"Dark Age: The Political Odyssey of Empereror Bokassa" is Brian Tilley's account of Jean-Bedel Bokassa, a man who rose from a soldier in the French army to become the dictator of the Central African Republic. In time, Bokassa devolves into a murderous despot, siphoning resources from his country to live lavishly while staying in power with a mix of murder and oppression. However, throughout and even after 225 pages of recounting Bokassa's hijinks, Tilley is still unconvinced of Bokassa's villainy.
Bokassa was born in the Central African Republic and served abroad in both France and Indochina before returning home in the early 1960's to serve in the Central African Army. Once there, he grows tired of the leaders in charge and plots and executes his own coup d'etat. Once he's in charge, Bokassa made some strides in cutting down on corruption that plagued newly "democratic" African states. He also banned female circumcision and made strides to modernize the country. Pretty quickly though, Bokassa became more despotic: he stole national funds to enrich himself and buy properties abroad, helped himself to a percentage of the nation's natural resources, and abandoned any pretense of law and order so that he can imprison and execute any one at his own whim. The mismanagement of the CAR's resources is staggering, and the country nearly goes bankrupt several times. A few times the French bailed them out, and once Bokassa even converted to Islam to trick Gaddafi into writing him a check. He soon abandoned the religion.
And the insanity only heightened from there. Bokassa decided that he was lacking in prestige and so decided, in 1977, to coronate himself Emperor Bokassa the First, in a ceremony that cost $22 million and amounted to a quarter of the nation's annual budget. The coup de grace was a 20 foot tall golden throne in the shape of an eagle. Finally in 1979, students started demonstrating when their civil servant parents - who were not being paid for by the bankrupt government - were forced to buy new uniforms from stores owned by Bokassa and his family. When Bokassa sent tanks in to break up the demonstrations, hundreds died in the riots. A bunch of kids were sent to the national prison, where many disappeared and many were beaten by guards and even Bokassa himself (he admitted as such in his trial). One of my favorite parts is that Bokassa's explanation of what happened to the disappeared children, who were never seen again, was that they were "over the river in Zaire." I wish I could incorporate this in my everyday life for when things go wrong and I don't want to explain what happened. "What's wrong with Bill? Oh, he's over the river in Zaire." Anyway, in 1979 after that debacle the French sent in paratroopers when Bokassa was out of the country to place a new leader in charge. Bokassa then lived several years in exile before returning to the country to stand trial. He was sentenced to death, which was commuted, and he spent seven years in jail before being amnestied. He died a few years later in relative obscurity.
What I found annoying about Tilley's account was that he seemed to wave off all the terrible crimes and in the conclusion concedes that Bokassa's reputation was only "partially deserved." This even though the book is linked together with a ceaseless wave of casually violent anecdotes. To whit: Bokassa demands all thieves should have their ears cut off and retroactively does it to all men already imprisoned, and stops only after international outcry; Bokassa rebukes a group of thieves for breaking the law before commanding security guards to beat the men, three men die on the spot; Bokassa orders the execution of the infant son of a soldier who attempted a coup; Bokassa orders the murder of a magic monkey woman whose power stems from her four breasts (during the trial it is helpfully revealed that "killing a soceress was not a serious crime in the Central African Republic.") The way that these anecdotes are tossed in between the main narrative of Bokassa's rule leads me to believe there are hundreds, if not thousands, more ridiculous stories that never have been recorded.
A somewhat absurd epilogue has Tilley comparing Bokassa's crimes to the crimes of various other African dictators - that he spent less on his coronation than Felix Houphouet-Boigny did on his basilica (leaving out that the Ivory Coast was far better off than the Central African Republic, and Bokassa's coronation was a quarter of the annual budget), that he stole less than Mobutu of Zaire (well it would be hard to steal more) or that Idi Amin or Macias Nguema killed more people than he did (setting a low bar of morality on that one). This attempt at defending Bokassa, after the entire book spent reading about his extravagant idiocy, is grating at best. He also claims that Bokassa didn't totally destroy the nation's economy, even though earlier in the book Tilley details how Bokassa built himself houses, hunting parks, lodges with state money with the Minister of Transportation had no money to build roads. At the same time Bokassa fixed prices, eliminated competition, paid no taxes, bought multiple chateaux in France, and would "spirit his gains out of the country in the form of cash, diamonds, in gold." I guess Bokassa gets points for not stealing ALL of the countries wealth, just a majority of it.
Furthermore, I was a bit surprised at Tilley's tendency to casually wave off Bokassa's obvious flaws and crimes. After the coup that took him out of power, it was widely publicized that French commandos raiding one of Bokassa's mansions found two bodies in the refrigerator, one missing the legs, an arm, and a head. Tilley casually dismisses this as French propaganda, agreeing with Bokassa's assertion that the bodies were put there to frame him. But Tilley neglects the ask the question he should have....where the heck did the bodies come from? Both had been detained over a month before, one for traffic violations (!) and one for participating in student demonstrations. Tilley is fine to accept Bokassa's side of the story, without doing any additional digging of his own. First of all, both of these men were clearly killed either by Bokassa or as a result of the penal system in his country (one that made arbitrary arrests and indefinite detainment the standard). Secondly, who do you think is more likely to behead and dismember a man arrested for traffic violations: French paratroopers or a man that admitted to savagely beating children with his cane or would casually command his guards to remove a man's ears for stealing car tires. That's right, the violent volatile homicidal dictator is more likely.
In the end, this is an interesting book that tells a tale that is not widely known about a crazy dictator who ran his country into the ground. What I found irritating about this story is the casual way Tilley dismisses many of Bokassa's crimes and that he seems to give him points for not being that murderous or stealing that much of the CAR's wealth. Tilley in this way sounds like a woman trying to justify a bad boyfriend to her girlfriends. "Come on guys...he's not that bad. He's good with my kids and he's really sweet when he's not drinking." (heard that one before) The boyfriend is always that bad and the woman should always dump him. Tilley needed to realize that Bokassa, no matter how much he makes him appear to not be a villain, is, after all, a bad boyfriend. And a dictator who is totally deserving of his murderous reputation.