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Denis Solomon

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The real Bokassa

February 4, 2001
By Denis Solomon

DR MORGAN Job frequently refers to Mr Hochoy Charles as "Bokassa". In conferring this sobriquet Dr Job was no doubt alluding to a certain authoritarianism and irascibility he perceived in Mr Charles. He certainly could not have intended any closer comparison with the original Jean-Bedel Bokassa, self-crowned Emperor of the Central African Empire, whose defects went a little beyond those of Mr Charles, extending as they did to mass murder and cannibalism.

I thought it might be a good idea for this column to take a break from the wearisome politics of confrontation in T&T, and tell the story of the encounters a friend of mine had with the real Bokassa.

My friend's name is Maurice Dionne. He is a Canadian from Quebec. During Bokassa's reign he worked for the United Nations as an adviser on agricultural extension in Central Africa. In Canadian French "Dionne" is pronounced something like "John". So, soon after his arrival in the "Empire", Maurice became known to all and sundry, including the Emperor and his officials, as John.

Like all officials, local and foreign, in the Central African Empire Maurice was extremely wary of Bokassa, and avoided him to the best of his ability. Working with Ministers and senior civil servants was difficult enough, not least because at any time after eight in the morning they were almost sure to be drunk.

So when, one morning, a fleet of Mercedes limousines drew up at his home, and he was peremptorily summoned to the presence of the Emperor, Maurice instructed his wife to pack a few necessities, collect the children, and take refuge at the Canadian Embassy. He then set off with considerable trepidation to answer the imperial summons.

Arriving at the palace, he found himself in the midst of a bizarre scene. Standing in a line before the Emperor's desk was the entire Cabinet, trembling with fear. Bokassa was cursing them all at the top of his voice. The particular target of his anger was the Minister of Agriculture, with whom Maurice had developed a friendly working relationship.

This Minister, it transpired, had recently made a trip to Europe, and had brought back, at the Emperor's request, a complicated transistor radio. But the radio didn't work.

So Bokassa was cursing his Ministers for idiots and incompetents. "You call yourself a Minister of Communications," he screamed at one of them "and you can't even fix a radio?" Then his eye fell on Maurice. "Here, John," he said. "You're a radio expert. Fix this #$@%^* radio and show these ignorant clowns what proper education can do." And he shoved the radio into Maurice's hands.

Maurice was already worried at having to witness the humiliation of officials with whom he had to work. But now he was also terrified, because he had no technical knowledge of radio whatsoever. His expertise was in the use of radio for distance learning, not in electronics.

But while Bokassa continued fulminating, Maurice opened the back of the radio and discovered that one of the batteries had been inserted upside down. He quietly rectified this, and putting the radio to his ear, was relieved to find it working. When Bokassa paused in his diatribe to inquire about progress, Maurice was able to hand him the newly "repaired" transistor.

Bokassa was delighted. He dismissed his Cabinet with a few parting curses, and from that moment on "John" could do no wrong.

Maurice's second contact with the Emperor came a year later. Just before he was due to go on leave, an unfortunate incident occurred. A small aircraft piloted by two Englishmen, on its way from Kenya to Britain, landed by mistake at a border village in the Central African Empire, instead of in neighbouring Congo. Several locals, who had probably never seen an aeroplane before, rushed out to greet it, and one of them was decapitated by the still revolving propeller.

The two pilots were put in jail, and the workings of Central African justice were such that they were likely to remain there for some time. So the local agent for the company that owned the plane asked Maurice to use his influence with the Minister of National Security in an attempt to secure their release. Maurice said he would do what he could, and after making a plea in person to the Minister, he departed on leave and forgot all about the incident.

Soon after his return, a line of Mercedes limousines again drew up outside his house. Having once more despatched his family to the safety of the Embassy, Maurice set off for the palace. It was shortly after eight o'clock in the morning when he was conducted into the Emperor's office.

Bokassa motioned him to a seat on the other side of his desk, drew from a drawer two bottles of whisky, and placed one before each of them. Then without ceremony he got down to business.

"What have you done with the two Englishmen?" he said.

Maurice was startled. "But, Your Majesty" he stammered, "I don't know anything about them. All I did was to have a word with the Minister of National Security."

"You don't seem to understand," Bokassa said. "What I'm asking you is how you got rid of the two Englishmen." He drew from his desk drawer an illustrated calendar, and everything became clear.

As part of his job of agricultural extension, Maurice had prepared a farmer's almanac, to help improve agricultural techniques on peasant farms. To keep it practical for communities where perhaps one person in every village could read, Maurice had had to resist the desire of the Ministry of Agriculture to include in the document lengthy introductions by two or three Ministers and a few senior officials. He solved the problem by agreeing to put on the cover, instead, a picture of the Emperor.

Bokassa had recently taken delivery of some Fordson tractors, and had been photographed at the wheel of one of them, flanked by two Englishmen from the Fordson company. Maurice, an amateur photographer, got hold of the negative, airbrushed the two Englishmen out, and embellished the cover of the Farmers' Almanac with a picture of the Emperor sitting proudly, and alone, at the wheel of a tractor.

But Bokassa remembered that he hadn't been alone, and wanted to know how Maurice had done the trick. He seemed to think that by eliminating the image of a person you could do away with the person, and he was alive to the limitless potential of such an accomplishment. Maurice, greatly relieved, conducted the Emperor to his darkroom and initiated him into the secret.

Maurice remained the Emperor's blue-eyed boy for the duration of his mission. So much so that Bokassa insisted on conferring a decoration on him before he left.

The United Nations does not allow its employees to accept honours from national governments; but to avoid offending the volatile Bokassa, the Secretariat agreed to Maurice receiving the award, provided it was displayed at UN Headquarters. So Maurice was duly and formally presented with the ribbon and medal.

Six months later, he received the bill for them. It appeared that one of Bokassa's commercial enterprises was a medal manufacturing business.

Copyright © 2004 Denis Solomon