Strange things happen when people are desparate.

Who would have known that self-styled emperor and dictator late Bokassa would one day be missed by his people!

In the nightmare of the strife-torn Central African
Republic, many citizens have begun to long for the
“good old days” of Jean-Bedel Bokassa, the emperor
who became infamous for his brutality yet worked
economic wonders in their eyes.

Some residents of the capital Bangui are openly
nostalgic for the Bokassa era, which lasted from his
military coup in 1966 until his overthrow in 1979,
two years after a hugely extravagant coronation
when the former soldier proclaimed himself emperor.

His fans point to his legacy in public works, including
buildings, electricity supplies and transport,
neglected by his successors in one of Africa’s poorest

“Kolingba came, he built nothing. Patasse came, he
built nothing. Bozize came, he built nothing. Djotodia
came, he built nothing,” Daniel Nganazouri said,
reeling off the names of successive presidents.

Then he simply pointed around. “But that building
there, the tar on the road and even that electricity
pylon, they were Bokassa’s work.

Even if he was a
thief, he did a lot of good.”

A group of young people listening in voiced their
approval — though it was not

“Fine, but he was still a dictator,” said one of them,

Mr Jean-Bedel Bokassa was born in a village in 1921
and named after a saint, Jean Baptiste de la Salle.

He became a rifleman in the French colonial army in
1931 and quit in 1962, after attaining the rank of
captain and serving in Indochina and Algeria.

Still a soldier in the newly independent Central
African Republic, Bokassa seized power on New
Year’s Eve 1965, proclaiming justice and equality for

But during his long rule he became infamous for
brutality, torture and summary executions.

He was also seen as a stalwart backer of France’s
sometimes meddling activities in its former African

Dubbed “a trooper” by France’s Charles de Gaulle, Mr
Bokassa declared himself president for life and
marshal of the army.

He also converted to Islam
before organising a coronation modelled on that of
Napoleon I, at an estimated cost of $20 million.

No heads of state attended the ceremony, but France
was represented by a government minister.

Two of the six French horses brought in to haul the imperial
carriage died in the equatorial heat, but guests were
offered 60,000 bottles of champagne and Burgundy

Then-French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing, who
enjoyed hunting gazelles and other wildlife,
developed close ties with Bokassa.

However, when
revelations emerged that Giscard had accepted
diamonds from his African friend, the scandal
contributed to his electoral defeat in 1981, when
Francois Mitterand and the Socialist party swept to
power in France.

Better when he’s back
“People were paid under Bokassa.

The Central African
army was stable and even set an example for other
African countries,” said a waiter at the decaying
Hotel Oubabangui.

Today, the CAR’s army is in tatters, undermined by
decades of mutinies and rebellions.
After more than a year of ethnic and religious
violence that has claimed thousands of lives the
troops trying to restore order come from other
African countries and France.

The crisis erupted in March 2013 when the mainly
Muslim rebels of the Seleka alliance overthrew the

They installed their leader, Michel Djotodia, as head
of state, but he stepped down last January under
international pressure, accused of failing to halt the
spiral of violence between the Muslim minority and
the Christian majority, with atrocities on all sides.

“I was too young under Bokassa, but my father spoke
well of him to me, saying that he was a good
president and a true nationalist,” said the director of
the national museum in Bangui, Albertine Ouaboua,
in an office with neither a door nor windows.

Like the
rest of the premises, the room was badly damaged in
recent strife and the museum is closed.

Ouaboua has not been paid for five months, but like
countless others who have scraped by with no salary,
she goes to work for fear of being sacked, she said.

Dania, a diplomat’s daughter and hostess, gave
another perspective on Bokassa.

“He killed a lot all the same,” she said.

The French intervention that ousted Bokassa in
September 1979 was in part due to his notorious
massacre of about 100 children five months earlier,
when they refused to wear costly school uniforms.

In Bangui, with its deeply rutted streets and
crumbling bridges, a number of buildings mark out
bygone times, including a 20,000-seater stadium
built by the Chinese and the red-brick Roman
Catholic cathedral, where street sellers still offer
copies of the official gazette from Bokassa’s day and
books on the “philosophy” of his rule.

Many supporters hold Bokassa in undying reverence.

When a reporter went to Bangui in November 1996
to cover Bokassa’s funeral and the latest army
mutiny, the following strange exchange took place on
the way out of the cathedral.

Emu, a loyal supporter of the late ruler, said: “It will
be better when he comes back.”

“But he’s dead,” the journalist answered.

“Yes, I know,” Emu replied.

“But it will still be better
when he comes back.”

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