Bokassa-style monsters are being forged today on the anvil of war crimes and horrific, widespread suffering in Africa’s forgotten war?

This is a critical point for the conflict, as a ceasefire signed in late July was recently broken and fighting has resumed. France currently has 2,000 peacekeepers in the country, attempting to stop its former colony and ally from tearing itself apart at the seams. Last month, the United Nations announced an expanded deployment of peacekeepers, bringing the multi-national coalition to 12,000 boots on the ground. Yet the current political leadership is shaky at best; both sides mistrust the interim president. There is a strong risk that another explosion of violence could occur.

As the Central African Republic finds itself at this critical tipping point, the lessons learned from the unspeakable terror wrought by the cannibalistic Emperor of Bangui 35 years ago provide an important foundation for hope and coordinated international action today. 

Three and a half decades ago, the French government had sat by and allowed Bokassa to prey on his citizens with savagery. But then, they began to redeem themselves by forcing his animalistic regime from power.

The same could happen today if the international community did the right thing to cage today’s animalistic fighting in the Central African Republic.  

We have turned a blind eye for too long. While the deployment of additional peacekeepers is a promising first step to stop the bleeding, it will not create a stable, enduring peace. 

First, financial support for the rebels—coming from exported diamonds and illegally poached elephant ivory—needs to be cutoff. A Kimberley Process certification scheme to review the sourcing of diamonds in the world’s trading centers (particularly Dubai) would help stop the sale of the Central African Republic’s blood diamonds. A limited presence of basic drone surveillance would help immensely in stopping poachers in their tracks.

For the long-term, sustained financial support is needed to provide critical humanitarian aid to the estimated one million internal refugees fleeing the perils of war. A lasting power-sharing agreement needs to be signed—with the direct involvement of the Muslim Séléka and the Christian anti-Balaka militias—so that a transitional government can organize credible elections. 

The elected regime will need to put in place a new constitution that guarantees protection and secures political representation for both communities. Any government that deliberately continues to stoke the flames of conflict in the CAR—Chad is most guilty currently—should be chastised by the international community with biting economic and political isolation and sanctions. 

There is no threat of terrorism, no abducted western journalists, no great power politics between Putin and Obama here. There is just suffering, for innocent people, on a horrific scale. While political reconciliation is always tricky, the bloodshed could be stopped much more easily and at much lower cost than the crises in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, or Iraq.

Without these steps, the peacekeeping force will serve as nothing more than a bandage on a machete wound, slowing the bleeding but not saving the patient.

If the world continues to ignore the conflict—this open but agonizingly ignored sore on the world’s conscience—then the Central African Republic will continue to embrace the legacy of Bokassa’s empire: a bottomless abyss of horrific violence and unfathomable suffering. 

Brian Klaas is a Clarendon Scholar and researcher at the University of Oxford, focusing on international political violence and democratic peace building. Follow him on Twitter.